Monday, February 11, 2019

Reading Pictures

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eaves-drop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

—Walker Evans, ca. 1960

Looking is hard work. For many of us, sight is the most obvious tool we use to experience our world; it feels easy, automatic, almost like breathing. But to look—to take time, to probe, to take seriously the ways in which images shape our worldview—is a different matter.

As children, we are taught to read words when we are only a few years old. And yet, modern technologies make it so that we are increasingly inundated by pictures more than text, be it on our screens, in print media, as family photographs, or as advertisements. Moving through the world, it is tempting to merely glance at the pictures we encounter, letting them coalesce into a sort of landscape or wave that washes over us and passes us by. But pictures are made by people, and so often convey the ideals, biases, and political views of their makers. However subconsciously, the images that we see every day combine to shape our own biases and political views. “What you see often becomes a part of your memory,” explains Ana-Christina Ramón, the assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, “and thus a part of your life experience.”

When we look closely and think about what we see, it allows us to be less immediately manipulated by the visual rhetoric of the media that we consume. But as with any good book, reading images closely can bring us an immense sense of pleasure and empathy. Imagine standing in front of your favorite painting, and taking the time to think about what emotions or forms its brush strokes evoke. Try to imagine what the artist was thinking and feeling when she put the brush to canvas, and where she was standing; think about what the painting conveys about the era or place in which it was made. With these thoughts, we do not lose sight of the work’s initial beauty. Rather, we can take in this beauty, or pain, or anger and confusion, while also asking ourselves what it is that allows the art to make us feel so strongly. We can come to the work with a sense of humility, but also thoughtfully.

I’m going to walk you through some questions I ask myself when I first look at a photograph, painting, or illustration, in the hopes that you will continue to look closely at the pictures that you encounter—be it in the museum, or on your phone’s screen. For example: 

[Buddhist temple, Terminal Way, Terminal Island, Los Angeles, 1932-33]; by Anton Wagner, CHS, PC 017
First, take a minute or two to really look closely at every part of the photograph. What do you see? I find it helpful to speak out loud, or at least to organize my thoughts into coherent sentences so that I don’t miss anything; language helps me to process what I’m seeing. No observation is too small or too obvious. In this photograph, I see four little girls standing on a dirt road. The girls stand in front of two buildings, one built in a midcentury American ranch style, and the other built in an Asian architectural style and surrounded by a fence with an elaborate entryway. On the left hand side of the image, I see a large white water tower on big metal stilts. On the right, a tree leans into the frame. The trees, combined with the fluttering of the girls’ hair and coats, suggest that it was windy out that day. There are statues in the garden behind the fence, and telephone poles in the distance. In fact, one telephone pole leads my eye to another building that I didn’t initially see.

What is the image made of? This work is obviously a photograph; knowing what I know about photography, I know that it is a black and white gelatin silver print. This information can help me to determine when the image was made: gelatin silver prints were most commonly made between 1900-2000, which is a fairly broad range, though we have other context clues to help us determine the date, such as clothing and architecture styles. If I can hold the image, I like to think about who else might have held it, and why, and how it might have circulated or travelled. This photograph could have been a family photograph, or a journalist’s image, or a photograph made by a documentarian. Maybe it was stored in an album, or printed in the newspaper.

If I’m looking at a photograph, I ask myself where the photographer was standing when they took the picture, and why. In this case, the answer is not particularly complicated: the photographer is standing in the road, and photographs the children from an angle. But this simple observation can actually tell something about the photographer’s intentions. Why didn’t they take the photograph head on, and from a closer vantage? What does the angle afford us that a more direct composition would lose? And what do we lose from this perspective?

However simple, the last question can tell me so much about this picture and the person who made it. I can guess that because the photograph is not a close up view of these children’s faces, it was composed specifically to show them in the context of their surroundings. Rather than frame the image so that we can only see the Asian-style building, however, the photographer chose to juxtapose it against the adjacent ranch-style house and water tower, both of which suggest to me that the photograph was taken in the United States. This isn’t a close up portrait of four children; it’s a photograph of four children shown living in a diverse neighborhood, likely in the United States. Their clothing and the architecture surrounding them suggest that this photograph was made before or during World War II. They look like they are of Japanese descent, which makes me wonder if they were impacted by Executive Order 9066. I think about the immigrant experience in the United States, now and throughout this country’s history; I think about my grandfather who was detained by the United States government during World War II because he was an Italian immigrant, and how he never told his children, or spoke Italian in their presence.

You can see here how an unassuming image without any text or caption can still say so much.

I’ll show my hand, which is that we are fortunate to have some information about this photograph. The photograph is titled [Buddhist temple, Terminal Way, Terminal Island, Los Angeles, 1932-33], and was taken by the German photographer Anton Wagner. As an art historian, I’m lucky when I have this much information to go off of: knowing the photographer allows me to probe deeper into his background and intentions, and the title can tell me so much, not least the fact that the building shown is a Buddhist temple, and that the photograph was taken ca. 1932-33 on Terminal Island—a Japanese American fishing community that, as it happens, was the first to be evacuated following Executive Order 9066. But I believe that pictures can tell us so much more than any caption can.

