Guest Blogger: Amy Lippert -- Look Closer: Reexamining the Visual Primary Sources of San Francisco

The San Francisco History Center is pleased to present author and historian Amy Lippert speaking about her new book, Consuming Identities: Visual Culture in 19th Century San Francisco, on Thursday, August 23 at 6:30pm in the Skylight Gallery on the sixth floor of the Main Library.

As a special treat, "What's On the 6th Floor" invited Dr. Lippert to be a guest blogger. More about Dr. Lippert --

Dr. Amy Lippert
Amy Lippert is Assistant Professor of American History and the College at the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on the cultural and social history of the United States in the 19th century, with a special interest in the mass production, consumption, and popular interaction with visual imagery and problems of perception. Her first book, Consuming Identities (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines visual culture and celebrity in nineteenth-century San Francisco. Dr. Lippert was born in San Francisco and received her BA, MA, and Ph.D. in History at the University of California, Berkeley. She has held fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, the Bancroft Library, and the Huntington Library. One can view several examples of her visual sources, along with hyperlinks to digitized sources from a host of archives around the nation

Look Closer: Reexamining the Visual Primary Sources of San Francisco by Amy Lippert

Think about your office. Your home. Your phone. What do all three have in common? Aside from the fact that they are where Americans spend most of their time, I’m willing to bet that they are also all adorned with pictures that carry some import for you. Above all, those spaces—whether virtual or literal—are filled with pictures of your loved ones, and probably also yourself. The centrality of images in our daily lives has become the stuff of cliché—the ubiquitous advertising, the pop-up ads, the magazine stands by the grocery checkout counter. Yet these pictures can carry real import, as evinced by the most frequently polled response to the question: what would you rescue if your house was burning down? As too many fire-ravaged Californians have demonstrated in recent weeks, the answer usually has to do with old photo albums and cherished family snapshots or portraits.
This state of affairs may be changing in the digital age, but that’s also interesting from a historical perspective. We may be among the last generations to have physical photograph albums—or at least printed albums that are irreplaceable, as opposed to being stored on photo websites or in the nebulous Cloud.
 People nevertheless continue to adorn their walls with pictures of family and friends, not to mention ourselves. If you haven’t gotten around to scanning every old photograph, as I suspect most of us have failed to do, then those images become all the more irreplaceable and valuable. 
This sense of pricelessness evokes elements of nostalgia and a deeply individualized sense of worth that is based on personal identity and family ties. Yet its value also yields tangible profit in our capitalist economy: in April 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for one billion dollars, evincing the power of images and their centrality to both companies’ platforms (it is, after all, called Facebook).

How did this cultural fascination with images and identity begin? Some might argue that it evolved along with humans themselves. Berkeley historian Martin Jay has noted that sight became particularly important to homo erectus once we began standing on our hind legs. The sense of sight enabled us “to differentiate and assimilate most external stimuli in a way superior to the other four senses.” Smell, which is so vital to animals on all fours like dogs, was reduced in importance for humans during this fateful transition—indeed, Freud conjectured that this shift was “the very foundation of human civilization.” Vision was “the last of the human senses to develop fully,” and is still “the last of the senses to develop in the fetus.” The eye also possesses far more nerve endings and operates at a much greater speed than any other sense organ, and at the fastest rate of assimilation among the entire sensorium. For all this unparalleled speed, vision entails more than the simple recording and assimilation of sensory data; neurobiologists note that it requires considerable brain function to understand or interpret what we see. A disproportionate amount of the human brain is devoted to visual processing; research indicates that the neurons responsible for sight “number in the hundreds of millions and take up about 30 percent of the cortex, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearing.” Only within the last few generations have scholars in the humanities and social sciences begun grappling with the implications of such an influential and yet subjective framework for human experience and perception.

