A Window Into Time: SCE’s Historical Archives Show California Over the Decades

The extensive collection of more than 80,000 images and documents helps us understand our customers’ history over the years.

August 13, 2013 | By Lauren Bartlett

Imagine life in Los Angeles back in 1941 — we can get some insight into the times by looking at a photo of a Carl’s drive-in at Figueroa and Flower.

What is unusual about the picture? It was taken by a Southern California Edison (SCE) photographer.

It’s an example of the nearly 80,000 images and documents covering SCE’s 127-year history the company collected in boxes and stored in various SCE facilities over the years. The archive, which ranges from glass plates and film negatives to ledgers and papers, is now housed at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. Digital scans of the Edison photos recently went online for customers, researchers and everyone else to see.

“These photos are a wonderful window into the times,” said Ed Hume, manager of Creative Services for Edison International, who worked on the archives project. “SCE had a culture for keeping very detailed records in those early years, and because of that, we have this extensive library that documents nearly every aspect of our customers’ lives throughout the decades.”

For example, Hume notes that in the 1920s, SCE was trying to get customers to use more electricity, so some of the photos were marketing campaigns, such as promotions for an all-electric kitchen.

The task to properly archive these photos and papers was daunting; 40,000 photographic prints and 35,000 negatives needed to be scanned. Some of the film had deteriorated too much for the archive, and others were thought by the library to be too recent to be included.

Ross Landry, a retired SCE archivist, worked at the Huntington Library for three years cataloging all of the images that are now in the Huntington Digital Library, which includes 70,000 images.

“Some of these images were amazing, especially the ones documenting the construction of the Big Creek hydroelectric projects,” Landry said. “The Big Creek photos show the amazing accomplishments of the construction crews working with the primitive tools of their time, under severe hardships and weather conditions. These were proud, hearty construction workers who built something that was truly incredible, which is evident in the photos.”

Discussions over maintaining the archive and transferring it to a facility that could properly preserve it date back to as early as 1971. Former Edison International Chairman and CEO John Bryson was on the board of the Huntington Library, and it was under his leadership that a deal was reached in 2005 to house the collection at the Huntington.

It was a natural home for the collections because of the connection to the library’s founder to Edison and the library’s reputation as a world class research institution that preserves original materials. Henry Huntington financed the Big Creek hydroelectric facility when it opened in 1913 to help power the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles. Edison subsequently took over Big Creek and expanded it.

Black paper photo albums, antique lantern slides, glass negatives, motion picture reels, sheet film, and prints mounted to cardboard cards were taken to the Huntington Library by a moving van in January 2006.

Jennifer Watts, curator of photographs at the Huntington, said the library’s extensive photograph collections focus on California and the American West. Watts supervised the Edison team as they preserved, digitized and cataloged the images.

“As a photography curator, I find the imagery incredibly beautiful and compelling,” Watts said.

Her favorite photo is by longtime staff photographer, G. Haven Bishop, and it depicts the Long Beach-Lighthipe-Laguna Bell Transmission Line that shows the towers’ reflection in water.

“The Edison archive demonstrates better living through electrification,” she said.

Watts said she has received a wide range of requests for access to the archives. She hears from cultural historians who are interested in architecture, the building environment and all-electric kitchens. She has received requests from all over the world, including Europe, Asia, South Korea and Australia. Collectors also contact her, especially those with an avid interest in antique glass insulator caps. An author researching the history of neon also recently wrote to her.

“Edison commissioned all these photographs for very specific ends, and the images still perform a critical informational role for the company today as well as for academics, documentarians, students, and independent scholars the world over,” Watts said. “Yet the thrill of the archive — for me at least — is the myriad meanings and interpretations that these pictures invite. The best of them transcend the factual to entice, to suggest and to challenge.”

Topics: People