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Auction 15: Fine Collection of Californiana Formed by Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.
Pictorial Letter Sheets
Rare Maps and Views
Excerpt from Clifford Sale
(Letter Sheets): “Images of El Dorado: The California Pictorial Letter
Sheet,” by Gary F. Kurutz, Director of Special Collections, California
The California pictorial letter sheet provides the best visual chronicle of the California Gold Rush and the golden decades of the 1850s and 1860s. Imprinted on sheets of writing paper were views of rough-and-ready mining camps, Argonauts panning for gold in the boiling Sierra foothills sun, pioneers pushing their way across the continent, terrifying city fires, vigilance committees marching down San Francisco streets, and California’s spectacular natural wonders. Because of this union of pictures with stationery, historians call the letter sheet the forerunner of the modern picture postcard.
This pioneer stationery usually consisted of conventional lightweight blue, gray, or white writing paper embellished with a woodcut or lithograph on the front. Double sheets measured about 10-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches when folded in half, with plenty of room left for writing. When folded again, the pictorial stationery could be mailed. Single sheets were also issued, and the letter sheet’s thin paper ensured that it could be sent for a minimum postal charge of 40 cents. Some letter sheets included multiple views and border decorations, and others came with ruled writer’s lines to ensure a neat appearance. Reflecting the speed with which they were printed, a number of these show errors and variations in spelling, abbreviation, and punctuation.
Joseph Baird, in his monumental California’s Pictorial Letter Sheets 1849-1869, wrote: “Manifestly, the pictorial letter sheet of California was an extraordinary phenomenon–unparalleled in development anywhere else in the United States.” This phenomenon, which grew out of the Gold Rush, satisfied an urgent need to communicate. Miners, and those who made a living selling to the miners, wanted to convey to loved ones back home an idea of their experiences in this new El Dorado. Many had kept journals detailing their trek to the golden land, but once they arrived, journal keeping became too much of a chore. An occasional letter was much easier, and a letter carrying a California scene provided an added bonus.
Gold Rush historian J. S. Holliday noted that some letter writers faced difficult composing conditions out in the wilds of the Mother Lode. Tabletops, desks, and even smooth writing surfaces were a rarity, and after a hard day’s work swinging a pick or hoisting buckets of gravel, writing a letter with sore, worn-out hands by candlelight was a challenge. Those living in the cities and supply centers faced the distractions of gambling halls, saloons, crowded hotels, and making ends meet. Thousands of letters poured into San Francisco from around the world, and anxious friends and relatives expected a reply. The letter sheet, at least, eased the way....
Letter sheets enjoyed immense popularity during the early 1850s. They not only were works of art but also were priced cheaply enough to have general appeal. Most cost a modest 5 or 10 cents, a bargain compared to the inflated cost of basic necessities during that frenzied era. As Baird notes, however, it is impossible to know how many letter sheets these pioneer publishers produced. A Sacramento newspaper in 1858 announced that it had “10,000 Assorted California Letter Sheets for Sale.” Hutchings boasted that he sold 97,000 copies of his Miner’s Ten Commandments, a veritable best seller considering that the population of California did not exceed 200,000. Likewise, the number of individual themes cannot be absolutely determined. Baird’s catalogue lists 340 examples.
Interestingly, though, despite their cheapness and quantity, very few of these pictorials were used for their intended purpose: letter writing. Most that survive today in institutional and notable private collections are blank and show little evidence of having been folded and sent through the mails. Those with writing are frequently found with nonpictorial collections of letters. Perhaps, like the picture postcard, buyers cherished them as keepsakes or mementos of their California days and did not want to spoil them with writing.
Publication of letter sheets continued well into the 1860s, but by the time the transcontinental railroad linked California with the East Coast in 1869, their use was in decline. As Society of California Pioneers historian Elliot Evans noted: “Exciting new subjects became less frequent and severe competition came from the ever increasing number of illustrated newspapers, books and periodicals.” Pictorial stationery printed by resorts, hotels, and businesses continued the tradition of the letter sheet, but they lacked the vivacity and spontaneity of those issued during the golden age.
California pictorial letter sheets, as stated earlier, served to graphically tell the story of the Golden State during its most crucial decade. Recognizing their importance, historians and picture researchers have used them to illustrate countless books, articles, exhibits, and films. Because of their direct linkage to the California Gold Rush and their charm, rarity, and visual quality, institutions and collectors alike have long prized them. Along with the clipper card, the letter sheet remains the most sought-after form of California and Western ephemera.