Consuming Identities book cover
My first book, Consuming Identities, examines a particular chapter in this much larger story: the growth of a commodified image industry in nineteenth-century San Francisco, one of the most diverse and dynamic cities in the United States. I argue that visual images shaped the way that Americans presented themselves, portrayed and related to one another, and framed their world view; thus wielding considerable cultural power in nineteenth-century society. This cultural phenomenon was not simply a matter of perception but of practice and policy: it shaped popular ideas about race and identity, censorship and immigration laws, criminal justice policies, and entire industries such as the transatlantic market for celebrities and fiercely competitive photography and printing businesses in San Francisco, among many other cities around the world. Yet San Francisco was at the forefront of these changes, and it has gone largely overlooked as an epicenter of modern spectacle and visual culture—a culture that was only expanding in a rapidly urbanizing and diversifying country. The most popular genre within the visual medium was the portrait photograph, which played a pivotal role in mediating intimacy, facilitating new modes of identity formation, and creating a public culture of spectatorship amidst the capitalist crucible of the gold rush metropolis. Few places could more dramatically evince these characteristics than San Francisco, a place largely defined by its distance from every other non-indigenous point of origin for its tens of thousands of polyglot nineteenth-century inhabitants.

In my San Francisco Public Library talk, I will showcase examples from the seven thematically organized chapters of Consuming Identities—particularly those I uncovered at the San Francisco History Center and the California Historical Society, with some references to the importance of the Mechanics Institute in the cultural and professional dimensions of San Francisco history. For now, I want to focus on one of the many versions of roughly letter-sized illustrated gold rush stationery—known as letter sheets—that did not make it into my book: “Miners at Work with Long Toms.” This lithograph from San Francisco firm Justh & Quirot (active in San Francisco from 1851-53) was likely published by Cooke and Le Count, and dates to about 1851. It illustrates the posters advertising my upcoming book talk. (A lithograph is a design drawn and inked on stone, and printed with that stone—the technology was developed at the turn of the nineteenth century and proved much more efficient and durable than previous methods of wood or metal engraving.)

In the main image spanning the upper third of the sheet, ten miners work at unearthing their fortunes
Miners at Work with Long Toms Letter Sheet
in a creek, using several iconic implements of the gold rush: shovels, long toms (expanded rockers, with troughs measuring 10-20 feet), and gold pans. Their cabins are visible in the distance, interspersed with the jagged rocks and the conifers of the Sierras. Beneath this vignette is an open space for the correspondent—usually a homesick miner—to pen his letter. The space is framed by two trees on the left and right margins, another long wooden span separating the upper illustration from the lower portion of the sheet (and adorned with serene naturalistic details like two birds perched on one end and a couple of squirrels on the other), and along the bottom there appears to be a Native American spear. Stacked vertically on the left-hand margin are two illustrations: an archetypal miner above an Indian, whose quiver of arrows and shield seem to be hung up above him on the leafy bough that demarcates the left margin. I will have more to say about these figures below, but first I want to contextualize this uniquely Californian version of a much larger visual genre.

Letter sheets communicated various perspectives, but they were usually informational, humorous, nostalgic, or moralizing. Several varieties of letter sheets were destroyed in a series of catastrophic San Francisco fires in the 1840s and 1850s and the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, but scholars have estimated that between 340 and 750 varieties of sheets were produced—primarily by firms operating in San Francisco and a few smaller ones in Sacramento and the surrounding area. Eastern firms supplemented these sheets, often acquiring their artwork from associates in the Sierra foothills. But as lithograph collector and researcher Harry T. Peters noted in his book (California on Stone) on the subject back in 1935, most eastern letter sheets differed in content, quality, and quantity from their western counterparts: few of them were mass produced, most were printed on low-quality paper, and tellingly, the overwhelming majority depicted serene views rather than caricatures, comics, or historic events. The California letter sheets, as “Miners at Work” exemplifies, evoked exceptional artistic quality, balanced representation of detail, and California artists strove for a distinctive linear perspective that created a three-dimensional effect. They centered on gold rush themes—particularly the archetypal miner—until the mid-to-late 1850s, long after the placer gold deposits had dried up around 1852-53. The sheets nonetheless continued to command a market for decades after the end of the Civil War, by documenting new themes that reflected public interest. German festivals and street scenes from Chinatown highlighted the diversity of the city’s inhabitants while providing viewers on both coasts and beyond with a rare glimpse at the exotic, the spectacular, and the unknown.

