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Way Back When

Way Back When in Santa Barbara — December 1913
updated: Dec 14, 2013, 1:00 PM

By Betsy J. Green

It was an old-fashioned Christmas in Santa Barbara 100 years ago. The kind that evokes nostalgia - Santa was pictured in a biplane, Christmas trees were strewn with asbestos snow, and a blind pig was discovered on Milpas.

It's a Bird! It's a Plane. It's Santa! He may be fat and jolly, but he was no slouch when it came to keeping up with the times. In 1913, Santa Claus arrived in Santa Barbara in a biplane, according to this sketch in a local paper. (Sorry, Rudolph!)

A Near Riot. Perhaps Santa was inspired by the amazing performance on New Year's Day in 1911 when 24-year-old French aviator Didier Masson landed his biplane smack dab on the front lawn of the Potter Hotel and nearly caused a riot. "The crowd broke into a frenzy of applause, … Several women had hysterics. One woman dropped her baby and the child was only saved from being trampled to death by a man who caught it … ." (The 400-room hotel was located in the West Beach area.)

Electrifying Gift Ideas brought to you by the Reynolds Electrical Supply Co. at 1020 State Street included electric trains and electric Christmas tree lights. (Not everyone welcomed the switch from candles to electric lights. I once interviewed an older gentleman who was a kid in the 19-teens. He said his parents would not allow him to play in the homes of friends who had electric lights on their Christmas trees because the electrical lights in those days got so hot, they sometimes set the trees ablaze.)

More Gift Ideas - how about an "El Grillo" from the same store? (No, Spanish speakers, it wasn't a cricket.) This product looked and performed much the same as "El George Foreman Grillo" that was introduced 81 years later. "El Grillo" was advertised as "a capital present for any household."

High-Tech Gift Idea. Another of Santa Barbara's stores suggested that youngsters would like a "Radioptican." It wasn't special glasses that allowed kids to see people's underwear. Instead, it was described as an electrical magic lantern - what we would call a slide projector, although even these are quickly being considered antiques in these days of PowerPoint.

Got Fire Insurance? One more gift for the kiddies was a "pyrography burning outfit." This was an electrically heated pen that scorched designs into wood, leather, or dried gourds. Hmmm…. I can hear the fire bells now.

Asbestos Christmas Decorations? An idea whose time has come - and gone, thank goodness! A well-meaning article about staying safe during the holiday season advised readers not to use cotton on Christmas trees to simulate snow because of the danger of fire. "If you must have snow," the newspaper advised, "use asbestos fiber."

What Is It? It looks like an item that someone might post on Edhat saying, "I found this in my grandmother's kitchen drawer. Does anyone know what it is?" Well, it was called a crumb tray, and was used to remove crumbs from the tablecloth between courses. Basically a fancy-schmancy mini dustpan and whisk broom. This one came in nickel, brass, or copper. Has anyone seen one used in any of our local restaurants?

Busy Season for the Post Office. Then as now, December was a hectic time for the mail service. To handle the holiday rush, the Santa Barbara postmaster hired another mail carrier, bringing the total number of carriers up to a whooping 13. In 1913, packages cost a penny an ounce.

The Rockwood, an inn in Mission Canyon, announced that it was open for winter guests. "Large stone house with furnishings entirely new. … Sleeping porches … Dinner parties served by appointment." In spite of the fact that it was made of stone, the inn burned down in 1927. Today the site is occupied by the Santa Barbara Women's Club which retained the name "Rockwood," and built the present building in 1928. The club continues to occupy the building today.

Art Imitates Life. The Flying A Film Company leapt into action after a recent fire in Sycamore Canyon and filmed scenes there for "Trapped in a Forest Fire," a tale about a carelessly discarded cigarette that nearly snuffed out a hot romance. "The fire is raging on every side, great trees burning in a few seconds," reads the summary, and the heroine comes close to being toast, literally. SPOILER ALERT! But the movie concludes with " … a little love scene and everything ends happily."

Death & Taxes (& Cadillacs!) Had the heroine not escaped the inferno, however, her earthly remains could have been transported to their final resting spot in style. A local undertaker advertised that he was phasing out horse-drawn vehicles in favor of a "Motor Casket Wagon" built on a Cadillac chassis. "The car is considered by the profession to be one of the handsomest and most complete of its kind on the coast."

The Silver Screen Arrives. Apparently movies in Santa Barbara were projected on screens that were merely white until 1913. Kuhn's Theater (formerly the Mission Theater) announced that it had installed a silver screen. "This is one of the latest improvements that is generally being adopted by the higher class picture houses. The silver screen permits … more light in the auditorium, and at the same time, adds to the quality of the picture." Silver screen has a much nicer ring to it, doesn't it?

