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A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now

Magna Carta
Magna Carta

A document can make a big difference, as the Birthers are currently proving in all the wrong ways. The Magna Carta -- a document whose Madonna-level status requires you to drop the "the" and refer to it simply as "Magna Carta" -- reframed the relationship between royalty and us regular bums so completely that it's still, 796 years later, the root of our legal family tree.

For this year's BritWeek, LACMA has been hosting a copy of Magna Carta from the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, dating from 1217. Since Magna Carta is only here for two more days, here's a roundup of some of L.A.'s most remarkable, and permanently resident, historical documents.

9. Magna Carta @ The Huntington Library

See what I did there? The Bodleian Library can eat one, because L.A. has its own damn Magna Carta. And it's weirder than theirs, too. When we originally called the Huntington to see what they could come with to dazzle the dusty proclamations socks off of us, they were all, we have "a unique surviving copy of a now lost and hitherto unknown preliminary draft of Magna Carta." We weren't sure what that meant, but it sounded COOL.

We later talked to English historical manuscripts curator Mary Robertson, and the deal, she says, is that "what we have is a late 13th century English manuscript statute book that begins with a copy of the text of Magna Carta called 'Provisiones de Ronnemede,' which does not exactly match the standard text of Magna Carta as accepted by King John in June 1215." To put that another way, she says, "The copy the scribe used in our manuscript was probably the penultimate draft before the final version."

A. Thank you, Mary Robertson, for using penultimate. It is one of our favorite words. B. The text in our Magna Carta is OLDER than theirs. Schooled. 3. "Provisiones de Ronnemede" is about a billion times more Renaissance Faire-y than "Magna Carta" -- we'll take it.

8. Gutenberg Bible @ The Huntington Library

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

You thought The Huntington was gonna back down after that? Nuh-uh. What we have here (and by here I mean on display in a lovely garden setting in San Marino) is the one of the first things to be hot off the press, ever. The Huntington's efficient caption says it all: "The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg was named the most important achievement of the last millennium. It revolutionized the spread of information, ideas, literacy, and democracy." And Gutenberg's Bible was the first major work to go bestseller.

If that doesn't impress you, try this on: One. Of. Three. Vellum. Copies. In. The. US. (Vellum is fancy paper, guys.)

7. The Düsseldorf Catalogue @ The Getty Research Institute

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of Getty Research Institute

In 1714, Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz put his collection of nearly 400 works of art on display, except he didn't do it in his home, he built a public building for it, one of the first nonresidential galleries -- important thing one. Then Prince-elector Carl Theodor von der Pfalz, Johann's nephew and successor in the brilliant-name business, did another new thing: in the 1760's and '70s, he rearranged the collection, grouping paintings by style and school, instead of willy-nilly by subject or just what looked good.

Once Carl Theodor was on a roll, he kept going: his curator hung the paintings with space in between them (instead of just frame-to-frame, like every other Prince's big art collection), creating the idea that each was a discrete work of art, and inviting comparison between works. Then these fun-loving guys published a catalog of the collection, which was the first of its kind to contain analysis of each painting, i.e. instructions for the public on how to appreciate the art. If this all sounds a lot like a modern museum to you, that's the point. These guys basically invented that.

6. Horn's Overland Guide to California @ The Autry National Center Library

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy Autry Library

If you played Oregon Trail as a kid, the full title of this guidebook + fold out map is going to be familiar terrain: Horn's overland guide, from the U.S. Indian sub-agency, Council Bluffs, on the Missouri River, to the city of Sacramento, in California containing a table of distances, and showing all the rivers, creeks, lakes, springs, mountains, hills, camping-places, and other prominent objects; with remarks on the country, roads, timbers, grasses, curiosities, etc. -- with a complete and accurate map.

Nineteenth-century American pioneers: they're just like us! They bought hundreds of different guidebooks to help them consider and plan their move West. Hosea B. Horn's book detailed need-to-knows from where to find wood for campfires to which forts were happy to trade with travelers. Fair warning: this 1852 edition traces essentially the same route as was taken by the Donner Party in 1846.

5. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Copernicus @ The Huntington Library

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Yes, we let the Huntington hat-trick this article, because they have lots of old stuff. So besides for being owned at one point by astronomer Edwin Hubble, this book also touched off a string of denouncements and arguments about whether the sun revolved at the pleasure of the fat cat Earth, or whether science was a thing and we had to admit that the planets went around the Sun (hence the Copernican Revolution).

