Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Rose City of the World

At the library the other day, I stumbled across "The Rose City of the World", a curious little 1947 book about Portland by one Ruby Fay Purdy. The book gives a, uh, rosy portrait of the city aimed at potential newcomers, in particular recent WWII vets. Ms. Purdy's dedication reads:

I dedicate this book to the veterans of World War II who were fortunate enough to visit the "Rose City of the World," Portland, Oregon, with hopes that many of them will decide to find their future happiness and homes in our city, which has an air-conditioned climate, and where it is possible to enjoy outdoor recreation every day in the year.

When even the dedication reads like an ad, you know you're really in for the hard sell. The book has its sights set rather high, too: In the foreword, we're told there's room for another two or three million people here in the Willamette Valley & Columbia Basin.

The book is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it's a snapshot of what life was like here 60 years ago. Conventional wisdom holds that nothing of importance happened here until hippies started moving here in the 70's, and everything before that is basically a prehistoric blur. The people of 1947 tended not to agree with that sentiment, understandably.

Second, the book gives an idea of how we saw ourselves back then, and what we thought potential newcomers might be interested in. We can't divine society-wide attitudes from just this one book, of course. It's an idiosyncratic and scatterbrained little book, and isn't written all that well. The author notes that she was a government clerk of some sort during the depression, and it's obvious she wasn't a professional author. But as I've said before, I have a (rather boring) theory that "bad" writing, "bad" art, and "bad" movies provide more of a window into the society that gave rise to them than high-quality examples of those genres would. That's my theory, anyway. The second-rate author is a creature of society's current biases, and you can learn a lot by what he or she chooses to include or exclude, since the choices were made unconsciously.

There's also a third, somewhat more personal reason, in that my parents' families both moved to the Northwest in the 1940s, and I've always wondered what drew them to the place.

Consider what a 2007 guide to Portland typically looks like, and compare the subject matter to what's given here. These days you'll get a bit about the Rose Garden up in Washington Park, and a list of trendy neighborhoods and boutiques, and daytrip destinations from town, and a restaurant guide, and maybe a calendar of the next year's upcoming festivals and events.

That's not how it was back in 1947. Here's a somewhat abridged version of the book's table of contents. Each heading's clickable; I tried to say a few words about each section of the book, although some are more (or less) interesting than others.


The book spends a lot of time on local history, considering that Portland wasn't yet 100 years old at the time. Now you'd get the usual anecdote about the name being decided by a coin flip, and not too much beyond that. Now you'll see lots of things described as "historic", but you won't learn much about the history behind them. The book gives a pretty decent account of the city up to 1947, stuff you'll be hard-pressed to find in contemporary books. In recent years there's been some coverage of Portland's swanky mobster era back in the 1950's, but you won't see any mention of that in the book.

WWII gets surprisingly little coverage in the history segment, I suppose because it was pretty much still a current event. It talks about how proud everyone was about maximizing production and getting lots of ships out to see. Ms. Purdy asserts that the Depression was more fun than WWII, since the war was just work, work, work all the time, which is an interesting counterpoint to all the WWII nostalgia you see these days. As you might imagine, there's not a single word to be found here about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. Not a single word.

It also goes without saying that history begins with Lewis & Clark. The book says "The Indians were hostile when the white men entered their domain and it is not difficult to reason why, as they didn't want any intrusion into the 'Paradise' they had." But that's about all you hear about Indians.

Portland, A Great City

A fact-dump of all sorts of trivia about the city as it was in 1947. Chinook salmon up to seventy pounds! Limitless virgin timber for the taking! The Sandy River full of smelt, such that it looked like a stream of silver! Just dip an old birdcage in the river, and it'll fill up with tasty fish!

I really don't mean to make fun of 1947 Portland and its attitudes. I honestly don't. When you see people calling a resource limitless, you can be sure it's a tragedy in progress, and yet nobody learns. For example, today we're in the midst of overfishing the oceans on a scale the people of 1947 could never have contemplated. So who's the bigger fool here, eh?