The contemporary popularity of these precursors-to-the-postcard is evinced by the fact that they were often pirated, or reproduced with subtle variations. U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library has two other versions of this same letter sheet, with the same illustrations and title. One of those versions lacks the subtitle: “Copied from a Daguerreotyp [sic] sketch by Justh & Quirot Lithographers” (the other includes the subtitle but adds the address of the lithographers, at 28 Jackson St.). The daguerreotype was the first version of the photograph, simultaneously developed by a number of inventors in different countries, but formally introduced to the world in 1839 as the eponymous creation of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. The fact that the term itself is missing the last “e” may have been a simple abbreviation of a widely known term by the gold rush era, or one of the chronic American misspellings of the French word. As I explain in Consuming Identities, this “from a daguerreotype” annotation was a commonly invoked claim, and whether accurate or not (too many original daguerreotypes have been lost to say with any certainty), publishers intended it to enhance the authenticity of their artist-rendered views for audiences wary of inaccurate depictions from the many artists who never actually ventured to California or the gold fields. In an age of false claims known as “humbug” and confidence schemes, daguerreotypes were widely considered beyond reproach as unaltered, frozen moments in time—though I also detail in my book the ambivalence that many nineteenth-century San Franciscans expressed about the extent to which photography could or could not convey deeper, underlying truths.

The main image of “Miners at Work” certainly looks as though it was copied from a daguerreotype: most of its figures appear to be looking directly at the viewer, who would have been in the same position as the photographer, and they are paused in their work. This conscious posing would have been necessary on the part of the photographic subject, because the longer exposure times of early photography did not allow for action shots without considerable blurring. In other words: nineteenth-century subjects knew that they had to hold still if they wanted the camera to capture them for posterity. Thus the man on the far left hunches over his shovel, his arms crossed above the handle, and six men at the center of the image appear to be posing with their shovels in a gesture of the digging that they performed with such frequency that their camps soon acquired the nickname of “diggings.” Two men are in seated or crouched positions, and the one in the right foreground appears to be the only one not looking towards the camera as he carefully studies his pan for gold deposits—or pretends to be doing that work, demonstrating the labor but also the implicitly performative dimensions of the miner archetype.

The miner was inherently performative, as contemporaries well knew and documented by referring to his—and their own—appearance as his (or their) “costume.” Historians like Brian Roberts have estimated that most of the young men who journeyed to California in the late 1840s and 50s were in fact part of the burgeoning middle class, as few proletarians could afford the steep fees for passage, let alone equipment and supplies, that such a long journey entailed. These self-dubbed “Argonauts” (in reference to the Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece) were not necessarily accustomed to hard manual labor, and even those who did arduous work like farming would hardly have been as well prepared for mining as many of their experienced Chilean and Sonoran competitors in the gold fields. They nonetheless reveled in their chance to look and act the part of the phenomenon that the whole world was talking about—and viewing, in the form of the widely distributed illustrations on letter sheets and in a host of publications such as books and magazines, not only across the United States, but in Paris, London, Havana, and many other places.

The “Miners at Work” letter sheet illustrates the archetypal miner—along the left margin of the lower portion—and in its main image, a collection of men who evoke that archetype’s power in their attempts to look and act the part. They all don wrinkled shirts, pants, and several pairs of (doubtless mud-spattered) boots, just like the archetype. Most of them are wearing floppy hats, though one miner at the center of the upper image appears to have retained his top hat in a seemingly comic juxtaposition with his decidedly informal surroundings. At least two of them boast “whiskers,” as the long and unkempt facial hair was often dubbed in boastful letters back home, in which thousands of formerly clean-shaven and perhaps white-collar Americans reveled in their conformity to the decidedly racialized and masculinized miner archetype.

