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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Jack London’s Flask

Jack London had two sides. Lacking the cultural capital of connections, the author learned early on that a successful literary career could be bolstered by the symbolic capital of celebrity status. Through his stories and publicity photographs, London shrewdly marketed his authorial persona as that of both the rugged sailor and the posh intellectual, appealing to Victorian America’s fascination with wilderness—and its attention to propriety.

We can see this dual persona expressed in a famous photograph of London sitting at the helm of one of his boats (most likely the Roamer), holding what appears to be a magazine (fig. 1). The pen in his right hand is perched delicately between his fingers like a cigarette; his leather jacket is glossy and sumptuous, with ripples of sunlight zigzagging up his arms like eels. London’s stiff collar mirrors the mop of windswept hair that reaches down his forehead, drawing our eyes toward his gentle yet thoughtful expression. The photograph encapsulates all that we wish to remember about London: the improbable simultaneity of the oyster pirate and the man of letters, neatly packaged as the handsome and affable writer known as Jack London.

Photographer unknown, [Jack London on board the Roamer], ca. 1914. Gelatin silver print. Sonoma County Library.
I was reminded of London’s split celebrity in my first week here at the California Historical Society, when my colleague Cheryl Maslin surprised me with a treasure: Jack London’s flask, likely given to him by his friend, the poet George Sterling (fig. 2). Holding the flask in my hands, I could feel the two Jacks come through in its variable textures. On the upper half, a layer of orange and black snakeskin hugs the circumference, its raised scales feeling warm to the touch. On the bottom, the tarnished silver base is cold and smooth save for the neatly engraved inscription (“Jack London, from a loving friend”) and the wave-like pattern carved onto a collar separating the two halves of the flask. To hold it in your hands is to feel both hemispheres—warm and cold, rippled and smooth, connected somehow by those undulating waves.
Jack London's flask, 1907. Sterling Silver, snakeskin, and glass. California Historical Society, Gift of Albert Bender.
In his book Martin Eden (1909), London tells the story of a young man who attempts to overcome his working-class roots through self-education, eventually becoming a successful writer in the San Francisco literary scene. It’s easy to be tempted by the parallels between Martin Eden’s rise and London’s own biography, and many have, using the final scene of the novel in which Eden commits suicide by drowning as one piece of evidence that London himself died by suicide and not kidney failure (as was recorded on his death certificate). The scene is chilling; London describes Eden’s body bobbing in the water like a buoy, split into halves not unlike the snakeskin flask:

“He glanced up at the quiet stars, at the same time emptying his lungs of air. With swift, vigorous propulsion of hands and feet, he lifted his shoulders and half his chest out of water…Then he let himself go and sank without movement, a white statue, into the sea…He seemed floating languidly in a sea of dreamy vision. Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain—a flashing, bright white light.”

Here, London uses the metaphor of a “bright white light” to connote death and dying, as Eden slowly sinks and allows the seawater fills his lungs. But the light provides a different metaphorical significance in the first chapter of the book, when Eden encounters his first oil painting in the home of a wealthy neighbor:

“The lines of [Eden’s] face hardened, and into his eyes came a fighting light. He looked about more unconcernedly, sharply observant, every detail of the pretty interior registering itself on his brain. His eyes were wide apart; nothing in their field of vision escaped; and as they drank in the beauty before them the fighting light died out and a warm glow took its place. He was responsive to beauty, and here was cause to respond. An oil painting caught and held him.”

As Martin Eden is drawn in by the painting—which is, prophetically, a painting of a schooner on stormy seas—the “fighting light” with which his eyes probe the canvas is gradually replaced by the “warm glow” of its intoxicating beauty. In this early scene, London asks his reader to consider the differences between these two modes of reading or looking: you can come to the work like a soldier on the defense, or let the work come to you and wash over you like a wave. As I hold Jack London’s flask, it, like the painting, seems to hold me back, suspending me in my knowledge that the author once held it and used it. Ultimately, a curator’s research relies on both sides of this coin. It’s our job to be dutiful, conducting research with the “fighting light” of a critical eye. But it’s also important to be willing to succumb to the magic of looking and of feeling, to spend time with a piece and allow it to “speak” for itself. To be like the silver, but also like snakeskin.

By Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at CHS.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Staff Picks: Pamphlet from the German Austro-Hungarian Bazaar by German Women of San Francisco

The CHS collections comprise a diverse body of materials which document the environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural heritage of California and contribute to a greater understanding of the state and its people.

For this year’s American Archives Month, we asked a few of our Exhibitions and Library & Archives department staff members to choose a piece (or collection) from the CHS archive, and to interpret it in their own word, or describe why it’s meaningful to them. This week, Will Murdoch, CHS' Cataloger, explores a commemorative pamphlet and lecture from the German Austro-Hungarian Bazaar organized by German women of San Francisco:

Vortragsfolge. Deutscher und Oesterreichisch-Ungarischer Basar veranstaltet von deutschen Frauen zu San Francisco, Cal., U.S.A. 9-10-11 December 1914 
The most surprising thing about this pamphlet from our collection is that it still exists at all.  Let me describe it. Published in December 1914, this document appears to be a program for a San Francisco
fundraising festival (“basar”), put on in support of the troops of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The local German-American societies (“helping committees”), including the Hungarian Society, planned fundraisers to supply aid to wounded troops, widows, and orphans of their “old country” early on during the Great War. The pamphlet above requests assistance and aid for wounded soldiers and includes portraits of German and Austro-Hungarian generals alongside heroic-looking troops.

The document is written completely in German with the exception of one page which is in English and shows a portrait of Woodrow Wilson and a quote about how America must stay neutral during the European conflict.

It was early on in the war and pre-May 1915 when Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare, started using poison gas, and launched Zeppelin bombings of civilians. In December 1914, German-Americans in San Francisco could still help their old country and while also being patriotic Americans. That would change the following year when public support of Germany began to be seen in a much different light. After May 1915, pro-German support and printed materials, like this pamphlet, would have been unpopular and, by 1917, even treasonous. Relations between immigrant groups and their countries of origin remain complex to this day and this unique piece from our archive can serve to remind us how quickly loyalty and public opinion can change.  After May 1915, many German-Americans in San Francisco would have wanted to suppress the evidence found within the pamphlet, making this a rare find indeed.

Later …American anti-German propaganda:

Destroy this Mad Brute -- Enlist, ca. 1917, Harry R. Hopps (American 1869-1937), Color lithograph, Louis and Jodi Atkin Family Collection, Modern Graphic History Library, Washington University Libraries

Written by Will Murdoch, Cataloger at California Historical Society.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Staff Picks: Highlights from the CHS Collection for American Archives Month

Every October the American archival community celebrates American Archives Month in order to celebrate and raise awareness of the value of archives, archivists, and the diverse collections in repositories across the country representing our collective history.

The CHS collections comprises a diverse body of materials which document the environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural heritage of California and contribute to a greater understanding of the state and its people. The collection includes:
  • 50,000 volumes of books and pamphlets 
  • 4,000 manuscript collections; 
  • 500,000 photographs; 
  • Printed ephemera, periodicals, posters, broadsides, maps, and newspapers; 
  • The Kemble Collection on Western Printing and Publishing; 
  • 5,000 works of art, including paintings, drawings, and lithographs; 
  • Artifacts and costumes 
For this year’s American Archives Month, we asked a few of our Exhibitions and Library & Archives department staff members to choose a piece (or collection) from the CHS archive, and to interpret it in their own word, or describe why it’s meaningful to them. First up is Jaime Henderson, CHS’ Digital Archivist, who chose 1930s images of Los Vaqueros lands.