My last piece of advice is to try to look with a close but curious eye. Pictures do not exist solely as a record of the past, or as a container of information and data. A picture is not a question to be answered; we do not look so that we can be “right.” We look because photographs and works of art have things to tell us about what it felt like to live in an earlier time, and about how we relate to people with whom we have seemingly little in common—be it these four little girls, or a painter, or a sculptor living in Athens in 500 BCE. They allow us to admit just how much we don’t know, and to feel vulnerable when they elicit emotion. I believe that looking closely at pictures make us more human, in increasingly technological times.


Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society

Monday, February 4, 2019

Pioneering Black Urbanites in San Francisco and Los Angeles

In the 1850s the new medium of photography, along with written and oral transmissions sent all over the United States, began to shape impressions of the new state of California and its two most prominent and rapidly growing cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles. As this new visual, oral, and textual image making was occurring, African Americans such as Mifflin W. Gibbs and Robert Owens were negotiating their rights as citizens to shape the region’s development as they pursued greater opportunities for economic advancement, social freedom, equity, and self-reinvention in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.

Like many white Americans, Gibbs and Owens were lured to the state for its opportunities and “the good life” imagery produced by writers, painters, and photographers, and used by various boosters promoting migration to the state. The stories and imagery of Gibbs, Owens and other African Americans who participated in various phases of the western migration and settlement continue to remain largely absent from the dominant mythologies and history surrounding the western migration, notwithstanding investigations of the black West published during the last 50 years.

Although slavery was not allowed, the 1850 California constitution limited voting and the right to testify in court to whites, excluding African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians despite the fact that —San Francisco, the gateway to California—was one of the most racially and ethnically diversity cities in the world. By 1860, 75% of the black population in the North American West would reside in California, mostly in the northern part of the state. By 1900, this distribution would change and Los Angeles would become home to the largest black population center in the North American West. Despite their nominal freedom in California and racially discriminatory legislation they confronted, African Americans found refuge in western urban life which was abundantly more congenial than the places they left behind.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915) 
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915). A black entrepreneur and civic activist in California and the North American West.
Born to a free black family in Philadelphia, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs’ life experience in his formative years, carpentry training, a literary society education he gained with the successful businessmen, leaders, and elites of the black Philadelphia community appear to have provide him with a good foundation for his life. After developing as a self-employed carpenter and contractor, voting rights activist, and member of the anti-slavery movement which included public speaking engagements with William Lloyd Garrison and Fredrick Douglass, in 1849, Gibbs realized he was at a crossroads in his young adult life. In 1850 he sailed to San Francisco from New York to join the gold seekers in northern California. Gibbs joined many other black men who immigrated to California from New York and Massachusetts that year, all of whom would become involved with resolving black issues across the state. In the antebellum period these men and others—including Robert Owens and his family—comprised the first voluntary African American migrants to the West. These black Americans migrating to California from the mid-nineteenth century to the early 1940s would have been courageous, ambitious, resourceful, and adventurous.

After arriving in San Francisco, Gibbs worked as a bootblack. Though trained as a carpenter, he could not find work because white employees on these jobs refused to work with him. He eventually partnered with Peter Lester, an expert bootmaker and fellow Philadelphian who Gibbs had known from abolitionist movement work, in a successful retail and wholesale business called Pioneer Boot and Shoe Emporium at 638 Clay Street. Servicing patrons from Oregon into Mexico’s Lower California, the successful venture sold fine boots and shoes imported from Philadelphia, London and Paris.

Book cover of Shadow and Light: An Autobiography by Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. He was a black entrepreneur and civic activist in California and the North American West
By 1856, Gibbs co-founded the Mirror of the Times, the first black-owned newspaper in California and west of St. Louis. As a leading member of San Francisco’s black community, he became an influential voice in the fight for African American freedom and full civil rights. Gibbs and Lester found good financial opportunities in San Francisco, he recounts in his autobiography, Shadow & Light (1902), but they continued to contend with ostracization, assaults where they had no redress, disenfranchisement and were denied the right to vote, sit on a jury or testify in a court of law. In the 1850s, he became a leader of the statewide California Colored Conventions, the first organized, civil rights protest and petition campaigns in the West with the goal to overturn the discriminatory laws that had been passed by the California legislature since 1849. Although not successful, regionally and nationally, Gibbs and his fellow travelers helped raise the social political consciousness about black and other nonwhite groups’ struggles for equality, civil rights, and the benefit of just government. The discriminatory laws and the increasing hostility towards black Californians during this era pushed Gibbs to join a mass migration of African Americans from San Francisco to Victoria, British Columbia in 1858. Once there, they developed businesses and supplied labor during the Cariboo Fields gold rush near the Fraser River. Significant resolution of the discrimination issues occurred in the 1860s due to California and federal legislation, and African Americans’ emancipation at the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Cover of the Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California held in Sacramento, CA November 20-22, 1855. At the first statewide Colored Conventions in Sacramento in 1855 and 1856 (followed by San Francisco in 1857), in addition to other objectives, black Californians pushed for reform in the court testimony laws for nonwhites. Education and a black press were also discussed intensely at the Convention in 1856. In the first two Conventions, Thomas Rix (or Thomas J. Ricks) was appointed to collect signatures in Los Angeles County.

