Hollywood can refer to one of two distinct things: the American entertainment industry or the actual Los Angeles neighborhood that thousands call home. Both are symbolized by a sign that consists of nine white letters–each 45 feet (13.7 meters) in height—that was originally meant to advertise a never-realized subdivision. But who decided to name it all “Hollywood”?
There are several pervasive rumors about how the name “Hollywood” came to be. One is that it was named for the plant California Holly, or Toyon. Toyon is native to the region and was used by indigenous peoples for food and medicine, according to the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles. However, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone linked the plant to the area’s future name. It was, perhaps, serendipitous at best.
The book The Father of Hollywood by Gaelyn Whitley Keith tells of another persistent rumor: the name was the epiphany of real estate developer H.J. Whitley, the author’s great-grandfather, in 1886. In that version of events, Whitley came upon a Chinese man who was carrying wood in a wagon. When Whitley asked him what he was doing, he replied, “Hauling wood.” Whitley misheard the man, due to his accent, hearing instead, “holly wood.”
Yet the most plausible theory has nothing to do with Whitley or plants. Businessman Harvey H. Wilcox had purchased over 100 acres of land west of what was, at the time, the much smaller city of Los Angeles. He later decided to cut the land up into several separate lots, selling each parcel individually. When he presented the city with a map of the proposed subdivision on February 1, 1887, he called the area Hollywood. Some people say that his wife, Daeida Wilcox, who met a fellow passenger on a train who told her about a property in the Midwest called Hollywood, suggested the name to him.
Daeida Wilcox would continue to preside over Hollywood after her husband’s death and was instrumental in developing the land and adding public resources. Hollywood became its own city in 1903, then a part of Los Angeles in 1910. The film industry took hold shortly thereafter. Interestingly enough, Wilcox’s Hollywood was one of sobriety, and it was described as being quite wholesome. That’s a far cry from today’s Hollywood, where bars and neon line the boulevard.
The Hollywood sign was erected in 1923, originally reading “HOLLYWOODLAND.” It was meant to remain for 18 months as an advertisement for a subdivision; however, that subdivision never saw the light of day due to the Depression. The sign stuck around, eventually losing its last four letters and evolving into the icon it is today.