Images of Los Vaqueros lands

From Horse Pasture Hill looking W. toward Black Hills across Dario Place, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_12, California Historical Society

A man wearing jodhpur pants tucked into high boots leans against an outcropping of rocks, possibly a walking stick or telescope gripped in his hand, gazing onto a valley dotted with low trees, dark hills and an even darker sky looming in the background. Another image shows a low mountain range in the distance, gnarled, leafless oak trees in the foreground. Like many great California landscapes scenes shot by well-known photographers, the image is well-composed and captures the natural exquisiteness and moodiness of the state’s terrain. But unlike Yosemite or Big Sur, the landscape, although stunning, is not obviously identifiable. That is until I take a closer look at the caption which provides such preciseness of place. The caption contains a series of letters and numbers that I am able to identify as surveyor coordinates. Names of places such as Black Hills, Brushy Peak and the surnames of landowners, Dario and Cabral provide a few more clues. Eventually, I piece together that the land is a rural valley situated in eastern Contra Costa county and portions of northeast Alameda County. The region today looks remarkably similar to the landscape captured in the photographs years ago.

The photographs shown here are only four examples of a collection of twenty-five platinum prints held in the archives of the California Historical Society. The collection, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands of Contra Costa and Alameda counties, records both visually and geographically, this pastoral parcel of land situated in the shadow of Mount Diablo toward the northwest and flanked by low, grassland hills to the east and the rugged Black Hills to the west. Although the photographer is unknown, the captions, most of which include geographic coordinates, suggest that the photographs were taken as part of a surveying project of the Los Vaqueros lands, most likely undertaken in the mid-1930s as ownership of the lands passed from their much-revered owner Mary Crocker to family members and friends after her death. The time period in which the photographs were taken marks the beginning of drastic change to the communities built in Los Vaqueros, although this change is not reflected in the region’s natural landscape capture in the photographs.

Inside caves near Brushy Peak, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935. PC-026_01, California Historical Society

The first Californians deeply understood the majesty of what would come to be called Los Vaqueros. Archeologists have found evidence of human activity in the region dating back nearly 10,000 years, making Los Vaqueros lands one of California’s earliest known sites of human activity. For centuries, groups made long-term use of the land for hunting, occupation, and community building. Before the arrival of the Spanish to the greater Bay Area and Delta region, the Volvon peoples of the Miwok tribe and the Ssaoam peoples of the Costanoan tribe seasonally hunted, gathered, traded and lived in communities in what would become Los Vaqueros.

The land's natural features, most especially the caves and outcroppings of rocks located in the most eastern part of the region, are described in the Native Californians' creation myths where Coyote, in deep grief over the loss of his son, walks through the sandstone walls creating the holes and gorges of the Vasco Caves (1). Many of the Native Californians' creation stories were depicted in rock art on the walls of the Vasco Caves. As it was when the Native peoples inhabited the land, the land is still considered sacred among Native Californian groups and the pictographs are still visible on the caves' canvases. 

North side of lake, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_08, California Historical Society

In the years following the founding of Mission San Jose in 1797, large herds of cattle belonging to the mission were grazed in the Los Vaqueros lands, introducing the practice of large-scale livestock ranching to the region. The practice continued once the land was granted to three brothers-in-law and officially named CaƱada de los Vaqueros (Valley of the Cowboys) in 1844. The region’s excellent pastures gave rise to battles over grazing rights and litigation over the ownership of lands throughout the second-half of the 19th century. Through these disputes practice of large scale grazing continued, taking effect on the landscape, spreading non-native grasses eroding natural drainage and impacting native tree species (R to R, pg. 8). Ranching on the lands only began to phase out in the mid-1870s as the land grant began to be subdivided into smaller tenant farms and ranches, prompting a shift that incorporated grain cultivation with livestock ranching. The introduction of a more diverse agriculture and immigrant families of German, Italian, French and Basque descent helped to transition Los Vaqueros from a valley of isolated, ranching cowboys to a community of family farms that developed out of their reliance on shared skills, resources and crops. The transition marks both a natural change for the region, but also the development of a communal identity amongst the Los Vaqueros residents. Between 1900 and 1935 the Los Vaqueros community, geographically isolated from the social and civic changes occurring in the greater Bay Area, created network of multicultural residents that relied on each other for economic, social, and emotional support.

