How The 'Invalid Trade' Helped Build San Diego
After the Civil War, San Diego didn’t have much going for it economically.
But it was beautiful.
“The valley was green and the river was flowing,” said San Diego historian Iris Engstrand. “The mountains were on both sides to the valley. Geraniums grew here, every flower imaginable, the beaches, the sun. It looked very much like southern Spain.”
The weather was equally Mediterranean.
“San Diego had an average temperature of 70 degrees,” Engstrand said.
Today, talk in San Diego tends to center on exorbitant housing and whether to move elsewhere. But there was a time when cheap land and the promise of fresh air and a balmy climate inspired scores of sick Americans to flock to the region to heal.
“I’ve seen estimates as high as a quarter of San Diego’s population may have been these health seekers,” said David Miller, University of San Diego history professor. “Something a lot of people aren’t aware of is the role these health seekers played in settling San Diego and Southern California.”
As news spread of San Diego’s natural features in the 1860s through pioneer paintings and word of mouth, people took notice.
Out-of-state developers like Alonso Horton saw boom potential. In 1867, he bought 965 acres for 27½ cents an acre in the middle of today’s downtown.
That area became known as New Town or as Horton described it, “Heaven on Earth.”
Ailing businessmen Frank Kimball and Ephraim Morse also came. And families moved to San Diego, many with tuberculosis, known then as consumption.
Some said many of the newcomers recovered. They credited San Diego’s fresh air and even climate, spawning the birth of what was then called the invalid trade.
“There was a trade in invalids in the sense that you could make a fortune by offering what they wanted,” said Andy Strathman, CSU San Marcos history professor.
The idea was to sell San Diego’s sea, topography and climate as a tonic.
And everyone was in on it, including the citrus industry.
“Very often, the orange crate labels that were taking the fruit back East would contain these picturesque scenes of a Southern California landscape,” Strathman said. “They would feature healthy looking people who were vigorous and young.”
The transportation industry did its part too.
“You have the railroads actively marketing health to sick patients to bring people to San Diego to develop it,” Miller said.
At times, the sales pitch surpassed hyperbole. Death in San Diego was described as a “remarkable event.”
“There was a story of a man who lived to be 109 and got so sick of living that they had to take him out of California so he could die,” Miller said.
The air in Southern California was touted as so fresh and beneficial that it would bestow its people with melodic voices, eventually creating an entire race of singers.
“It was pure boosterism,” Strathman said.
San Diego and Los Angeles even competed for the ill.
And it got dirty.
According to the book “Health Seekers of Southern California,” a Los Angeles man warned an Ohio man not to go south because San Diego’s constant fog caused malaria, diphtheria and a slew of other contagious diseases.
The iconic Hotel del Coronado, according to the book, was characterized as a pesthouse that was shuttered by quarantine officials 100 times.
“Los Angeles people were jealous that San Diego was getting so much attention,” Engstrand said.
The trash talk didn’t work. San Diego became known as a cure for almost any illness.
“It was a place to go if you had any kind of joint problems, tuberculosis or internal diseases, whatever because of the climate,” Engstrom said.
San Diego physician Peter Remondino, who often dressed in a cape, added heft to the reputation. In 1890, he wrote: “Sea air has been shown to exercise a decisive preventive action in the case of consumption.”
But retired San Diego physician George Kaplan said if people didn’t get the disease locally, it was probably due to better hygiene in the region. He said the cramped, industrialized and polluted conditions elsewhere in the country made it easier to contract TB.
And he said there was another reason, other than the climate, that people survived tuberculosis, which is a bacterial infection.
“I think most of those who recovered, recovered because they were previously in good health,” Kaplan said.
Nonetheless, San Diego’s economy benefited from the invalid trade. A San Diego Union opinion piece, titled “Our Winning Card” from that era read, “Our best money has always come from our climate.”
It goes on to say “probably two-thirds of our population and wealth has been drawn to San Diego by its advantages as a health resort alone.”
San Diego still draws health seekers today.
The travel website Thrillist ranked San Diego the third most healthy place to live in the United States.
And San Diego real estate agent Joe Farrage said clients tell him they want to move here for the same reasons people settled the area 150 years ago.
"Its natural beauty is the main thing right away,” Farrage said. “And then I think everything is sort of surrounded by the sun and the weather and the coastline.”
He said when prospective buyers see people doing paddle board yoga, surfing, kayaking, running on the beach or meditating and having access to fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, San Diego becomes irresistible.
“It’s that healthy lifestyle,” Farrage said. “And that is really appealing to people.”