The book was originally banned by the Vatican as blasphemous, which is why there's that big black mark right where some fancy Latin is supposed to be -- this copy dates from 1566, and the marks have been dated to the 1600s.

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

4. Study of Street Traffic Conditions in the City of Los Angeles + Unnamed Pacific Electric Railway Map, 1928 @ Metro Library & Archive

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of Metro Library & Archive

Los Angeles' traffic problems started early. By 1915, the first major study was already looking at alternative options -- "subsurface" routes among them. The yellowed, type-written pages of the study compare L.A. to east coast cities like Boston and Philadelphia (which each had around twice the population of LA), and mostly came away assuming that, while it might be a nice idea to plan for the worst, there was probably no way we could build fast enough to outpace our roadways' capacity to get us around.

Thirteen years later, a map of the Pacific Electric Railway system -- then at its peak size -- shows the overlapping strands of the PE Cars and buses (in red), the Los Angeles Railway cars and coaches (in yellow), the subway (in black), and the L.A. Motor Coach bus lines (in green). This detail shows how lousy with transit downtown was in 1928, just before automobile transit -- which quadrupled between 1913 and 1923 -- began to eclipse, and eventually replace, buses and trains and subways. I gotta go eat a bunch of Tums.

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of Metro Library & Archive

3. Exclusion Orders for Japanese Internment @ Japanese American National Museum

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Photo by Dorothea Lange, Courtesy of National Archives

As long as we're wading into the Documents of Regret and Sorrow, it's important to remember how suddenly and publicly the Japanese internments of World War II were carried out. Executive Order 9066, which FDR signed into law in February of 1942, authorized the setting up of "areas of exclusion," and just one month later Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, had exclusion orders posted in Japanese American communities all over the West Coast.

The orders required all Japanese Americans in a given neighborhood to report to a local site for evacuation to internment camps -- in downtown L.A., two of the sites were the Union Church on San Pedro Street and the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple on Central and First. The Japanese American National Museum rotates Exclusion Orders from a few different California neighborhoods in its exhibit Common Ground: The Heart of Community.

2. Minutes of the First Meeting of the Cultural Heritage Board @ L.A. City Office of Historic Resources

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources

By the '60s, Angelenos were getting the idea that maybe we shouldn't systematically pave over or destroy our city neighborhood by neighborhood, and in 1962 the Cultural Heritage Ordinance was passed in order to allow individual buildings and physical features of significance to be saved from the post-war development boom. And be proud of that: according to city historian Ken Bernstein, L.A. was the first city in the country to have such an ordinance.

The first meeting of the Cultural Heritage Board, four members strong (including a lady!), was hastily convened one afternoon when the owner of the Leonis Adobe in Woodland Hills was trying to force the city to give him a permit to tear it down.

The minutes from the meeting border on parody of parliamentary procedure ("Mrs. Sullivan moved, seconded by Mr. Dentzel...Ayes: Sullivan, Riedel, Dentzel." "Mr. Dentzel moved, seconded by Mrs. Sullivan...Ayes: Woollett, Dentzel, Sullivan."), but the group inducted its first five structures that day, including the Leonis Adobe, the Plaza Church at the Pueblo and Angel's Flight. Historic-Cultural Monument #1000 should be declared any day now.

1. The Voyager Golden Record @ NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Okay, so this document is very much not in LA anymore -- Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977 and each carrying a copy of the Golden Record, are now in what's called the "Heliosheath," which is out past Pluto. But there is a replica of the Golden Record on the JPL tour, so that you can check out the groovy, puzzle-solving fun some intelligent life form is gonna have some day (only another 40,000 years until the Voyagers get close to another solar system!).

The Voyager team packed the records with images and sounds from Earth, from Olympic runners, the Taj Mahal, a highway outside Ithaca, and pictures of human sex organs to Stravinsky, Navajo chants, greetings in different languages and a mother kissing her baby. Then they devised hieroglyphic instructions for how to play the record (turntable included), how to interlace its videos, and where in the universe the record had taken off.

Space is big and mostly empty (hope I didn't shatter any illusions there), and the Voyager's electromagnetic signals will fade in time, making it almost impossible that they'll be discovered. But as Carl Sagan noted, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

A History Nerd's Guide to LA: Nine Major Historical Documents in the City Right Now
Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

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