Much can be said in regards to the stability of land ownership in Los Vaqueros to facilitate the growth of community spirit. Most residents were tenant farmers who rented that land from Mary Crocker. Crocker may not have spent much time on the land, but had hired the much admired Charles Lamberton to manage the tenant holdings. The pair provided a sense of stability that allowed tenants to invest in the land and commit to its community. In 1918, while the land was under Crocker’s ownership, an article printed in the Byron Times praised the rolling hills and valleys of Los Vaqueros “one of the most beautiful pastoral spots of the Golden State.” (2)

The long-lasting effects of the economic Depression of 1929, coupled with the untimely death of Mary Crocker in an automobile accident brought about an end to many of the tenant family farms and community oriented existence of Los Vaqueros. Crocker’s heirs sold the land and new owners did not uphold many of the lease agreements with the tenant farmers who had helped build the Los Vaqueros community (3). Some of the land had remained in the hands of its original owners who had acquired it in the later part of the 19th century, but by the 1960s and 1970s much of the Los Vaqueros lands had been returned to grazing pastures.

From hill looking across Stanley Cabral’s grain field toward Black Hills, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_17, California Historical Society 

Today the land, located in the Diablo Range in the shadow of Mount Diablo, is sheltered from the crush of Interstate 580 cutting through the Livermore Valley moving thousands of commuters to and from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta communities and the San Francisco Bay Area and the ever-developing suburban housing tracts that sprawl further and further into the deep east of the East Bay. Two major civic initiatives have protected the land from the encroachment of development and have allowed the land to retain its pastoral beauty that had earlier been celebrated in the Byron Times. In 1988 Contra Costa county voters approved funding for the Contra Costa County Water District’s (CCWD) Los Vaqueros Reservoir project.

The reservoir was completed in 1998 and was expanded in 2012, growing its capacity to provide water for over 500,000 customers while also protecting the natural and historic resources located in the watershed (4). The CCWD has also partnered with East Bay Regional Park District to steward the Vasco Caves Regional Preserve, providing protection to both endangered and native species and plants of the Los Vaqueros region and preserving sacred native California sites, including the 10,000 year old rock art found on the walls of Vasco Caves depicting the creation myths that took place on the Los Vaqueros lands.

This post was written by Jaime Henderson, Digital Archivist at the California Historical Society.


(1) Ziesing, Grace H. ed., From Rancho to Reservoir: History and Archaeology of the Los Vaqueros Watershed, California. Report prepared for the Contra Costa Water District (1997), 19.
(2) Byron Times, (1918), 58.
(3) Ziesing, From Rancho to Reservoir, (1917), 124. 
(4) Los Vaqueros Project History. Contra Costa Water District. Retrieved 2018 March 14 from

Monday, October 22, 2018

Launching Boomtowns with our San Francisco Community

On October 11, the California Historical Society celebrated the opening of its newest exhibition, Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco, with CHS members, VIP guests, and staff!

The exhibition, curated by CHS’s Erin Garcia, considers the first one hundred years of photography in what would become California’s two most prominent cities. As San Francisco and Los Angeles entered a period of rapid, unimaginable growth following the state’s entry into the Union in 1850, photography played a significant role in defining and shaping how the rest of the country understood California. Photographers also captured and responded to the distinctly different topography and development patterns of the two cities. The exhibition features work by both anonymous photographers and well-known artists—such as Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Minor White, Laura Adams Armer, and Arnold Genthe—and includes photographs made for a broad range of purposes, from civic boosterism and real estate development, to industry and art. From pictures of San Francisco on fire following the 1906 earthquake, to photographs taken in the 1920s of the nascent Hollywoodland housing development—which bequeathed the city its iconic sign—Boomtowns draws exclusively from CHS’s extensive photographic holdings.

