9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles

Like many major metropolises, Los Angeles has an international reputation, but the preconceived notions that surround the southern California hub seem to be consistently skewed. Sure, the weather’s nice—but it’s vapid, and too sprawling, and you need a car, and what about the traffic, and where’s the culture??

In honor of the city’s 232nd birthday this year, the proud folks at Los Angeles magazine embarked on an ambitious project to celebrate and share the rich history of the City of Angels—rounding up 232 objects that tell its many fascinating true tales.

It’s the latest in a series of similarly ambitious projects putting a physical spin on charting the evolution of place; LA Mag deputy editor Nancy Miller was inspired by the 50 Big Apple-specific items chosen by the New York Times last year, and the 100 selected by the BBC and British Museum to chart the history of the entire world in 2010. Associate editor (and old-timey buff) Chris Nichols ran with the series in a monthly DispL.A. column, which evolved into an expansive tiled site dedicated to images and descriptions of each item.

“I can't stand it when people drop in out of the sky, glance around them, and announce that there is nothing here,” Nichols tells Gizmodo. “I don't like it when people nail their shoes to a certain block and imagine the rest of the city doesn't exist, and I constantly provoke people into adventures. Some of the greatest things about our city are hidden from view and require exploration.”

Scrolling through the collection is like taking a virtual tour of an incredibly eclectic curiosity shop that manages to wedge in everything from an original Denny’s menu to the Spruce Goose to a Spanish Cannon. Of course there’s a hefty Hollywood presence as well—Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock frock, a Lon Chaney wax head, and Roy Rogers’s loyal Palomino Trigger—but Nichols himself has an interesting take on the most “LA” selections of all. “Our hot rod culture is pretty extraordinary,” he says. “I don't think it's coincidence that George Barris, Von Dutch, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, and the kings of kustom kulture all gathered in LA. Our mid-century car culture was a high point of what's been called the age of 'Imperial California,' and Roth's smooth chrome 'Outlaw' car is just so bad-ass I can hardly stand it.”

What truly makes the set, however, is the accompanying context—each entry has a detailed caption about what ties it to the town. It’s the perfect combo of eye- and brain-candy that fleshes out LA for both acolytes and non-believers (the latter of which should read Giz EIC Geoff Manaugh’s thoughts on the city from a few years back).

The Booster Poster was the first object to go up on September 25, 2012, and the collection will wrap up at the end of this year. As you scroll through some of the entries below, consider: What would you include for your own hometown? [Los Angeles Magazine]


The Navel Orange

This sweet citrus fruit arrived in Riverside in 1870, in the form of a pair of Brazilian saplings.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


Olympic Swim Trunks

When Los Angeles played host to the Tenth Olympiad in 1932, diver Frank Kurtz wore these incredible wool shorts at the Swim Stadium in Exposition Park—and won a bronze medal!

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


L.A.'s First Neon Sign

Los Angeles was home to America's first neon sign, a 1923 beauty—shipped straight from Paris!—advertising a Packard dealership.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


The Ruby Slippers

It's tough to believe, but after production of The Wizard of Oz, several pairs of Dorothy's iconic ruby slippers were tossed in a bin with other memorabilia from the movie. They were discovered and auctioned off 30 years later—then, just last year, another pair sold again for around $2 million.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


Bob's Big Boy Statue

From a modest Glendale lunch counter in 1936 to a booming burger biz in the 1960s, Bob's Big Boy was a chain that became an early L.A. classic.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


Batchelder Tile

Designer Ernest Batchelder began handcrafting tiles in a backyard kiln in 1909, and the Craftsman-style items can still be found in some vintage southern California homes.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


Botts' Dotts

These fried-egg-sized circles were invented by Caltrans chemist Elbert Dysart Botts to act as lane markers for California's endless highways. Now, there's over 20 million of the glow-in-the-dark rounds installed to give cars a gentle rumble when driven over.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


Zoot Suit Drawing

After José Gallardo Diaz was beaten, stabbed, and robbed near the creepily-nicknamed "Sleepy Lagoon" reservoir, a Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was formed to defend the civil rights of the almost 600 Latino youths arrested in the subsequent "citywide dragnet." This zoot suit was sketched by Manuel Delgado, one of the accused.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles

Photograph courtesy UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, with special thanks to the Delgado family


Tommy Lee's Mötley Crüe Unitard

Tommy Lee moved to West Covina as a child in 1963, started drumming at age four, and formed Mötley Crüe with Nikki Sixx, Mick Mars, and Vince Neil in 1981, bringing big-haired panache and hot unitards like this to the Sunset Strip.

9 Fascinating Objects That Illustrate the History Of Los Angeles


What do you think? Is there something else that should top this list?