Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gold Rush Fashion in the California Historical Society Archives

In light of our upcoming Gold Rush Fashion event occurring at the California Historical Society on October 26th, we ventured into our photography archives to seek out a few ensembles worn by 19th century miners. 

Man standing near a hat marking the spot where gold was first discovered in Placerita Canyon, [s.d.]
California Historical Society Collections at USC Libraries Special Collections. CHS-11926
In the photograph above, a miner indicates through the placement of his hat upon the stacked rocks the location of where gold was first discovered in Southern California, in 1842.  Working-man leather boots protect his soles and thighs, while the gentleman sports wool trousers, an item that is quite current as fashion today looks toward the hand-tailored aesthetic.  A wool vest and newsboy cap completes his ensemble, resulting in a dapper miner, ready to be photographed. 

Although the presence of females in mining towns was rare, female miners apparently joined the ranks as these two photographs found within our photography collection prove.

Woman with rifle, Chrome Red Mountain, ca. 1920s.
Photographer: Unknown. FN-21416. CHS2011.721.
California Historical Society, Ralph H. Cross Coll. 
Woman in mining outfit, Virginia City, ca. 1919.
Photographer: Unknown. CHS2011.693a.
California Historical Society photography collection.

The reverse of the photograph above gives us a little more insight into how this particular lady and perhaps others too, felt about their mining garb:

This is the outfit you have to wear when you go down in the mine at Virginia City.  Do I look like a boy?

  
Considering at the time women were still clad in hoopskirts and bodices, one could see why our lady feels (and looks?) like a boy.  Her oversized coat, broad-rimmed hat, and long trousers in fact function as the opposite of at-the-time female apparel: to protect the wearer from dirt and injury. 

In relation to a female presence in the mines, our archivist, Marie Silva pointed to an interesting publication of letters found in our reference library known as, The Shirley Letters.  These letters were composed by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp (1819-1906), better known as “Dame Shirley,” who traveled in the mid-19th century to the Sierra Nevada from San Francisco to be with her husband.  Along the way, Shirley stayed in two mining towns known as Rich Bar and Indian Bar, and in her letters she provides an excellent account of the miners’ mannerisms:

I think that I have never spoken to you of the mournful extent to which profanity prevails in California…Whether there is more profanity in the mines than elsewhere, I know not; but during the short time that I have been at Rich Bar, I have heard more of it than in all my life before.[1]


Portrait of a prospector with his burros during the days of the gold rush, ca.1900.
Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, 1860-1960.
California Historical Society Collections at USC Libraries Special Collections. CHS- 7810

Shirley’s hand-written accounts of drunken and gambling-addicted miners help paint a picture in our minds of the type of people miners were, but it’s from these rare images from our collection that we’re able to visually verify that indeed, the style adopted by miners complimented their environments: utilitarian, casual, and of course, tailor-made. 

I look back at these images, and besides being overwhelmed by the feelings of nostalgia, I in fact feel envy, as I sit writing this in my dress slacks and collared shirt. 

Jared Ledesma
California Historical Society volunteer




[1] The Shirley Letters from the California Mines: 1851–1852.  Introduction by Carl I. Wheat. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), 49.
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