The Thursday night opening including remarks by the curator, Erin Garcia, and CHS’s Executive Director, Dr. Anthea Hartig. Food was provided by CHEFS (Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Services), a 5-month culinary training program that provides instruction in technical and professional skills enhancement necessary for entry into the food service industry, with refreshments from Fort Point. Guests also enjoyed a jazz trio from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music!

Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco remains on view at CHS’s headquarters at 678 Mission St. in San Francisco until March 10, 2019. Please visit or call us at 415 357-1848 for more information.

Want to hang out with us at hip, fun, history events like this one? Join today!


Images courtesy of Shannon Foreman photography

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Spotlighting the Use of Primary Sources in Teaching California

As the California Historical Society (CHS) moves forward with development on Teaching California, our state-funded initiative to offer schools and teachers classroom-ready instructional materials aligned with the new History-Social Science Framework, we’d like to spotlight the important primary source-driven philosophy of our project, and share some of the great examples that we’ve been incorporating in our content development.

In short, the new Framework is an instructional tool by which teachers can cover, and in some cases move beyond, the existing History-Social Science Standards for the state of California. Primary sources like this photo of Chinese citrus worker picking oranges in Santa Ana help answer grade-specific questions of significance, such as “Why do people move?” Students can explore how people moved from place to place, while reflecting on their own family experiences. Picking Oranges at Santa Ana, circa 1890s; General Subjects Photograph Collection-Agriculture; California Historical Society

Examining primary sources, original documents and objects created at the time of study can be an engaging, meaningful, and rigorous way for students to connect to the past. Primary sources give students the ability to trace continuity and change, foster personal connections to a larger narrative, and build deeper community connections. They also invite student inquiry and encourage students to wrestle with the complexities of differing points of view while learning crucial critical thinking and analysis skills. For teachers however, access to engaging and grade-appropriate primary sources is not always matched by a corresponding stress on the tools and context needed to utilize them successfully in the classroom. 

Cue the new Framework, which outlines a new inquiry-based model of instruction for California’s K-12 classrooms. Embedded within the Framework are grade-level examples of the types of primary sources that teachers can explore with their students to help address questions of historical significance. Importantly, California’s diversity is seen as an asset and, according to Deputy Superintendent of the California Department of Education Thomas Adams, “a new opportunity for inclusive instruction.” This opportunity is available in recommendations for primary source types—like photos, letters and objects—that are not only engaging, but also inclusive. 

But while teachers responded positively to the Framework after its adoption by the California Department of Education in 2016, they also expressed the strong need for access to the type of engaging and relevant primary sources outlined in its pages, organized to easily address the new inquiry-based model. 

This need will shape the new collection of classroom-ready instructional materials we create for the project, which will be free and accessible to teachers in Summer 2019 on teachingcalifornia,org. Never-before-seen primary source material, much from CHS’s collections, will lead the student exploration and discovery of history through a uniquely California lens (when appropriate and relevant), and teachers will also find support in historical context, sourcing, and developing student literacy.

As the Framework details, primary sources speak to students’ own lives, heritages, and family identities, and in early grades can help students start developing a sense of history through their own family and community histories. This image of the Shorey family, from Oakland, California, can help students explore the Grade One Framework question, “How do families remember their past?” Capt. William T. Shorey and wife Julia Shelton, daughters Zenobia and Victoria, ca. 1910; Portraits Collection; California Historical Society. 

This example shows a men’s baseball team at San Juan Bautista, that can help Kindergarteners think through the question “What is our neighborhood like?” as they learn about living and working together now versus long ago. Men's baseball team, undated; California Counties Photograph Collection; PC-CO-San Benito; California Historical Society.

