Monday, November 27, 2017

Images of the California Gold Rush on exhibit at the San Francisco Opera

On November 21st, the San Francisco Opera presented the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West, by composer John Adams and director and librettist Peter Sellars. (The opera runs through December 10th.) Sellars’ libretto was inspired by primary sources, including the celebrated Gold Rush letters of Louise Clappe, which were published in 1854-55 under the pseudonym Dame Shirley. To many, the Shirley letters represent the pinnacle of Gold Rush literature.

Sadly, there is no known photograph of Dame Shirley extant. The California Historical Society Collection, however, includes stunning daguerreotype photographs documenting the cities, towns, and people of the California Gold Rush. Reproductions of some of these photographs are now on exhibit at the Opera House lobby—along with artifacts from the Collections of Levi Stauss & Co., the Museum of Performance + Design, and the Society of California Pioneers—through December 10th. Selections are presented below. 

Rosalía Vallejo de Leese, after 1847, photographer unknown, daguerreotype, courtesy, California Historical Society
Pictured in this exquisite tinted daguerreotype is a young Rosalía Vallejo de Leese, sister of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Rosalía married the American trader Jacob Leese in 1837, making her one of the earliest non-Native residents of the pueblo of Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. Like many Native and Californio women, Rosalia lived through a period of traumatic change, beginning with the California Gold Rush. Leese later deserted Rosalía and her children, and, in an 1874 interview, Rosalía expressed her unrelenting hatred for the Anglo American intruders who first humiliated her family during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846.

Women were not only the subjects of early California daguerreotype portraits, they were also photographers. According to photography historian Peter Palmquist, Rosalía’s niece Epifania "Fannie" de Guadalupe Vallejo may have been California's first photographer, acquiring a daguerreotype camera around 1847.  

San Francisco panorama [fifth panel], spring 1851, photographer unknown, daguerreotype, courtesy, California Historical Society
The invention of the daguerreotype was announced in Paris in 1839, only nine years before the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. This new photographic process—which enjoyed a relatively short heyday between 1845 and 1860—coincided with the spectacular and disruptive boom that transformed San Francisco from a small Mexican pueblo into a modern metropolis.

Although photographers flocked to California during the Gold Rush, the California Historical Society’s seven-plate panorama is one of only six surviving daguerreotype panoramas of San Francisco. Standing on sand dunes now at the corner of First and Howard Streets, the unknown photographer captured a vivid urban tableau, from the clapboard houses of Happy Valley to the shipbuilding works at Rincon Point. A washerwoman can be spied in the fifth panel (shown above), sitting in the doorway of her shack as laundry flutters in the spring breeze.

Group of miners, circa 1850s, photographer unknown, daguerreotype, courtesy, California Historical Society
This full-plate portrait of a group of Gold Rush miners is one of the most spectacular and moving daguerreotypes in the California Historical Society Collection. Nine miners, perhaps forming a company, pose together in various attitudes of affection, insouciance, and camaraderie. Four of the men proudly display the tools of their trade, a shovel, pick, sluice box, and claim. 

Diamond Springs, El Dorado County, 1854, photographer unknown, daguerreotype, courtesy, California Historical Society
This daguerreotype of a street scene in Diamond Springs captures the look and feel of a young Gold Rush town. In addition to the offices of the Advocate newspaper and Wells Fargo & Co., many charming details are visible, including a broadside for a theatrical performance by the Bateman children. Eleven figures paused to pose for the shot; only one (to the left, leaning against a post) failed to remove his hat.

Marie Silva, Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian

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