Some other trivia, while we're in this section. 7690 building permits issued in 1946, 173 new industries started, and 65 steamship lines and 1147 steamships called here, etc., etc.


The Fremont, Marquam, and current Morrison bridges didn't exist yet. The book mentions that four bridges were built by the county in the early 20th century, but says nary a word about the juicy scandal that got them built. If you read nothing but this book we were a city entirely without scandal or crime of any kind, at least not any worth mentioning.

City Government

A brief description of the commission form of government, which we still use -- and which we decided to keep using by a wide margin just last month. Also bios of the current mayor and council. Two council members, Fred L. Peterson and Dorothy McCullough Lee, later advanced to the mayor's office.

Fire Dept

A history of the fire department, with a mention of the David Campbell Memorial, now Portland Firefighters' Park. We learn that in 1947, our fair city sported 1161 fire alarm boxes, and 6500 hydrants.

Police Dept.

All about policing here, dating back to when the job fell to US Marshals. Seems that the department was reorganized again and again. It doesn't explain why, but I gather from other sources that the reorgs were about fighting corruption, not crime. There's a mysterious paragraph that reads:

The Women's Protective Division of the Police Department has an important place in the work of the Deparment. It has a protective duty, more than one of enforcement.

I suppose people in 1947 might have understood what this meant, but I don't. Is this about domestic violence? Was this the euphemistic name for the vice squad? There's nothing more opaque than an obsolete euphemism.

There's also a long section about the city harbor patrol, which was tasked with various maritime duties, including "to see that rat guards are placed on mooring lines, proper gangways are out and life nets placed under them, and also to see that they are lighted at night". Shipping was so much more colorful before those damn efficient container ships changed everything. No matter how bad of a cop you are these days, it's highly unlikely you'll get stuck on rat patrol anymore.

At the time of writing, the city had just gotten a new police chief, Leon V. Jenkins. Harry Niles, the previous chief, had passed away the previous year. The book mentions that Chief Niles had moved up through the ranks, and had been chief records clerk before becoming police chief. That's a rather unusual career trajectory, but the book goes on to mention that he created a records system that was widely adopted nationwide. Little sign of this fleeting fame these days; here's a story about his efforts to curb the spread of venereal diseases during WWII. Not an easy task in the sleazy old Portland of those days. The book mentions none of that, of course.

Water Bureau

Mentions the original reservoir on Carruthers Creek, a small remnant of which still exists. One interesting bit is that city water started out as a private business, and only later became a government function. If you're one of those ideologues out there who want to privatize everything, you might want to look at why the city took over the job in the first place. Hint: It wasn't rampant liberal socialism, since nobody here had heard of that idea yet.

Lumber Industry

A rather long discourse about the bright future of lumber, the industry we later called "timber", and then "forest products", and now nothing at all if we can help it. Your 2007 guidebook won't breathe a word about the dirty business of chopping down trees, but things were different 60 years ago. There's a lot of talk about new products involving resins and polymers, like that newfangled "plywood" stuff, but plywood was just the beginning, and the sky was the limit. The book says "A new plant to manufacture ethyl alcohol (potable 190 proof) is being erected for the Willamette Valley Wood Chemical Company, near Portland to cost $2,500,000". Not long ago, I saw an article asserting that using timber waste to produce ethanol was a real bleeding-edge technology to watch in the future. Well, it's not quite so new, as it turns out.

Port of Portland

The history of the government agency responsible for ports, both sea and air. It's a weird combo of duties but made sense at one time, since both were located at Swan Island. The airport later moved to the Columbia River location in the mid 1950's.

1947 was just before container ships appeared on the scene. Containers revolutionized the shipping industry, and I suspect they'll eventually come to be seen as one of the key innovations of the 20th century. But they also sucked all the danger, romance, and mystique out of the business.

Not that the book spends a lot of time on the mystique angle. We get a count of steamship lines serving the city, and the number of port calls in the last year, but nothing at all about Shanghaiing, for example. Now there's nothing we love better than to get a giggle out of our disreputable past, even if chunks of that past were flat-out fabricated. Back then, not so much.