Robert Owens (abt. 1806-1865)

As Gibbs was settling in and exiting San Francisco, Robert Owens and his family were thriving in Los Angeles. Born enslaved in Texas, Robert Owens earned money to purchase his freedom along with that of his wife Winnie, and their three children: Sara Jane, Martha, and Charles P. They migrated to Los Angeles and became residents in 1852-1853. Initially in Los Angeles, Owens worked odd jobs, and Winnie as a laundress. Eventually he won government contacts with the local U.S. Military post to supply cut wood, mules, and cattle that provided resources for him to open a livery stable and cattle sales venture that employed ten vaqueros (cowboys). Owens sold his products to the public on San Pedro Street, near what is today is known as the Little Tokyo neighborhood. He also invested in real estate throughout Southern California.

The Robert and Winnie Owens home became an early gathering place for religious, social, and business activities of the African American community in Los Angeles. Robert and Charles Owens, the Rowan family of San Bernardino, and white allies facilitated the important emancipation struggle of Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891) and her family. Fourteen people were freed from enslavement by a January 1856 court case overseen by Judge Benjamin Hayes in Los Angeles, unlike many other enslaved people who attempted to attain freedom through the courts and lost.

Robert Curry Owens with his wife Ann, and daughters Gladys and Manila L. in a 1905 in the Colored American magazine. Robert C. Owens was the child of Charles P. Owens and Ellen Mason Owens (later Huddleston after she remarried following Charles P.’s death in 1882). The Owens-Mason clan was one of the wealthiest and most influential African American families in Los Angeles from the 1850s to 1920s
Charles Owens (d. 1882) and Ellen Mason (b. 1838), the eldest children in their respective families, married shortly after Ellen was freed in August 1856. Their union bore two children, Robert Curry (b. 1858) and Henry L. (b. 1860). Charles saw to it that his wife Ellen and their sons received formal education in the public schools of California with the highly regarded African American leader and educator Jeremiah B. Sanderson in Oakland and Stockton. Charles worked with his father and carried on the family business ventures after Robert Owens died in 1865 at the age of 59. It was noted at the time of the elder Robert Owens’ death that he was respected by all sectors of the multiethnic and mixed race city, and considered the wealthiest African American in Los Angeles. Upon Charles’ death, his wife Ellen and son Robert Curry Owens carried on the family business in conjunction with her mother and his grandmother, Bridget “Biddy” Mason. The family would continue to reap financial gains in the Los Angeles real estate booms, and became one of the wealthiest and most prominent African American families in California and the West into the 1920s, with Robert C. Owens being described as the most influential black man in California and the West. By the early twentieth century, stories of the Owens-Mason clan’s business success and philanthropy had a favorable impact on attracting African American migrants seeking better lives from across the U.S. Despite racism and discriminatory obstacles from 1850 to the twenty-first century, successive members of the Owens-Mason clan have survived, thrived, and shaped Los Angeles, California, and the West to this day.

An early photograph of Los Angeles: Six men stand outside of the Magnolia Saloon at New High Street and Marchessault Street, Sonora Town, 1885-1887
The stories of Mifflin W. Gibbs and Robert Owens and his clan expand the narrative of California’s early statehood to include the diversity of people who contributed to its development and to American society. Their stories should become part of the collective memory of the nation.

Beasley, Delilah. The Negro Trail Blazers of California. Fairfield, CA: James Stevenson Publisher, Reprinted 2004.

Bond, J. Max .“The Negro In Los Angeles,. Ph.D. diss University of Southern California, 1936.

Campbell, Marne L. Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850-1917. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Daniels, Douglas Henry, with forward by Nathan Irvin Huggins. Pioneer Urbanites, A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

De Graaf, Lawrence B., Kevin Mulroy and Quintard Taylor, ed. Los Angeles/Seattle: Autry Museum of Western Heritage/University of Washington Press, 2001.

Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar, with an Introduction by Booker T. Washington and an Introduction to the Bison Books Edition by Tom W. Dillard. Shadow & Light, An Autobiography. 1902 edition inscribed by the author; Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books Edition, 1995.

Lapp, Rudolph M. Blacks in Gold Rush California. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom, The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier, African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Written by Alison Rose Jefferson, MHC, Phd

Monday, January 28, 2019

Alfred Stiles: A Boy’s Adventurous Journey to California

Children’s Voices in the Archives is a series of posts brought to you by CHS’s North Baker Research Library. Stay tuned for more charming examples of history through a child’s eyes in the coming months.

Alfred Stiles’ diary reads like a mini adventure novel written from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy traveling from Boylston, Massachusetts on a ship headed to the Golden State. His sharp prose and keen observations may surprise you, not to mention his recording of details that veer into the journalistic then make a sharp turn towards the poetic. You might not think there would be much to do or observe on a ship’s long journey from Boston to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn (Dec. 1849 - June 1850), but even within the first few pages of Alfred’s diary, an avid debate club springs to life--the Cheshire Debating Club--to which his parents belonged. Alfred’s parents debated questions such as “Should the U.S. acquire the state of California?” Alfred diligently recorded the yeas and nays--his father in affirmative with 2 others and “Mother in Negative + 2 others.” They debated whether the acquisition of California would be of any benefit to the U.S.

Cover page, 1847; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.

Passenger list, 1849-1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.  
Christmas and New Years did not go by without incident. Alfred notes some rowdy behavior on Christmas Day when “2 thirds of the passengers drunk besides Capt + mate + 1 or 2 hands the mate pulled Choate from port hand of the forecastle and struck him several blows on the head, when some of the passengers cried out ‘throw him overboard’” he left for his cabin. Amidst the blows and drink, Alfred reports they had 2 pigs for dinner and apple duff.

