Beachwood Canyon in the 1940 Census, Part I: Cosmopolitan, Occupationally Diverse, and Stable

May 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

A Page from the 1940 Census/Courtesy http://www.the1940census.com

For the past week, I’ve been mesmerized by the 1940 Census records for Beachwood Canyon. A time capsule loaded with demographic information, the Census shows a neighborhood that was largely upper-middle class, yet diverse in national origins and occupations. (Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much racial diversity; apart from a few Lebanese and Egyptians in nearby Bronson Canyon, everyone in the area seems to have been of European extraction, including live-in servants.)

As I expected, movie industry employees were well represented in the Canyon, which crawled not only with actors but directors, producers, sound engineers, cameramen, and executives. But I didn’t think musicians would be as prevalent: conductors, singers, pianists, violinists, teachers and coaches, most not connected to the movies, abounded in the Canyon. It’s a reminder of the fact that Los Angeles, with its burgeoning population of urban sophisticates, was a center for live music long before the existence of the Music Center, let alone Disney Concert Hall.

Another notable element of Beachwood’s 1940 population was the number of residents born outside California. Unsurprisingly, the largest number came from the Eastern Seaboard, with significant numbers from the Midwest, notably Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. Others came from Kansas, Nebraska and other Plains States. More surprising is the number of foreign-born residents, who were so common that every page I reviewed had at least one. The most common foreign birthplaces were England, Germany, Canada and Russia.

In 1940 the United States was still emerging from the Great Depression, an economic reality that was reflected in Beachwood’s households. Multigenerational families were common, not only where adult children lived with their parents, but in households containing three generations. For example, the house next door to mine, notable for having been designed by a famous architect, housed not only the architect’s sister, her husband and two sons but her widowed mother and middle-aged brother, as well as a maid from England. Although they undoubtably were the richest family on the block–the husband was a manufacturing executive with an income in excess of $5000 per year, the highest category on the Census, and his wife worked as an apartment manager–the house is far from palatial. A family of three lives there today, and the house doesn’t seem too big for it.

Another significant difference between Beachwood then and now is the number of households with live-in servants. Maids were common in 1940, as were trained and practical nurses, most in charge of babies and toddlers. Other households listed lodgers–which, ironically, are common again in today’s tough economy. The prevalence of rented rooms in circa 1940 Hollywoodland belies the idea that houses above the Gates were intended as single-family homes: lodgers, it seems, have always lived here.

The Census contains a last surprise, one that puts to rest the idea of Los Angeles as a way station for vagabonds. It asks respondents where they resided five years earlier, on April 1, 1935. Overwhelmingly, Beachwooders responded “same place.”

Next time: Discovering the original owner of my house.

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