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Everyday Life, 1850s-1890s

People at work, at play, posing for formal portraits, and simply walking down the street were part of a diverse and vibrant population during a time of explosive growth.
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About the Images

The images in this topic depict everyday life in California during a time of explosive growth. Even as the state’s mix of cultures became more interconnected, they still managed to maintain and express their unique identities. People at work, at play, posing for formal portraits, and simply walking down the street are part of a diverse and vibrant population.


The of growth that took place in California during the 19th century brought numerous changes to the state. Many activities during this time had to do with using natural resources to build new communities for the influx of new residents. An African American man identified as “Andy” stands working at a sluice box in Auburn during the Gold Rush. Another miner works the “rocker” in Tuolumne County. The photo identified as “Feeding the Teams” shows the men, horses, and equipment involved in mining during a moment where work stopped for mealtimes. A few years later, in 1878, a group of men commemorates the completion of part of the Cajon Canal, bringing water to Southern California.

The new cities began to thrive as new residents moved in. The Broadway lumber yard is a bustling place, as people shop for lumber to build the new city of Oakland. In the photo of San Francisco’s Kearny Street in the 1860s, pedestrians and trolleys shared the cobblestone street.

Native Americans at this time were in transition between cultures. In Yosemite, a Native American gathering was captured by photographer Eadweard Muybridge. In the 1860s, another photograph shows a family of Washoe Indians near a river.

Among the images from this time are those picturing people enjoying relaxing activities of many sorts. In the 1880s, swimmers posed in the water near Anaheim Landing, near what is now Seal Beach. In Mammoth Grove, people enjoying the outdoors pose with a giant redwood. In Anaheim, 12 men and boys show off game from a rabbit hunting party. In Laguna Beach in the 1880s, some women pose for a picture

The images in this topic portray the new state of California as it was taking shape and its citizens were taking root: At the Slough School in Sutter County, and in Visalia, teachers stand with their students. In 1875, a wedding party poses for a photograph to celebrate a marriage. Cities, too, were laying down social foundations: Anaheim took a photograph of its first city band, and The Deluge Hose Company #2 was San Bernardino's first fire company, equipped with axes, ladders, hooks, buckets, fire bell, and a speaking trumpet. The final image, a glimpse of early criminal justice in Yuba County, shows the public hanging of Ah Ben, a Chinese immigrant, for murder.

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Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.


"Everyday Life in California, 1850s-1890s" was curated and written by the University of California in 2009.

Using this exhibition:

The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

Everyday Life in California, 1850s-1890s curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2009, Regents of the University of California.