This is an example of an image that we may use for Grade One, which helps students think through the question, “How do many different people make one nation?” as students explore the ways in which Native Californians and immigrants have helped define Californian and American culture. Washoe Indians--The Chief's Family; Stereographs of California and Nevada; PC-RM-Stereos; California Historical Society

This photograph from our collections can help address the Framework question, “What have been the costs of the decisions of people in the past?” as students explore the cost of logging or preserving the natural environment. Big Tree, 22 ft. in diameter, Jas. Brown's Claim, Humboldt Co., California; California Counties Photography Collection; PC-CO; California Historical Society

Our content development partners on Teaching California, The California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP), are current members of the Library of Congress’ Teaching With Primary Sources (TPS) Consortium, a group of institutions across the country who help deliver TPS professional development, design curriculum using primary sources from the Library’s collections and/or conduct research on the classroom use of primary sources. This week, I am fortunate to accompany CHSSP on their annual TPS meeting in Washington DC, and learn from and with those working at the forefront of primary source-led instruction in the classroom. Opportunities like this, as well as further engagement with teachers throughout our development process, will help us continue providing access to primary sources in a way that is not only useful for teachers in the classroom, but will help do our part to shift the pattern of history-social science instruction.


This post was written by Kerri Young, Teaching California Project Manager at the California Historical Society.

Funded by a $5 million grant from the State Department of Education to the California Historical Society, Teaching California offers schools and teachers classroom-ready instructional materials designed to engage students in exciting and inspiring investigations of the past. Comprised of curated primary source material from California's premier archives, libraries, and museums, this program provides a research-based approach to improve student reading, writing, critical thinking and civic engagement, all aligned with the State’s new K-12 History-Social Science Framework. For everything you need to know about the new Framework, visit CHSSP’s useful blog here.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Celebrating Women's Stories During National Hispanic Heritage Month

Each year, starting on September 15 and continuing for 30 days, the history, culture, and contributions of those whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America is celebrated during National Hispanic Heritage Month. The date of September 15 is significant because it marks the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile celebrate independence on September 16 and 18, respectively.

In honor of this important month, we dug into our archives to explore some of the incredible stories and individuals that enliven our state’s history. One of these characters is Hipolita Orendain de Medina (c.1847-c.1922), a Mexican-born San Franciscan socialite and author, whose portraits, correspondence, and miscellaneous materials are part of the CHS collection.

Early in her life, Hipolita moved to San Francisco with her her sister, Virginia, and their widowed mother, Francisca Tejada de Orendain. According to family tradition, Francisca inherited a fortune from her late husband, Jesus Orendain, who owned a Mexican silver mine. She invested her wealth in Oakland waterfront property, married Virginia native Humphrey Marshall, and provided financial support to a company of men fighting to liberate Mexico from French rule. Marshall died in the American Civil War, and the Orendain family lost much of their fortune. To help support the family, Hipolita and her sister Virginia worked as dressmakers in San Francisco.

In October 1869, Hipolita married Emilio (or Emigdio) Medina, a professional musician, diplomat, and editor of the Spanish-language newspaper La Republica. Emilio was sent by the President of Mexico to Europe, South America, and beyond to help forge a closer relationship between the United States and Spanish speaking countries. Together, Hipolita and Emilio had four daughters, Josefina, Virginia, Zarina, and Mercedes. In 1880, the couple separated, and later Hipolita referred to herself as a widow. She died circa 1922, and was buried in Los Angeles.
Francisca Tejada de Orendain and daughters, Hipolita and Virginia, Portraits from the Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MSP 1441

The Hipolita Orendain de Medina collection offers a glimpse into the domestic, cultural, and political life of a cosmopolitan, multilingual community of native Californios and Latino immigrants in San Francisco in the second half of the nineteenth century. The personal notebooks, letters, poems, sheet music, cards, photographs, and other remembrances are full of delightful tidbits that provide an intimate glimpse into the life of a woman who was clearly revered and respected by the many with whom she came into contact. In our collection, we see many loving letters and photographs from visitors addressing her as friend.

The following journal entries are from Hipolita’s personal notebook:
[Notebook, undated]; Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MS 1441; Box 1, folder 4; California Historical Society.

English translation:
I will be severe with myself
Duty is a moral monster; every time one does not fulfill one’s moral duty, one does not fulfill the others either

[Notebook, undated]; Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MS 1441; Box 1, folder 4; California Historical Society.