On New Years, “About 2 clock a man had 4 bucket served at his head and a few other things which created a great excitement.” One diary entry records Tuesday, January 1st 1850 as evincing a light breeze and people wishing each other a happy New Year, with some passengers wishing to have a Heigh ride at home while it is as warm as July. Next Alfred describes fresh pork and apple pie for dinner, as well as doughnuts for supper with the addition of black fish.

We also find moments of quiet admiration and reflection where whale watching upon the ship Cheshire reminds the reader of Moby Dick. Alfred writes in another entry, “Thursday dec [?] very sick passengers most all sick saw some whales about 3 miles off” then on the opposite page of the diary, the lone word Whale crowns the page of text like a chapter title.

Whale title heading, 1849-1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.  
On a separate entry, we find a lovely poem titled “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” where Alfred transforms into a caged eagle amidst scattered waters and a dull unchanging shore.  [See end of blog for poem transcription]

“A Life on the Ocean Wave” poem, 1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.
Some pages turn to odes yearning to find wealth in California, followed by a nostalgic homecoming. In the first stanzas Alfred reminisces upon pleasant times spent with loved ones, then the promise of “gold dust” in the eyes. This follows another line in which the writer waxes poetic about soon reaching San Francisco and fulfilling the fantasy of seeing “gold lumps there” on the streets ready for picking “off the ground,” as if the streets were lined with gold nuggets to fill one’s pockets full of riches to return home in glory.

Odes “Oh! California,” 1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1850; MS 4014; California Historical Society.
Reading Alfred’s diary, whether you are an adult, teen, or child, will take you on an adventure from East to West Coast during a time when the promise of safe harbor in a new land might be your heart’s desire.

Poem Transcription for “A Life on the Ocean Wave”

A Life on the Ocean wave !!!!

A life on the Ocean Wave
A home on the rolling deep
Where the scattered waters save
And the Winds their [revels] keep
Like an Eagle caged I pine
On this dull unchanging shore
Oh! Give me the flashing Brine
The spray and the tempests roar
Once more on the deckd hand
Of my own swift gliding craft
Set sails farewell to the land
[May] the gale follow far aloft
We shoot through the sparkling foam
Like an Ocean Bird set free
Like an Ocean Bird our home
We find far out on the sea
The land is no longer in view
The clouds have begun to frown
But with a stout Vessel and Crew
We’ll say let the Storm come down
And the song of our hearts shall be
While the sounds and the waters save
A life on the heaving Sea
A Home on the bounding Wave !!!!!!

Alfred L. Stiles Ship Cheshire April 24, 1850
From Boston Bound to California

Transcription of Odes of yearning to California

I thought of all the pleasant times
We’ve spent together here
I thought I ought to cry a bit
But couldn’t raise a tear
The pilot bread was in my mouth
The gold dust in my eyes
And though I’m going far away
Oh! Brother don’t you cry

Oh! California

I soon shall be in San Francisco
And then look all around
And when I see the gold lumps there
I’ll pick them off the ground
I’ll scrape the mountains clearing logs
I’ll drain the river dry
A pocket full of rocks bring home
Lo Brothers don’t you cry

Oh! California

Alfred L. Stiles Ship Cheshire
From Boston Bound to California Feb. 20, 1850 Lat 36 25 South

Written by Lynda Letona, Assistant Archivist & Reference Librarian at California Historical Society (CHS).

Photos digitized by Marissa Friedman, Imaging Technician and Cataloger at CHS.

Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1850; MS 4014; California Historical Society.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Digital Curriculum Educator Survey Results from the Teaching California project

With a summer 2019 launch on the horizon, the California Historical Society (CHS) is continuing work on the Teaching California website initiative, which will provide California classroom teachers and students with curriculum and primary sources tied to the state’s recently adopted History – Social Science Framework.

Our team has the pleasure of working with the web development firm Navigation North on this project, who have been helping both CHS and our content development partners at The California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) think through how we might build an experience around the grade-level instructional materials we are creating, called “inquiry sets,” for teachers and students in a classroom setting. An initial piece of research that helped us explore this was a Digital Curriculum Needs Survey, which Navigation North created and CHSSP and CHS distributed to teachers late last year.

This survey sought to find out how teachers, and particularly History-Social Science teachers, are currently searching for curriculum materials online, what their level of proficiency with technology is both in and out of the classroom, and the variety of materials they are looking for online. Thanks to CHSSP’s extensive teacher network, we were able to collect responses from more than 300 educators! The chart below exhibits the categories of teachers who responded:

The results were a revealing look the current relationship that teachers have with online resources in the classroom.

Above, the results show that personal use of technology outpaces professional use, meaning that strong adoption of technology in teachers’ personal lives does not necessarily transfer over into their professional processes.
Here are some other high-level takeaways from the survey:

Mostly Veteran, Secondary Teachers
Over 50% of respondents are long-time instructors (+57% = +15 years experience), teaching in single-subject assignments at public middle / high schools (+78%).

Most Believe in the Instructional Value of Teacher Technology Use
Over 80% of respondents claim that technology as an instructional planning, delivery, and differentiation tool translates to High or Considerably High Instructional Value.
Over 95% claim technology can/does help them provide more diverse learning materials and, in turn, diversify their teaching for improved outcomes.

