With the release of the movie adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, I got interested in reading the book. Before I start reading it, though, I wanted to learn a little more about the history behind the novel.
It’s probably not the first book that comes to mind when people think of books set during LA’s formative period of the 1920s through the 1940s. After all, it’s about the dirty, unglamorous petroleum industry rather than the subject of so many LA stories: the film industry. But it’s fascinating to learn how there was an enormous oil boom in Southern California in the early years of the 20th century. A gold rush fever developed, and the money and activity it created helped to shape the region.
When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, I was intrigued by the traces of oil drilling that were still in evidence in the middle of business and residential areas of LA (I seem to recall an active oil derrick covered over to look like a tall building on Wilshire Blvd. near Westwood).
Historic photographs taken in the 1920s show the extent to which oil derricks were set up right in the midst of places already being used for residences, business or agriculture.
The Los Angeles Public Library has hundreds of historic photographs of oil drilling activity in Southern California, dating back to the late 1800s. You can browse digital copies of the photos in their online collection.
When you read about this period in the history of Los Angeles and look at historic photos, you’re learning about a city whose contours are still very much up-for-grabs. How the various sections of the city will be used hasn’t been sorted out yet, so there were very different uses all jumbled together.
You can see photos of oil wells right next to houses, schools, cemeteries, orange groves, in the middle of streets…
As you can imagine, oil drilling operations created a considerable ecological and quality-of-life problem for people who lived or worked near them. I’ll write more about that in a later post.