English translation:

Neither all the sorrows nor all the happiness on earth can tear us apart; perhaps it is a defect (…), because (...) you will offer your soul and will pursue between the space left by pain and they will always be there (...)

Perfect happiness derives only from virtue
The collection also gives insight into the political and historical forces that were influential at the time – references to the Franco-Mexican War and Mexican and Latin American nationalism abound.

Below is an excerpt from a hymn titled “Hymn to Zaragoza” written by Hipolita’s husband, Emilio Medina. Below the image of the original newspaper clipping of the hymn in Spanish are two stanzas translated in English.

Himno a Zaragoza, May 4, 1879; Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MS 1441; Box 1, folder 3; California Historical Society.
Himno a Zaragoza – Hymn to Zaragoza

Of Hidalgo the beloved homeland

Admiringly contemplates your footprints,

And history in its beautiful pages

There inscribed you with eternal burin

Because you are the comet that shines

In the pure sapphire of sky

You, the flower that perfumes the ground

You, the brave and gentle warrior

Your memory is the sacred fire

That lifts the sons of Mexico

And in darkest hour of torment

Your invoked name is heard:

Its influence reanimates them,

Your name kindles their chests

And your clean fame is written

In the sky, in the air, and the sea.

--Translated by Lynda Letona


While their writings express different preoccupations, there is a poetic quality to them that invoke a force greater than ourselves and a sense of duty as a rigorous journey that elevates the human spirit.


Notebook, undated; Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MS 1441; Box 1, folder 4; California Historical Society.

Himno a Zaragoza, May 4, 1879; Hipolita Orendain de Medina correspondence and miscellany, MS 1441; Box 1, folder 3; California Historical Society.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Looking at Hollywoodland and How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco

Here at the California Historical Society, we’ve been busy installing the upcoming exhibition Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco. Drawn from CHS’s extensive photography holdings, the show looks back at the first one hundred years of photography in San Francisco and Los Angeles to consider how the medium shaped both our impressions of these cities and the bricks and mortar of the cities themselves.

The new medium of photography arrived in California just in time to witness the state’s dramatic, and often violent and inequitable, transformation at the hands of Americans. But photographs do not simply bear witness to events unfolding before the camera: they also interpret these events and imbue them with meaning. Sometimes subtle compositional choices can convey complex attitudes and ideas. Consider, for example, this photograph of the original “Hollywoodland” sign, taken by an unknown photographer in Los Angeles circa 1924–29 (fig. 1). At first glance, it seems straightforward—an objective record of what Hollywood looked like before it was fully developed, and before the “land” was dropped from its name. But it has so much more to say.
Photographer unknown, Hollywoodland, c. 1924-29. Gelatin silver print. California Historical Society.
Let’s look closely at the composition. To make this image, the photographer was likely standing on a dirt bluff adjacent to a newly built road. This might seem like an innocuous detail, but it prompts the question: Why didn’t they shoot from a closer vantage? Why show the sign so far in the distance, with the vast valley sprawling out before them? We may never know for sure, but the viewpoint conveys a burgeoning city rife with potential for developers, industrialists, and new residents. In the foreground, the out-of-focus shrubs and undeveloped land suggest that the region is wild and uninhabited, and thus ready to be built up. At the same time, the newly built roads weaving through the frame, and the small number of impressive houses being constructed throughout, convey that the city is not without infrastructure. Come to Hollywoodland, the image seems to say, and be a part of the exciting changes already taking place.

In the 1920s, a syndicate of developers, including Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, planned a subdivision in the hills above Beachwood Canyon near Griffith Park. Anticipating that the Mulholland Highway, then under construction, would eventually connect to the site, the group erected what was meant to be a temporary fifty-foot-high sign across the top of Mount Lee advertising the development. It would become, after the last four letters were removed in 1949, one of the most iconic landmarks in the world. Laborers with steam shovels graded roads connecting the neighborhood’s streets with Mulholland Drive. Photographs much like this one appeared in real estate brochures, suggesting that this picture may have been taken to appeal to developers or to sell homes.