As you might expect, the book doesn't breathe a word about the big Waterfront Strike of 1934 which shut the port down for close to three months until the shipping companies finally caved in and recognized the longshoremen's union. A fair number of the captains of industry and pillars of the community who are praised in the book played rather ugly roles in the strike, on behalf of the Establishment side of things. If you want to learn anything at all about that, you'll have to go elsewhere.

Portland Traction Co.

The privately-operated streetcar company in town back then. The whole tangled history of streetcars here is too complex to try to recount, as I barely understand it myself. But the quick summary version is that the streetcars evolved into TriMet, and the lines that powered them evolved into PGE. Portland Traction itself still exists too, now as a short-line cargo railroad in SE Portland.


Not a lot to say here, except that carrying passengers used to be the job of individual railroads, and there was no such thing as Amtrak. The book gives quite an extensive history of the railroads that serve(d) the city. If you don't care about railroads, you can skip this part, and if you're a rail buff, you probably already know it all by heart.


Who our utilities are, and how they got that way. Unlike most of the businesses covered by the book, these haven't changed substantially. "Portland Gas & Coke Co." is now "Northwest Natural", and "Northwestern Electric" is now "Pacific Power", the only utility that isn't locally owned anymore.

Civic Organizations

The book names a few of these: The chamber of commerce, the Jaycees, the library, and an east side business grouping. Oh, and the library, which is where I checked out the book, which is kind of weird.


The books goes on about roses and the Rose Festival for several sections. I could elaborate, but this is the one bit of local history that gets dusted off every year, for anyone who's paying attention. One section describes the "Mystic Order of the Rose", which is apparently a sort of honorary society into which various dignitaries are inducted. I probably would've heard of it if I cared more about that sort of thing. I gather it's sort of like being a Kentucky Colonel, but much more obscure. We do learn the origin of the official slogan of the city, or the festival (I forget which), which is the first line of a painful bit of doggerel attributed to one Bertha Slater Smith:


For you a rose in Portland grows;
They're blooming everywhere.
Our homes they grace; they're every place,
Their perfume fills the air.
There's joy, there's fun for everyone,
Who comes from far and near --
For you a rose in Portland grows.
Rose Festival every year.

Ack! Phbbt!


All of the banks listed either no longer exist, or are based elsewhere. The section on Equitable Savings & Loan mentions their brand new, ultra-modern building on 6th & Washington, downtown. The building's still there, a nice modernist steel & glass building by Pietro Belluschi. Recall that this was 1947, so the building was one of the first modernist skyscrapers anywhere in the country, and it's still one of the more attractive ones that I'm aware of. These days it's called the Commonwealth Building, and there's a historical marker outside it.


A rundown of all the mainline denominations close to downtown. In 2007 you wouldn't get this list at all, and even in 1947 the list was incomplete. You just got the churches thought to be pillars of the community. No mention at all of black churches in NE Portland. Basically no mention of any minorities at all, anywhere in the book, come to think of it.


Again, you wouldn't see this in 2007. It just wouldn't occur to anyone. I know it wouldn't occur to me if I was writing a move-to-Portland book right now. Not a lot of young "creative class" types joining the Elks these days, after all. But it really was a big deal back then. While these days we think of them as places for old people to get drunk and wear silly hats, they tried to give back to society a bit as well. The book devotes a section to Louis E. Starr, a local man who'd been elected head of the national Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 1947, the country was in that brief, forgotten period between the end of WWII and when the Cold War ramped up in earnest, resulting in tidbits like this:

Commander Starr was one of the V.F.W's who was consultant for the United States at the United Nations Conference by the invitation of Secretary Stettinius. Commander Starr suggested the preamble of the United Nations Charter and it was adopted: "We, the peoples of the United Nations." Next he asked for the insertion of "human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, language, religion, or sex." This was a thrust at the intolerance which has caused so much misery throughout the world. This inclusion was approved. Commander Starr was one of the main sponsors of the United Veterans Conference, a V.F.W. event which brought together war veterans of all countries which had fought against Nazi Germany and Japan. "The men who endured the hardships of war will be in a mood to end war for all time," Commander Starr pointed out.