Little Professional Support and Coordination
Most teachers (+88%) work in schools where there is little/no planning and sharing on effective use of technology in the classroom. And most (+77%) say they are expected to learn new technologies on their own outside of school hours.

Student Use of the Internet Has Benefits, but Requires More Work for the Teacher
Overall, respondents cited higher levels of motivation, collaboration, and student work products when using the Internet.
These benefits are coupled with more teacher work to monitor for plagiarism and use of unreliable sources, yet, +73% feel that student access to the internet does NOT result in increased discipline issues.

Teachers Regularly Turn to the Internet for Curriculum
+79% search for online curricular resources several times a week or more for their classrooms.

Teachers Are Looking for A Variety of Curricular Resources and Like to Use Search Terms
From worksheets to assessments and lesson plans to primary sources and media, teachers are looking for everything but use open search terms far more than standards, frameworks, or topic lists. 

For a full summary of the results, please go here.

Stay tuned for more updates on the Teaching California project on our blog!


Written by Kerri Young, Teaching California Project Manager at California Historical Society.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Disappearing Photos of Peoples Temple

Among our collection of Peoples Temple Publicity Department materials is a group of ruined photographs – some faded completely to white, others thickly scattered with flaking pigment, a few recognizable but chemically streaked and melted. These photos are relics of the Temple’s practice of faith healing. It’s well known that Jim Jones’ flamboyant “healings” were at the center of Temple culture, drawing crowds to services and converting many curious visitors into serious believers. Less well understood, however, is the fact that Peoples Temple offered the service through the mail.
A few of the "disappearing photos" that sent to the Peoples Temple mailing list
This is hard to imagine in today’s connected world, but the Temple was many things to many people, depending on whether you attended services, when you joined, and whether your primary interaction was through the Peoples Temple mailing list. Without much opportunity for members to compare stories, Jones could present his organization to different people as a leftist utopian movement, a mainstream Christian church, an anti-Christian church whose pastor mocked the Scriptures and claimed to be the only God his followers needed, an ecstatic Pentecostal-style revival, or a low-key prosperity gospel ministry.

It was the latter that dominated the mailing list, which sent out a beautifully designed monthly newsletter. This mailer would usually include a donation request, and often also a small relic – a piece of Jones’ robe, a flask of holy oil, an anointed penny – which was said to give the recipient luck, or send material rewards their way. CHS’s “disappearing photos” of Jones were included with the mailer in August 1974. Believers would place the images on affected parts of their body and watch the images vanish as a sensation of healing washed over them. In reality, the photos had been intentionally developed so that they would fade on exposure to light – but the effect, to a sick and desperate person, must have held great emotional power.

The mailer itself stops just short of claiming that the photos could heal, or even of telling the recipient how to use them (in this way, the Temple avoided outright mail fraud). It does, however, include a number of testimonies which explicitly explain that when the image was touched to a sick or injured body, the image disappeared and the body was healed. The testimonies provided both verisimilitude and deniability for the Temple.
Peoples Temple monthly newsletter, August 1974
We have no way of knowing how many photos were kept as personal mementoes, how many were discarded after they appeared to work (or not work), and how many were ignored, but we do know that many of the used photos were sent back to the Temple. Some were accompanied by brief testimonial letters, others only by notes scribbled on the envelopes, and others arrived with no writing at all, just a blank and silent image.

Today, the photos convey a strange sort of emptiness. Unlike most photos, they were never important for the images they carried, but for their power as objects. Ephemeral things are always emotionally powerful; think of the autumn leaf, or cherry blossom, that makes us feel both melancholy and buoyant. In the case of the photos, their creators designed them to self-destruct in order to give them a feeling of holiness. Now, however, that emotional power is spent. These empty sheets of photographic paper have no meaning left at all.

This leaves an archivist with a question. Do we hold on to these items? If objects from the past don’t speak, do they have a place in the library? Most people assume that an archivist’s job is to hold on to everything from the past, to take care of the past so that other people don’t have to think about it. (Witness the way the word “archive” is used in email and project management software – essentially, to mean “send this to a place that I’ll never see, but don’t delete it.”) In reality, archivists let things go all the time – and usually because they don’t bear information. Why would a librarian maintain a blank book?

The question isn’t quite as simple here, of course. These photos are more comparable to a large collection of empty, mass-produced blank books, like unused diaries. They’re poignant, but in ways that we may think we understand better than we do (we don’t know why the people in my example bought diaries, or why they never used them). There’s always a danger, in reading history, of filling in your own emotional context when there is none to be had.

In the end, we discarded many of the photos. We kept a substantial number of them, both to testify to their emotional resonance with Temple members and to preserve the information that some of them had written on their backs. But when it comes to conveying the vanishing of meaning, we’ve found that twenty blank pieces of paper are as powerful as a hundred.

Written by Isaac R. Fellman, CHS's NHPRC Project Processing Archivist

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Legacy of Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins is something of an enigma. Very few letters written in his own hand survive, leaving historians and early photography enthusiasts to fill in the gaps of his life and career. This makes some of the concrete details of his life surprisingly hard to pin down. According to various sources, he is either the oldest of eight children or the youngest of five. He arrived in San Francisco in 1851…or was it 1849? Accounts of his life are filled with hedges (“1855-61: Photographed New Idrea and New Almaden mines and Mission Santa Clara (according to Turill)’’ says one chronology) and guesses. Information presented as fact may not actually be, which can make writing an account of his life (my task as Project Archivist at California Historical Society) somewhat difficult.

