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Everyday Life in California History

These images give us a glimpse into everyday life in various regions of California during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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Exploring the Images

These images give us a glimpse into everyday life in various regions of California during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although many of the activities they show are familiar, the way in which people went about them is often quite different.

Hard Work

Many people during this time period did hard physical labor every day. In the central coast and inland fertile valley regions, migrant agricultural work was one of the few sources of income available. Whether working in a Coachella Valley onion field or picking dates, both in Indio, or harvesting beets in Oxnard, farm workers spent long hours in the fields.

Leisure time

At the same time, new technologies cut factory and office hours and created more leisure time for other people.

Some chose to spend time with friends at the theater, like this group of soldiers in front of the now demolished Plaza Theater in downtown San Diego. Others, like this man, played pool at Chilie’s Place in Anaheim. The Santa Monica Pier provided a Ferris wheel and other entertainments to visitors and residents alike. Families vacationing at Tent City, a holiday destination in Coronado, cooled off in the swimming pool.

Clubs and organizations were other popular ways to get to know people and share interests. In 1893, the women of San Jose State Normal School tennis club posed on the lawn with their racquets. In 1899, a group of amateur astronomers gathered in a field outside of Cloverdale to observe a solar eclipse. The Eastern Sierra Ski Club enjoyed a day on the McGee Creek slopes in Mono County in 1938.

City Life

As early as the 1860s and 1870s, as today, Kearney Street in San Francisco was a central artery through the city where people could shop, eat, and conduct business. But daily chores involved more than shopping at a mall or superstore.

In the 1890s, people in Berkeley did their banking and picked up packages at this Wells Fargo office, and bought groceries from this horse-drawn grocery store. In the the gold country, a shoe repair business advertised on the street.

Public gatherings

In the early 20th century, parades gave community members the opportunity to gather, socialize, and remember events and public figures. This Armistice Day (what we now call Veteran’s Day) parade in Oxnard, on the central coast, commemorated the end of World War I with a marching band. Portersville, in the Central Valley, celebrated Armistice Day in 1922 with an automobile race through town. The Chinese procession shown in this 1903 Fourth of July parade in San Diego highlighted the diversity of people who celebrated being American.

Other parades marked visits from prominent national figures, including US presidents. Early in the new state’s history, a visit to San Francisco from Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and later president, showed California’s growing importance to national politics. San Diego enjoyed similar favor from President Benjamin Harrison's visit to the famous Hotel del Coronado in 1891, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1935 visit to Balboa Stadium.

Cultural celebrations

By the turn of the century, immigration was making California an increasingly diverse state. Parades gave many new Californians an opportunity to showcase their cultural traditions.

San Francisco’s Chinatown was the largest Chinese community in the state, but Chinese communities also thrived in the gold country and Shasta Cascade regions. People enjoyed the Chinese parade in Oroville, and the Bok Kai dragon parade in Marysville. The Bok Kai parade, ongoing today, may be the oldest continuously held parade in the United States.

Some other cultural gatherings were held indoors. In 1930, a Japanese doll festival was held at a Mexican Hall in San Bernardino. This Japanese cultural group utilized a meeting space shared by at least one other cultural group in inland southern California.

Old and new Californians celebrated birthdays and anniversaries. In 1933, friends and family members gathered at the Wakanoura Restaurant in Sacramento to honor Asataro Nakano’s sixtieth birthday.

Movies and popular culture of the time portrayed California as an idyllic place to live. Yet, as the images in this set show, everyday life was often very similar to that in other parts of the United States — people worked hard, ran errands, spent leisure time together, and celebrated national and cultural events. Despite many changes in the physical and cultural landscape, we continue to perform these activities in our daily lives.

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"Everyday Life in California History" was curated and written by Julia Brashares and Kara O'Keefe Fos, in collaboration with staff at the University of California, in 2011.

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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 History curated by Julia Brashares, Kara O'Keefe Fos, and University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2011, Regents of the University of California.