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Everyday Life and People

Just as they do today, people in the late 19th century worked to earn a living, and enjoyed having fun in their free time.
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About the Images

The images in this topic show how Californians in the late 19th century worked and played. Many of these photographs reflect the manual labor (mining, logging, agriculture) and services (like barber shops and grocery stores) that supported the rapid growth of cities and towns. As they do today, people spent their free time doing quiet activities like painting, enjoying themselves outdoors, riding bicycles and camping.


Just as they do today, people in the late 19th century worked to earn a living, and enjoyed having fun in their free time. People who could afford luxurious transportation traveled across the country on the transcontinental railroad, like the people enjoying a meal in the train's dining car.. People of wealth or privilege, such as author Robert Louis Stevenson and his friends, enjoyed yacht bay cruises.

As the railroad linked the east and west coasts, more and more people poured into California. The "wild West" disappeared; people of European descent increasingly came into contact with Native Americans and forced them off their lands,killed them, or pressured them to assimilate; and cities and towns grew quickly. Loggers, like these near Fresno, cut down trees to provide lumber for houses, buildings, and ships. The Gold Rush was over by the late 1860s, but there was still work to be found in mining, as these images of placer miners in Tuolumne County illustrate. Mercury miners at the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine in Santa Clara (the largest in the United States) are seen riding a crude elevator up from the underground mines.

Many others found work, as they do today, in serving people's daily needs. In a photo from 1885, two young barbers offer shaves for a dime in Anaheim. The opening of the People's Meat Market in Yuba City, in 1875, occasioned the image shown here. In a photograph taken around the same time, dressed carcasses hanging in front of T. F. Allen's butcher shop in San Bernardino leave no doubt about what's for sale inside. A blacksmith in Covina is shown forging iron shoes for the horses that were still the primary mode of transportation for most people.

Small and large farms, like those depicted here, were also a source of income for many people. The introduction of mechanized machinery, like that shown in Pleasant Grove in 1890, made the work go faster. In the background, you can see the workhorse in use at the same time.

Some farms, like the Bullard Winery in Anaheim, were more specialized. This photograph shows three people bottling wine. Produce from the farms went to markets in towns and cities, but it was also sold by independent sellers. In one image a Chinese immigrant around 1885-90, deprived of the right to earn a living by the Chinese Exclusion Act, is peddling produce from large baskets he carries on his shoulders.

Entertainments ranged from novel spectator sports – like the San Diegans watching a hot air balloon in 1888 – to the athletic. A new national craze swept America: riding bicycles. The two young racers pictured here eventually became Pacific Coast riding champions. Some, like the Schmidt family shown having a painting lesson in their parlor, engaged in quieter activities. School children participated in organized fun, such as this Maypole dance in San Mateo, and the hoop drill at a school in Pasadena.

With the closing of the frontier apparent, the preservation of the West became an issue. People began to spend their leisure time not in town, but in the wilderness–now beginning to be organized into parklands–as campers. As campers do today, they fished and hiked and climbed mountains – although, as is evident in some of these images, they wore somewhat more formal attire. As forests continued to be cleared for other purposes, the remaining big trees, and the stumps that were left, became tourist attractions in their own right.

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"Everyday Life and People in Late-19th Century California" was curated and written by the University of California in 2009.

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Everyday Life and People in Late-19th Century California curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2009, Regents of the University of California.