His name, when placed next to that of his contemporary, Eadweard Muybridge, recedes. Muybridge, an Englishman whose motion studies of Leland Stanford’s horse Occident and moving zoopraxiscope are often credited as the beginning of motion pictures, seems to get all of the glory. Muybridge was a more colorful character. He changed his name several times, from Edward James Muggeridge to Edward Muygridge to Eadward Muybridge, in what seems to be the slow and iterative perfecting of how he would prefer to be known – as if he at all times had one eye fixed on his own greatness. At one point, he signed his photographs “Helios” (“Titan of the Sun”). He murdered his wife’s lover but was acquitted for what, at the time, was considered “justifiable homicide.”

Interestingly, the differences between the two artist’s statures seem to be archival matter. Watkins famously lost the contents of his San Francisco photography studio during the 1906 earthquake, just before he was to transfer the archive to Stanford University. Tyler Green writes, “In fact, just a week before the earthquake, a curator from the university had visited Watkins…in preparation for the university’s apparent acquisition of Watkins’s archives, the first time an American university or museum would recognize a photographer’s importance in such a way.” An amazing photograph exists showing Watkins as a bearded elderly man with a cane, suit, and top hat on the streets of San Francisco shortly after the earthquake, a massive cloud of smoke visible in the background.

River View, Cathedral Rock, Yosemite [CEW 31], 1861; Carleton E. Watkins photograph collection, PC-RM-Watkins; Box 1, Folder 5; California Historical Society
  Much of Watkins’ studio was lost, including the massive mammoth glass plates used to create his famous photographs of the Yosemite Valley and other parts of the West as it was being settled. Complicating the issue is the fact that, due to poor financial decisions earlier in his career, Watkins had lost many of his original negatives to a group of creditors which required him to reshoot many of his original photographs (his “New Series” is the result of this). Watkins’ photographs are dispersed widely and held by numerous archives and private collectors around the country. Chief among these are the Bancroft Library, the Society of California Pioneers, and the California Historical Society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Muybridge did manage to eventually transfer his archive to Stanford. In fact, Leland Stanford – a railroad baron – was Muybridge’s greatest champion and supporter, much as Collis Huntington was Watkins’. Some have suggested that this matter of the photographers’ archives is the reason that Muybridge is better known today.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, also compares the two men. she writes, “In the 1860s and 1870s, landscape was a western business, but Watkins came first, and he stood alone.” Over the years, his subjects varied from mining camps to railroads and Spanish missions up and down the California coast. Watkins photographed famous artists, writers, and professors, native plants of California and the Southwest, and the newly built Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City – a great dome that looks like it recently descended from space.

Watkins’s gorgeous nature photographs still stun viewers and his style is almost instantly recognizable from his beautifully composed photographs with a certain discernable focus and clarity. This is even more amazing given the incredibly labor intensive process that created them and involved a team of mules, giant glass plates, and a travelling “dark room” in a covered wagon. Still, Solnit writes: “They are radiant with a mysterious serenity.”

Nevada Fall, Yosemite [CEW 90], 1861; Carleton E. Watkins photograph collection, PC-RM-Watkins; Box 3, Folder 6; California Historical Society.  
The California Historical Society is making the entirety of its Watkins collection available for the first time, and its contents are revealed in a detailed finding aid. More selections will also soon be available on the CHS digital library. This work was made possible by Teaching California – a statewide initiative developed to bring primary sources into California’s classrooms. There are also a number of Watkins photographs (including a panorama of San Francisco) currently on view in our galleries as a part of the Boomtowns exhibition.


Green, Tyler. Carleton Watkins: Making the West American. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking, 2003.


Written by Erin Hurley, Teaching California Project Archivist at California Historical Society

Monday, December 17, 2018

“To pore it out to you in silence”: the Gold Rush correspondence of William and Mary Monroe

The California Historical Society (CHS) is honored to announce the recent acquisition of fourteen Gold Rush letters, exchanged by William Monroe, a Wisconsin doctor who journeyed to the California gold fields in 1850, and his wife Mary Monroe in Wisconsin. Generously donated to CHS by descendants of the Monroe family, this collection is extraordinary, not only for its well-written and observed documentation of Gold Rush life, but also and especially for its poignant insight into the struggles of a woman left behind to manage the family farm and household while grieving the death of her young child, and for its sad illumination of the emotional and financial hardships Gold Rush-Era family separations inflicted on women as well as men.

William Monroe (1818-1908) was a doctor in Fayette, Wisconsin, who had engaged in lead mining near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, while reading for the medical profession. In 1850, he went to California with a party from Mineral Point, leaving behind his wife Mary Jane Monroe née Beebe (1822-1903) and their two children, John and Harriet. Between 1850 and 1851, William worked as a gold miner and physician in California, while Mary ran the family farm and household in Fayette. The correspondence exchanged by William and Mary between April 1850 and December 1851 reveals two different yet stark realities: the hardships of the overland journey and mining life in California, and William’s deep sense of helplessness and grief upon learning of the death of his son John; and Mary’s struggles to raise a family and manage the farm while enduring illness, loneliness, and unimaginable loss. The medium itself—letters delivered months after they were written and often “miscarried”—is another source of the collection’s poignancy, as William wrote tenderly and hopefully about the couple’s children only a few weeks after Mary penned the heartbreaking letter informing him of John’s death.