Ahh, if only.


Only two are mentioned here. The Imperial (now the Vintage Plaza & the Lucia), and the Portland Hotel. The latter was an extravagant Victorian pile that stood where Pioneer Courthouse Square is now. Of the former, the book notes "In the early days experienced colored waiters from the South served you in the dining room." The place specialized in clams ("Oregon little necks") then, but we're told it's being remodelled into something modern, "a downtown restaurant where you can take your friends, wife, and children and enjoy in a delightful atmosphere the best productions known to the cullinary art.". Pazzo Ristorante is located there now. I was there earlier today actually, and I can recommend the happy hour menu without reservation.


This is perhaps the saddest part of the book. It's not just that the listed companies don't exist anymore (or at least left town). Entire industries have vanished. The book mentions aluminum, steel, shipbuilding, furniture manufacturing, fishing, textiles, lumber products, forklifts, steel mill equipment, meatpacking, and aviation. Nearly all of these are gone now. We still have a small steel industry, but everything else is pretty much gone. The aluminum industry shut down en masse just a few short years ago, and by that time nobody cared. Industrial work didn't mesh with our idea of what the Northwest was all about, so nobody seemed to care except the people who lost their jobs.

If I'm not mistaken, exactly one of the listed businesses still exists. A florist.

The book's publisher -- also a local firm -- appears to have vanished as well, come to think of it.


A brief history of the Oregonian, and another for the Oregon Journal, the afternoon paper that eventually went under in the early 80's. Back when it was assumed that newspapers weren't impartial, and every city had both a Democrat and a Republican paper, the Journal was the Democratic one. C.S. Jackson, the founder, described the paper thusly:
"This newspaper is pledged to the cause of those who do the work, not to the cause of the idlers, men or women, rich or poor; is pledged to the masses not to privileged classes, particularly to those who prey upon others and don't even know it, those who get something for nothing and don't give it back. It shall live to work for the workers of all kinds of conditions, of all faiths, who place their trust in it and work for a square deal".

The Jackson Tower, the well known building with the clock next to Pioneer Courthouse Square, was an old HQ of theirs. They later moved to the old Public Market building on the waterfront, until it was torn out for the short-lived Harbor Drive freeway.

This was also around the time the Oregonian moved to its current Belluschi-designed digs further south on Broadway. One plate in the book includes drawings of the planned building.


A short list of some featured city parks, along with streetcar-centric instructions on how to get there. For example, to get to Alberta Park from downtown, one would: "Take Williams Avenue trolley coach northbound on Third Avenue to N.E. Union Avenue and Killingsworth Street, transfer to Killingsworth bus to the park; or drive across the Broadway Bridge, left to N.E. Union to Killingsworth and right on Killingsworth to the park."

Not a lot has changed in the parks section since 1947. The zoo moved to its present location from an older spot in Washington Park sometime in the 50's. I was going to remark about the absence of both Mill Ends and Forest parks, but as it turns out neither was created until 1948, so their absence is understandable.

The bit on statuary is similar, but mentions one object that's definitely not there anymore:

CENTENNIAL MARKER Plaque on an eight-ton boulder at SW Front Avenue & Alder St. honors the memory of Asa L. Lovejoy and Francis W. Pettygrove who survived, platted, and named Portland in 1845.

I suspect it went away when they built the new Morrison bridge. If it was just a plaque on a rock, it's probalby not a huge loss to the community.

There's also an item under local businesses that fits more under parks. Lambert Gardens was a privately run botanical garden located north of Westmoreland Park, and it seems to have played a central role in the city's Rose Festival festivities at the time. The owner decided to get out of the business in 1967 and offered to sell the place to the city, but the city declined and apartments went in instead. This all happened well before my time, but every now and then you still hear people speak wistfully of the place.