In photography, what is not pictured can often be as revealing as what is. The perception of Los Angeles as an empty canvas required obfuscating any signs of an indigenous history, despite the fact that the region had been occupied by humans for more than ten thousand years. This myth of Los Angeles as an empty canvas is propagated by our Hollywoodland image, which suggests that these newly built houses—and the bright white sign watching over them—are the first-ever human marks on the chaparral-covered land. Similarly, the storybook homes dotting the wooded canyons, designed in the Spanish, French, and English styles, imply that Los Angeles emerged as if from a fairy tale. All of this smooths over the turbulent and often violent events underlying the region’s development, which involved unchecked violence by Anglos against Mexicans, Native Americans, and Chinese.

Belying the grotesque social realities of the day, this image would have come across as nostalgic, evoking the pastoral rusticity of an imagined Spanish past. But look closely and you can see how it, like so many other photographs in Boomtowns, reveals that nothing about the construction of California’s cities was inevitable. They were built and rebuilt by labor, force of will, profit imperatives, and the frame of the camera. We encourage you to visit this exciting exhibition in person, and see what a crucial role the camera played in building our state.

Boomtowns: How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco runs October 12 and March 10, 2018.  

by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator, and Erin Garcia, Managing Curator of Exhibitions

Cultural Heritage and Its Role in Climate Change

Last month, San Francisco hosted the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) and, in doing so, took center stage in the conversation surrounding climate change, the role that we play in it, and how we might move forward to uphold the historic Paris Agreement, despite a federal government that has officially withdrawn the United States from the agreement. The main goal of the summit was to inspire a global commitment on regional and local levels to cut carbon emissions and it came right on the heels of California Governor Jerry Brown committing California to total carbon neutrality by 2045 as well as for 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by that same year.

As leaders, activists, and scientists from all over the world assembled in the Yerba Buena neighborhood of San Francisco to launch the summit, an equally passionate group with a mission to mobilize the cultural heritage and historic preservation sectors for climate action gathered in the California Historical Society galleries for an offshoot event: the Climate Heritage Mobilization. As part of that event, a diverse group of government and tribal leaders, architects, archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, conservators, and other heritage professionals discussed strategies for preserving cultural and historic sites threatened by climate change as well as the role of cultural organizations in carbon mitigation, climate finance, adaptation, and loss and destruction.

The Climate Heritage Mobilization’s day-long conversation culminated in an open event at the Old U.S. Mint where tours were offered throughout the evening. The Old U.S. Mint first opened in 1874 as an official repository for the U.S.’s gold reserves and to serve a burgeoning state and local economy. It is one of the only buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a California Historic Landmark.  The current effort to restore and preserve this historically significant piece of California history is being spearheaded by a partnership between CHS and the City of San Francisco.

Restoring and preserving the Old Mint is important to CHS because we believe that historic preservation is about more than just keeping old buildings around—it saves the physical places that tell stories about what happened in the past. These places connect us to the events and diverse peoples that came before us and help create modern communities that thrive with meaning and purpose. Historic preservation helps to keep these buildings and sites vibrant, in use, and relevant to the communities that they exist within; it’s also good for the environment.
Construction of U.S. Mint, taken from roof of Lincoln School looking S.W., San Francisco, 1873
The greenest building is the one that’s already built. A recent study from National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Research & Policy Lab concluded that building reuse almost always offers environmental savings (between 4 and 46 percent) over demolition and new construction, regardless of the building type and climate. It takes energy and resources to construct a new building – it saves energy and resources to preserve an old one. In addition, old buildings can be retrofitted to make them more energy efficient and sustainable than they might have been in their original form.

We were honored to have had the opportunity to host the Climate Heritage Mobilization summit during a week that encouraged widespread conversation about climate and the culture and heritage industry’s role in protecting the place we all call home. 
by Katie Peeler