The letters speak powerfully for themselves. Below are transcripts from two letters of bereavement: Mary’s letter of May 1, 1851, and William’s reply of September 15, 1851, written in a black letter book.

Mary Monroe letter to William Monroe, 1851 May 1; William and Mary Monroe Correspondence, MS Vault 173; California Historical Society.

Fayette, May the 1, 1851 

Beloved husband, 

I received your kind letter dated Feb 23 on the 22 April, how anxiously I perused those lines written by you, it is the 2 letter I have received from you since your arrival in California, you can imagine the pleasure and consolation your letter was to me, when I relate to you the state of my health and bereavement, I was not able to sit up in bed without assistance when I received it, Dear husband my heart is filled with the deepest emotions of sorrow when I attempt to write that our little son is numbered with the dead, on the 22 of March his spirit left this earth, for that bright home beyond the skies, which he often talked about, I never wanted to see you more in my life, but as the intervening distance will not permit, let us live so as to meet with our little ones in heaven, when I reflect on the Multiplied favours we are constantly receiving from God, my prayer is thy will be done (and not mine) I feel willing to submit to him, who is willing to sustain all those who put their trust in him. I have written 5 letters to you and one to George, I received your letter last Nov dated Sept 20 and answered it immediately about a month after, I wrote to George, John L. had just recovered from an attack of the lung fever in Galena we came home in January I wrote to you again in Feb or March, I then wrote that John had a cough but was in hopes he would be better when warm weather came he was taken with a chill, Tuesday morning, and died on Saturday morning, with inflammation of his lungs, on Sunday he was taken to your Fathers and buried by the side of his little Brother. 
William Monroe letter to Mary Monroe, 1851 Sept 15; William and Mary Monroe Correspondence, MS Vault 173; California Historical Society.

Hopkins Creek, California, Sept 15, 1851

Dear and Affectionate Wife. It is only about six weeks since I wrote to you last a few days after receiving a letter from Father containing the heartrending news of our dear child’s death; when I wrote I could think of nothing but him I said nothing about what I was doing. I am sometimes sorry that I wrote in the state of mind to again fetch up all those tender feelings that probably had been [?] and burned in your bosom but My Dear how could I help it I had no other source to relieve my [?] distracted mind but to pore it out to you in silence even yet the thought of returning and him absent from our happy little circle seems more than I can reconcile or bear to think of all my blasted hopes only makes me realize to what a high I had allowed them to carry me but pardon me for I am now filling this one with that that will only disturb your mind that might otherwise remain at rest but his image is so impressed on my mind that I cannot keep him out of my mind for a moment do not neglect to have your and little Sissy’s Likeness I have received two letters from you one written before his death and one after….

Marie Silva

Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian

Friday, December 14, 2018

In Your Travels: California Historical Society Collections on the Road

CHS on the Road is a series of posts by registrar Cheryl Maslin highlighting CHS collections on loan to other institutions. In your travels, we hope you will be able to visit these exhibitions.

Drawing of Achilles and accompanying Alvord Award Medal with Brooch are on view through February 17, 2019, in Artful Liaisons: Connecting Painters Grace Carpenter, Edward Espey, and Grafton Tyler Brown, Grace Hudson Museum, 431 South Main Street, Ukiah, California.

Grace Carpenter (1865–1937), with twin brother Grant, was born to Helen McCowen, a writer, civic leader, and early educator in Potter Valley, Mendocino County, California. McCowen and her husband, Aurelius Ormando Carpenter, known for his photographs of the early Mendocino railroad, lumber, and shipping industries, operated a portrait photography studio in nearby Ukiah. After showing promise as a child for her drawing skills, Grace began attending the San Francisco School of Design at age fourteen. When she returned home for summer break after her first year, instructor Oscar Kunath (1830–1909, American, b. Germany) wrote her mother, imploring, “I take the liberty as well as pleasure in stating, that she has been one of my best pupils. . . . If she intends choosing Art for her occupation, it is indeed necessary to devote all her time & talent to this high aim in life. . . . Your daughter . . . will soon rise above her classmates by studying very earnestly.”

Portrait of Grace Carpenter. See Footnote 4: Portrait of Grace Carpenter, ca. 1882, is courtesy of the Grace Hudson Museum, City of Ukiah; Acc. # 18361d. 
During her second year at art school, Carpenter won an annual student contest for best classical drawing. The subject for all entrants was a plaster cast of Ares Borghese (ca. 1–2 CE), a Roman marble sculpture in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge, England, considered very difficult to portray in two dimensions. The prize was a medallion named after William Alvord, mayor of San Francisco from 1871 to 1873, and engraved with the contest winner’s name. Carpenter’s medallion was at some point affixed to a brooch with a cat’s-eye shell as a centerpiece, flanked with a leaf motif and a turquoise bead at either end of the pin bar. The drawing and medallion remained in her possession, later passing to her nephew, Mark Carpenter, who, with his wife, gave them to CHS in 1963. They have returned to the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah for this exhibition.
The photograph of Achilles is believed to have been taken prior to the drawing and Alvord Award being given to CHS, with the photographer unknown. The image was used in Searles R. Boynton’s book, The Painter Lady: Grace Carpenter Hudson. Eureka: Interface California Corp., 1978. 