The book mentions three radio stations: KGW, KOIN, and KWJJ, all founded in the 1920s. You may recognize the first two as TV stations, but they started out on the AM dial, and KGW was still there through the 1980s. (The 620AM slot now belongs to KPOJ, the local Air America outlet.) The book notes that KGW was an NBC affiliate way back when NBC was a radio network. Of KOIN, the book says
The policy was never to use music recordings, but always "live" talent; no patent medicine advertising; no alcoholic or other objectionable advertisements; instead they concentrated on educational and national interests and activities, and tried to give the public the kind of programs they wanted. Today the walls of the studio are covered with prizes for educational activities.

The book fails to specify just what sort of programs the public wanted back in those days, so I don't know if they were catering to the market segment that now belongs to NPR, or what exactly. In any case, you really get the sense that radio was far more interesting than it is today. Like anyone didn't know that already.

And of KWJJ:
This station has always specialized in sports broadcasts, except Sundays. It is noted for its numerous religious programs; they draw no line on race, creed, or color, and no religious program has ever been turned down. Many evangelists have been on this station.

Sounds like present-day AM to me. KWJJ itself is now a country station on the FM dial. The call letters are the initials of the founder, one Wilbur J. Jerman.

Sports & Recreation

Since it was 1947, baseball naturally gets top billing. The Beavers played in the old Pacific Coast League then, which was a bigger deal than it is now; the major leagues didn't stretch to the west coast, so there were PCL franchises in LA and San Francisco, so that's what people mostly payed attention to here, rather than the east coast action. The book just talks about "Portland's Baseball Park", which is a reference to the long-gone Vaughn Street Stadium, located around where the big ESCO steel mill is now, where the ritzy part of NW Portland segues into the heavy industrial part. Civic Stadium still belonged to the MAC club, and hosted a wide range of events, from dog races to summer symphony concerts. Seems the notion of a summer concert series arose during the depression, as a way to provide year-round employment for symphony musicians. Incidentally, this is the only mention of the symphony in the book. It spends very little time on cultural institutions in general, I suppose assuming that newly returned GIs wouldn't be interested in a trip to the art museum. No mention of an art museum, or opera, or ballet, or live theater, or even anything about the city's grand (and now vanished) movie palaces downtown. And nothing about OMSI, which didn't exist yet.

As far as recreation goes, the book mentions boating briefly, and lists all the city's public golf courses. I'm no golf expert, but I think most of the listed courses still exist, except for one that now lies under Lloyd Center, and another out on Mt. Scott that was turned into housing just a couple of years ago. The book raves on and on about Timberline Lodge, which is understandable. Apparently Timberline hosted the US Olympic tryouts in 1940. It takes a moment or two to recall that those Olympics were cancelled due to the war.

There's also a bit about the old Jantzen Beach amusement park, which later fell into disrepair and was replaced by a mall in 1970 or so. Again, this was before my time, but several people have told me how much they miss the old Giant Dipper roller coaster.

Oh, and there's the Pacific International Livestock Expo, a big livestock show they used to hold up at the Expo Center (hence the name). This was usually known as the P-I, and they only stopped holding it some time in the 1990s if I'm not mistaken. I think about the time Multnomah County was in a budget crunch and stopped funding activities like this and the county fair.

So think about all the stuff that falls under recreation in 2007. Very little of it appears in the book. It occurs to me that many of what we consider local attractions and activities involve daytrips out of the city: The Columbia Gorge, the coast, the mountains, the desert, etc. all involve hopping in a car. Not everyone had a car back then, and people who did may not have been as inclined to make these trips as we are now. I think gas rationing was no longer in effect in 1947, but people would've been conditioned by that, and by the depression before that, to be frugal and not burn gas on "long" excursions like these. If you decided to splurge and go skiing, you were probably going to stay overnight up at Timberline. The gorge and the coast do get a very brief mention early in the book, in the "Portland, A Great City" section. Nothing about the desert, though. Deserts were still hostile and alien places, fit only to be conquered, irrigated, and put under the plow.

