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The White Plague in the City of Angels

Caroline Luce, Author

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Health Seekers in the West

After the construction of the transcontinental railroad, government officials, powerful business interests, journalists, and artists alike promoted Southern California in an effort to increase tourism and grow the state’s population and economy. In advertisements, they "boosted" the region’s reputation as a modern Garden of Eden, a natural paradise free of the social problems of modern life that plagued the industrial urban capitals of the east and Midwest.

The curative quality of Southern California’s warm, dry climate was an important part of the boosters’ sales pitch. In promotional literature showcasing the wonders of his town, I. M. Holt, the Secretary of the Immigration Association of San Bernardino County, dubbed the region “Nature’s Great Sanatorium,” encouraging health seekers to come for extended stays at the areas resorts and hotels. An editorial called “Living on Climate” published in the promotional magazine Land of Sunshine (later renamed Out West) claimed that “there are some thirty or forty thousand people in Southern California doomed to death in the eastern climate and are allowed under these balmy skies to continue themselves into old age.” [4]   The boosters’ rosy depictions of life in Southern California were echoed by personal accounts and testimonials of the growers themselves.  According to the boosters, there was no need for tuberculars to confine themselves to sanatoriums; they could cure their ills by taking a vacation to Southern California.

Booster testimonials and advertisements also emphasized the entrepreneurial opportunities available to those with tuberculosis in Southern California. While working in the factories of eastern capitals was prohibitive to recovery, California’s fertile soil provided ample opportunities for tuberculars to make money while they treated their disease. Pamphlets like “California for Fruit Growers and Consumptives” (1883), "California: Its Attractions for the Invalid, Tourist, Capitalist and Homeseeker," published by the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Charles Nordhoff’s "California for Health, Pleasure and Residence" (1873) emphasized the ease with which even the sickest could cultivate their own orange groves. [Click here to read the full text of Nordoff's pamphlet.] Tending to the trees was a light physical activity in the fresh air that was both good for one’s health and promised profits of $150 per acre. In Southern California, land was cheap and abundant, providing opportunities for anyone, regardless of their station in life, to reap the benefits of the area’s climate for both their health and their livelihoods.

The efforts of boosters in Southern California and throughout the West proved incredibly effective. By 1900, over twenty-five percent of the migrants to California and a third of the migrants to Colorado made their trips in search of a cure for their ills. While Arizona, New Mexico and Texas also were popular destinations, Southern California’s health resorts and hotels provided the most enduring attractions, known to some as “the sanitarium belt.” [5] And as more and more health seekers and their families emigrated, Los Angeles’ population climbed to over 100,000 by 1900. The boosters had succeeded.
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