   Courtesy of California Historical Society. Alvord Award, 1881. Maker unknown. Medallion 1 -1/2 inches, diameter; overall dimensions: 3 inches height x 2 -9/16 inches width. Gold, cat’s eye shell, turquoise beads. California Historical Society, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Carpenter.       
In 1890, Carpenter married John Wilz Napier Hudson, who had trained in medicine in Nashville and come to Ukiah to work as a physician. He later became a scholar of Pomo culture and an important collector of their baskets. Grace Carpenter Hudson occupies a significant place in California history due to her lifetime of art production, which includes more than 680 paintings, mostly of Pomo peoples in the region. For more information, please visit

Additional Notes

1. Quotes from Oscar Kunath’s letter are courtesy the Grace Hudson Museum, City of Ukiah; Acc. #2018-1-2. While the letter is not dated, Karen Holmes, curator of collections and exhibitions, believes it was written in the spring of 1880. A Daily Alta newspaper clipping, dated December 24, 1881, and held in the museum’s archives, states that Carpenter had been a student for eighteen months when she received the award. For a brief history of the formation of the San Francisco Art Association and its evolution into today’s San Francisco Art Institute see Betty Hoag McGlynn, “The San Francisco Art Association,” in Plein Air Painters of California, The North, ed. Ruth Lilly Westphal (Irvine, CA: Westphal, 1986), 16–19.

2. The marble Ares Borghese may itself be a copy of an earlier bronze (now lost) from the fifth century BCE. The statue was among 344 antiquities that entered the collections of the Louvre in 1807, via purchase by Emperor Napoleon from Camillo Borghese, Sixth Prince of Sulmona and husband of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. In 1884 it transferred to Cambridge University by sale, and its record in the Museum of Classical Archaeology Databases notes that “it may represent Achilles” [the title of Carpenter’s drawing], and that it “has also been recently proposed that the sculpture was a Roman original created through Augustan propaganda to cast Augustus’s heir and grandson, Gaius, as ‘the New Ares.’” The statue’s height is 211 cm, or slightly under seven feet. Hudson’s drawing’s subject has remained identified as Achilles since the contest, although recent research conducted by Marcus and Rosalie Wardell confirms the actual source of the plaster cast.

3. Although unconfirmed at this time, it is possible that the numeral 3, shaped by erasure and located in the lower-right corner of the drawing, may be Carpenter’s entry number. Additionally, while Carpenter was not a trained jeweler, it is highly likely she chose the centerpiece for her brooch and approved its design.

4. The original Portrait of Grace Carpenter may have been taken at her parents’ studio in Ukiah, though the actual photographer is unknown and the tintype does not carry the “Carpenter” mount. The photograph of Achilles is believed to have been taken prior to the drawing and Alvord Award being given to CHS, with the photographer also unknown. The latter was used in Searles R. Boynton, The Painter Lady: Grace Carpenter Hudson (Eureka, CA: Interface California, 1978), 18.

5. Fellow artist and San Francisco–born Henry Percy Gray (1869–1952), also attended the San Francisco School of Design and participated in the contest in 1886. His submission is also in the collection of the California Historical Society, a gift of Dr. and Mrs. W. Scott Polland, 1970.

Art and object collections are available for researchers by inquiry and prearranged appointment through CHS’s North Baker Research Library.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Kicking Off the Holidays With Our 10th Annual Historic Libations

On November 27th, the California Historical Society hosted its 10th annual Historic Libations event at the Old U.S. Mint in San Francisco. This year’s theme was Back to the Future: History of Bay Area Food and Drink Innovation, and focused on local food and drink makers who are building on historic traditions to innovate in their various crafts.

Guests gathered inside the Old Mint’s elegant rooms and corridors, amidst the twinkle of tea lights, to toast and taste, listen to shorty tasty talks from food and drink makers, and enjoy pop-up tours of the Mint’s vaults and historic spaces.

Culinary Historian Erica Peters told stories of innovative tastes from throughout San Francisco history, exploring flavors originating in the Bay Area from cioppino and sourdough bread, to Rice-A-Roni and Pisco punch.


Father and daughter team Amy and Gary Guittard of Guittard Chocolates discussed how, over the last 150 years, their company has made high quality chocolate by melding old world small-batch processing with modern techniques.

Bob Klein of Oliveto and Community Grains spoke on the history of California as a wheat state and how modern wheat production is a blend of innovation in farming, milling, and science with older, more traditional techniques.


Lance Winters of Saint George Spirits explored the ethos of the distillery, which has been at the vanguard of artisan distillation since its founding in 1982.

Susan Coss of Mezcalistas talked about the complicated relationship between California and Mexico as told through agave distillates.


The Buena Vista was on hand to serve up their famous Irish Coffees.

Banda Sin Nombre, a five-piece street band from San Francisco’s Mission District provided an epic evening of folk music from around the world.


The Museum of Craft and Design guided guests to design handmade wooden coasters.

We are grateful to all of our supporters to gathered with us kickstart the holiday season and celebrate the deep history of local food and drink culture at this year’s Historic Libations. We’re already looking forward to next year!