Got the flu? "Get Ballard's Horehound Syrup," said an advertisement. With each dollar-size bottle, you also got Dr. Merrick's Red Pepper Porous Plaster for the chest. I've always wondered how these plasters were removed. Did they come off easily or was it like removing a very large piece of duck/duct tape? And what about guys with hairy chests? Ouch! However, upon researching red pepper plasters, it turns out that the active ingredient (red pepper or mustard) is enclosed in a fabric envelope. Nonetheless, the plasters sometimes caused blistering of the skin if used improperly. A competing product called Musterole advertised that it was a white ointment containing oil of mustard and cured everything from headaches to "frosted feet."

Worst Typo of the Month - "Guests Do Damage," read the headline. No, it wasn't a kegger at Isla Vista that got out of hand. Upon reading the article, it is clear that "gusts," not "guests" caused the damage. (This was in the years before spellchecking, but come to think of it, even a spellchecker wouldn't have picked up on this one.) The hour-long wind and rainstorm toppled some 50-foot-long concrete forms on the fourth floor of the San Marcos Building that was under construction. Ironically, this building on the southwest corner of State and Anapamu streets later collapsed into a pile of rubble a dozen years later in the 1925 earthquake.

Blind Pig Sighted. The owner of a boarding house at 19 East Haley Street was arrested for selling alcohol without a license, i.e., operating a blind pig. The term "blind pig" originated when people selling alcohol illegally would put a pig in a tavern, serve alcohol, but when the place was raided, they alleged that they not selling alcohol. They were giving free drinks to people who paid money to see the blind pig. How did they know the pig was blind? That's the $64,000 question. But, once again, justice was blind, and the joint was closed down.

Whisky for Health. Maybe the owner of the "blind pig" should have told the coppers that he was running a health club. A newspaper ad in a local paper read, "Health - Strength and Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey Go Hand in Hand. There is nothing that stimulates digestion and enables you to get vitality, energy and strength from the food you eat like Duffy's Pure Malt Whiskey. … No family should be without it."

----------------Trivia Question---------------------

Trivia question for history majors: Which number amendment was passed earlier in 1913, and what was it?* (There's a hint in a prior headline. The answer is at the bottom of this column.)


Headlights for Horses? A new state law that would go into effect on January 1, 1914 was driving Santa Barbara drivers crazy. The law stipulated that every motor vehicle had to carry two lighted lamps (only one for motorcycles) after dark. The local Studebaker sales agent complained that the law should also apply to horse-drawn vehicles which were exempt. Motor vehicles also had to carry "a bell, gong, horn, whistle or other device in good working order."

SPUG. No, this was not a cross between a spaniel and a pug. SPUG stood for Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, and sometimes spelled SPUGG - Society for the Prevention of Useless Gift Giving. Begun in the Christmas season of 1912 by some New York society matrons, it discouraged people from giving token gifts of useless items, such as tchotchkes or bric-a-brac. As might be expected, this was quite controversial, with some people embracing the idea, and others crying "Humbug!" A number of retailers panicked at the thought of people giving up gift giving, so they renamed it the Society for the Promotion of Useful Gift Giving, and suggested that people give utilitarian gifts such as shoes. Even Santa got in the act (see below), but alas, SPUG made few inroads into our consumer culture, and was long ago replaced by SUYD - Shop Until You Drop.

It's Christmas Once Again in Santa Barbara! Okay, that song would not be written for many decades, but one editorial said it nicely, "Isn't This Something? Let us rejoice together. The streets are not blocked with snow; no blizzard is raging; no flood is sweeping down upon us; no zero weather prevails; no gale is blowing. But the sun is shining brightly; roses are blooming; oranges are ripening; the fields and hills are green with new grass; vegetables in the gardens are growing and maturing. It's something, isn't it?" No doubt, many citizens of Santa Barbara could remember the Great Blizzard of 1888 that buried the East Coast 25 years earlier. Photo courtesy of J.A. French.

----------------Trivia Answer---------------------

* The 16th amendment gave Congress the right to tax personal income. There was some form of income tax before this, but it was an "on again" "off again" kind of thing. So for 100 years, we've been stuck with it.


Comments from my November 1913 column - I asked if anyone knew or remembered when the custom of giving out candy to kids on Halloween started in Santa Barbara. One Edhatter knew the answer: "Giving candy at Halloween started after WWII because during the war sugar/candy was nearly impossible to get; celebration of peace and the good life in the late 40s."

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Santa Barbara author Betsy J. Green also writes a history column for The Mesa Paper, a garden column for the Living-Mission Gazette, and is working on a book about the history of the Mesa. Her previous columns can be seen at : here and here on edhat.com


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