That the miner was racialized as an epitome of white masculinity is literally illustrated on this sheet, with the juxtaposition of the upper and lower figures on the left-hand margin. The Native American man is visibly and spatially separated from the identity and the work of gold rush mining. The difference isn’t just sartorial; he does not carry the iconic implements of the trade, such as the pickaxe, gold pan, or shovel of the miner standing above him. Instead, he reclines on the ground, apparently lost in a moment of contemplation, passive and even relegating his own tools—the arrows and shield—to a place hanging above his head on the tree trunk. There may be a tomahawk or club beside him, but his right hand has relinquished it on the ground. He seems resigned to literally sit out this internationally famous rush for riches, along with all the conquest, industrialization, and modernization (or “civilization”) that Americans proclaimed it would entail. A visual rendering of the then-popular “vanishing savage” myth, he could easily be interpreted as passively receding into the background, temporally and figuratively. He signifies the past, while the archetypal miner stands poised for action, his eyes focused on the horizon. Such seemingly naturalistic depictions masked the real violence and dispossession that lay behind the conquest, as historians of California Indians like Benjamin Madley have amply documented. There is no evident indication of this indigenous man’s tribe, if he was in fact based on a specific individual, but his moccasins, fringed shirt (likely of deerskin) and feather headdress may be reminiscent of the Maidu people of northern California. The larger point here is that most potential customers who purchased this sheet, or the viewers who received it, would not have known or much cared about the particular tribal affiliation and identity of this token representative of California’s indigenous population—a people who were associated with the region’s past.

Every letter that correspondents penned on the letter sheets was unique; yet every letter-sheet illustration was, by definition, mass-produced and identical to hundreds or thousands of others circulating throughout San Francisco and the postal system. Photographic technology did not allow for mass-reproducible portraits in the peak years of the gold rush, but advancements in steam printing and lithography (as detailed in the introduction to Consuming Identities) enabled artist-rendered illustrations to be created in very large numbers. The most popular gold rush letter sheets were printed in runs that stretched well into the tens of thousands, and may have approached one hundred thousand, according to some accounts. They were also extremely affordable, just like their counterparts in the East, and usually sold for mere cents per sheet (one California letter writer noted that he paid five cents for his, though they could easily be between ten and twenty cents). Engravers, printers, and stationers sold them individually or in bulk to resellers such as hotels, for anywhere from $10 to $15 per hundred in the mid-1850s. The genres of lithography and photography captured the period’s tension between uniqueness and homogeneity. For all the individuality that Argonauts expressed through their commissioned photographic portraits and their personal perspectives in letters, their appearances, experiences, and identities were bound up in the mass movement that was the gold rush. Neither of the Bancroft Library versions of this “Miners at Work” sheet contain any visible annotations, but the San Francisco History Center specimen does: along the bottom of the page, in the faded brown ink familiar to any historian of nineteenth-century manuscript correspondence, someone has written “On the other or inside will be found something—.” This tantalizing reference appears to beckon the reader to open up the letter sheet (they were often folded to allow more space for writing inside), or flip it over to the verso side. The Society of California Pioneers possesses an annotated version of this letter sheet, in which someone has penned a letter dated August 26, 1851 (though that dateline has been crossed out, whether by the correspondent or someone else, we don’t know).

Though historians have often utilized the handwritten correspondence of these letter sheets in their chronicles of gold rush life and culture, they have not paid sufficient attention to the distinctive visual medium that the California sheets represented. The correspondents themselves often reacted to the images printed on those pages, whether to reinforce their accuracy or undermine their message with contrary accounts. Some purposefully reserved their remarks for the verso side or for enclosed pages, so as to allow their recipients the chance to display the letter sheets as household decorations. Other purchasers may have adorned their makeshift cabins and tents with the sheets, just as they displayed the photographic portraits of their distant kin on their walls and at their bedside tables. Of all the myriad changes in daily life and culture between our own time and the gold rush, the ubiquity and talismanic power of human images remains as true as it ever was. Pictures still adorn our walls, and they still channel deep emotions. This history has something to tell us about where we came from and how our society came to be, but it also has plenty to teach us about ourselves.

Those interested in conducting their own close readings of these wonderful primary sources, and mining them for their rich details (pun intended), are welcome to do so by clicking on the hyperlinks to the different versions of the sheet provided below. We are all indebted to the hard work that went into scanning and digitizing high-resolution versions of these letter sheets, through fantastic archival websites like the Online Archive of California and Calisphere.


  1. At the end of the 4th paragraph, a superfluous phrase appears: "organized chapters of ." I find the juxtaposition of the miner and the Indian quite interesting. There is a tension there, certainly, and I wonder whether the iconography of the Indian squares with other images produced during the same period in newspapers, popular prints, and so on. Did the artist have a bit of early clip-art available that s/he simply added in to fill out the page? My curiosity is aroused.

    1. Thank you, Purslane, for your correction. Hope you'll be able to attend the talk on Thursday to find out more.


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