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Everyday Life and People

A shorter workday and eventually a national weekend meant that ordinary working Americans—not just the wealthy—had leisure time.
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About the Images

The images in this topic offer a glimpse of the ways people in cities and towns across California relaxed and entertained themselves during the first half of the 20th century. As new technologies and improved communications brought changes to the work week, people had more free time and new choices about how to spend it.


With each succeeding decade of the 20th century, new technologies brought fundamental changes to the workplace, and the structure of people’s daily lives. A shorter workday, Henry Ford’s concept of Saturday as a day off, and eventually a national weekend meant that ordinary working Americans — not just the wealthy — had leisure time. And innovations like electricity and the gasoline engine gave them new ways to enjoy it.

At the turn of the century, remnants of 19th-century technology were still used daily. In 1910, Buffalo Bill Cody's troupe of Rough Riders paraded by the Oakland Tribune building in wagons and on foot, appealing to popular romantic images of the Wild West. One photo shows the Castro family wedding party traveling over Anaheim’s unpaved roads in a horse-drawn wagon — in 1922.

Gas- and electric-powered machines sped up labor during the first half of the new century, and also powered the new forms of transportation that would soon replace horses. As the work week got shorter, "motoring" for the fun of it became a leisure-time activity. Here, a Dublin family poses with their car, perhaps ready for a drive in the country, hats on to protect from sun and wind.

People still flocked to fairs and circuses, like the one shown in San Diego in 1925, as well as to large commercial expositions like the California Valencia Orange Show. Advertised in fantastic publicity shots, the show featured elaborate displays made out of thousands of oranges (in 1927, $15,000 worth of oranges was on display), parades, and other entertainment, including the Spanish dancers shown here.

Even some prisoners got a break once a year. This photograph from the 17th annual “Little Olympics” field meet held at San Quentin in 1930 shows a participant in a pie-eating contest. For one day, prison rules were suspended and prisoners participated in athletic events, sack races, and entertainments.

As the work week shrunk to five days, Saturday and Sunday sporting activities grew in popularity — not just for players, but for spectators. Baseball, college football, and golf were particularly popular. Both men and women played in local and organizational baseball teams, including the Japanese American “Cubs” team and the 1931 champion Santiago Orange Growers Association women’s baseball team from Orange, California. People also watched boxing matches, horse races, and rodeos. Some even flew planes for the fun of it. San Diego aviator Ruth Alexander, shown here, held several official and unofficial altitude records.

Just a few short years after the closing of the frontier, "getting back to nature" became a fad. Motoring, for many, meant trips to National Parks and Lodging was hard to find in these remote areas, so camping — and using cars to haul equipment — became popular. A 1901 photograph shows a woman standing on top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, dressed modestly in a long skirt and big hat — the same clothes she might wear for a walk in town. In the 1923 photo of hikers on Mt. Tam shows, the men and women were wearing similar trousers and hats.

Another way to experience the great outdoors was from the relative comfort of the Mt. Tamalpais Railroad “gravity car.” The steam train shown here ferried passengers from the top of Mt. Tam down to the town of Mill Valley from 1896 to 1930.

Boating and swimming, days at the beach, fishing, and picnicking were also popular ways to spend the day. A 1922 photograph of a family picnic in an oil field near Coalinga shows the oil derricks as just part of the scenery on a sunny afternoon.

In the late 1930s, the two-day weekend officially began nationwide. Many city streets were now lit with electricity, and people drove or took electric trolleys to enjoy late nights on the town. Southern California’s movie industry brought images of glamour to movie palaces in cities and towns across the state. In the photo shown here, a crowd mills outside a showing of Mutiny on the Bounty.

Average people now wanted to enjoy the glamour they saw in the movies, reflected by the "posed" look of several images in this topic. The formal, organized dances of the earlier century gave way to more personal expressions, like the jitterbug competition shown here. Dating couples out for a night on the town often went to nightclubs. The man and woman pictured dancing at San Francisco's Forbidden City, which featured Chinese American entertainers, were two of the club's singing stars. By the end of the 1940s, the concept of enjoying the weekend was just another part of American life.

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"Everyday Life and People in the Early 20th Century" was curated and written by the University of California in 2009.

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Everyday Life and People in the Early 20th Century curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2009, Regents of the University of California.