Imagine trying to describe the city's recreational options to someone and make it sound appealing, without mentioning anything beyond the range of public transportation. It's kind of tough, even today. Now try doing that without mentioning Forest Park, which didn't exist yet. And don't mention birdwatching at wetlands around town, since wetlands were still swamps, and swamps were for draining in those days. And looking at historic buildings and such? 1947 was a forward-looking era, not a backward-looking one. Old buildings don't do anything but stand in the way of Progress and Modernity. Once we leave the history section, there's nothing about, say, 1890's cast iron architecture (which the city was busy ripping out). And you also can't mention anything about interesting ethnic neighborhoods, even though we had a lot more of those in 1947 than we do now. We soon rid ourselves of most of those in the name of urban renewal.


Right away you'll note what isn't there: Neither Portland State University nor Portland Community College existed yet. PSU was founded around this time as the Vanport Extension Center, but if it existed yet, the book didn't think it worth mentioning. There's a bit about Hill Military Academy, which I mentioned in my post about Rocky Butte. Portland's public school system, meanwhile, had 58,000 students at 76 schools around the city. Today we have [???]

Another private school, St. Helen's Hall, sat where I-405 runs now, and the school itself merged with OES around that time.


Where a 2007 guide to the city would mention all the trendy boutiques and shopping districts around town, and list the region's malls and perhaps outlet centers, in 1947 it was all about downtown department stores. Lipman, Wolfe, & Co.; Meier & Frank; Olds & King's, and Roberts Brothers, along with the Powers Furniture Store. Meier & Frank you've undoubtedly heard of if you've lived here any length of time, since the name only disappeared in favor of Macy's just last year. Lipman, Wolfe later became part of Frederick & Nelson, which ceased operations during the 1980s. The downtown location is now the Hotel Monaco (until recently the Fifth Avenue Suites). Olds & King's is now the Galleria, home to the local cullinary school. Powers Marine Park on the Willamette is named after Ira F. Powers, the furniture store's founder. Or so says Isaac Laquedem, and he tends to be right about these things.

After describing Roberts Brothers, the book ends, simply and abruptly. There's no afterword or summation or anything like that. The fact dump has been completed, end of story.

The book has few photos, and the choices are odd. Maybe this was driven by printing technology and where the glossy photo pages would have to go in the book. I'm not sure. In any case, the book doesn't contain a map of the city anywhere (!), and there's no picture of the downtown skyline. You'd think both would be guidebook staples, and I wish they'd been included, but no dice. Instead, the first photo page comes after page 24, where we get several pics of Rose Festival floats, and on the other side, a group of grim-looking Rosarians carrying flags in a parade. After page 56, a panorama of the aforementioned Lambert Gardens, and on the back, services at the Grotto. After page 104, a shot of the Oregon Journal's new building, the old Public Market, and on the other side a sketch of the Oregonian's new HQ, not yet constructed. After 136, a sketch of the Equitable building, again not yet completed, with a pic of Jantzen Knitting Mills headquarters on the back. That building still exists, out at NE 20th & Sandy. The piece on Jantzen mentions they had a factory there too. A real, live factory, making clothes, right here in Portland. 1947 really was a different era. Big business hadn't yet discovered the financial advantages of cheap child labor in China.

The last pair of photos is the oddest, after page 168. On one side, we see a machine captioned "Resinprest Maker", a device for making plywood. Plywood was a really big deal back in those days, I gather. On the other side, a lumberyard with a couple of Hyster units operating, a forklift and something called a "straddle truck". In the background, one of those wigwam burners you used to see at lumber mills across the northwest, but which have mostly vanished from the landscape these days.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I actually picked this book up at the Hollywood library this weekend. It is indeed a bizarre little treatise. I agree with your comment however that 'bad' writing will often speak volumes that literature just doesn't bother with! If youre very patient there's a few gems here