28. [CALIFORNIA PICTORIAL LETTER SHEETS]. Album containing 18 California pictorial letter sheets, mostly by Britton & Rey. Folio, contemporary three-quarter purple roan over red cloth. Slightly rubbed. With manuscript ink signature of George Garwood, January, 1855, on front flyleaf. Letter sheets are pasted to album pages and lack the blank conjugate leaves. The letter sheets are in very good to very fine condition, free from the customary horrors encountered when antiquarian materials have been pasted in albums.
Dr. Hart (Companion to California, p. 52) discusses the firm of Britton & Rey: “The firm of [Britton & Rey] in San Francisco (1852-92), the oldest west of the Rocky Mts., also engaged in printing, engraving, and decoration on tin. The senior partner, Joseph Britton (1820-1901), was a Yorkshireman who went to California in 1849. His brother-in-law, Jacques Joseph Rey (1820-92), an Alsatian, joined him in other businesses, including some financing of the dirigible of Frederick Marriott. Britton was also active as a Supervisor in San Francisco on the People’s Party ticket and as a financier of Hallidie’s first cable car line.” See also Peters’s long article (California on Stone, pp. 62-89 & plate 1), in which he refers to Britton & Rey as “the Currier & Ives of the West.”
The selection of pictorial letter sheets in the present album is desirable not only for the fine work of Britton & Rey but also thematically, with a well-rounded group of prints, including an early street map of San Francisco, two rare double-sheet bird’s-eye views of San Francisco, mining towns (including some first or early views of those towns), mining operations, gambling, Chinese miners, life in the mines, and Gold Rush humor.
(1) Map of San Francisco, | Compiled from latest Surveys & containing all late extensions & Division of Wards. | Published by | Britton & Rey, | San Francisco Cal. Lithograph. 21.6 x 26.4 cm; 8-1/2 x 10-3/8 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 22.8 x 28.7 cm; 9 x 10-13/16 inches. Very fine. Baird 149. Peters, California on Stone, p. 83. This letter sheet, which probably dates from the early 1850s, is among the earliest printed street maps of downtown San Francisco, showing the area from the waterfront to Webster Street and from North Point to addition of Mission. The map includes a vignette of Parrott Block showing Page Bacon & Co. and Adams Co., and three keys for locating public buildings, churches, and theaters.
(2) BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF SAN FRANCISCO | Drawn from Meream’s Model & Nature July 1852. | Lith & Published [by] Britton & Rey. San Franco....San Francisco, 1852. Lithograph. 25 x 44.3 cm; 9-9/16 x 17-1/2 inches on two joined sheets of blue-grey wove paper measuring 28.4 x 45.1 cm; 11-3/8 x 17-3/4 inches. Very fine copy of a rare view. Baird 12. Peters, California on Stone, p. 102. Cf. Reps, Views and Viewmakers of Urban America 266 (variant). This is one of the very best letter sheets, being a large, handsome, and early bird’s-eye view of San Francisco. The earliest bird’s-eye view of San Francisco Reps lists is 1849. Drawn by J. Britton, the view is to the west (over unfinished Market Street) embracing all the town, from the wharves and a ship-filled harbor in the foreground to the Golden Gate at the right in the background.
(3) San Francisco Upper California | Lith. Britton & Rey [type broken]. Lithograph. 13 x 40.5 cm; 5-1/4 x 16 inches on two joined sheets of blue-grey wove paper measuring 23.7 x 41.6 cm; 9-3/8 x 16-3/8 inches. Very fine copy of a rare view. Variant of Baird 252 (omitting from title “In November 1851” and changing publisher to Britton & Rey). Not in Reps. Baird notes that this was a popular viewpoint and several variants were issued by various publishers. Peters, California on Stone, p. 180. View of San Francisco from Nob Hill east to the Bay, with Telegraph Hill at left and Methodist Church at center foreground.
(4) SAN FRANCISCO | Pub. by Cooke & Le Count | Lith. of Pollard & Britton | Entered...1852 by Cook [sic] & Le Count.... Lithograph. 16.6 x 26 cm; 6-9/16 x 10-1/4 inches on a single sheet of white wove paper measuring 22.5 x 32.1 cm; 8-3/4 x 12-5/8 inches. Moderate to heavy foxing. Baird 233. Peters, California on Stone, p. 180. A large central view to the harbor from Nob Hill is surrounded by nine vignettes (mission, presidio, Long Wharf, Yerba Buena, etc.). The whole has rococo borders, with the date 1852 at center top.
(5) CITY HALL, SAN-FRANCISCO CAL. | Lith. & Publ. by Quirot & Co. corner California & Montgomery Sts. S-Francisco. Lithograph. 14.5 x 20.3 cm; 5-5/8 x 7-7/8 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.8 x 27 cm; 8-5/8 x 10-5/8 inches. Very fine. Baird 30. Peters, California on Stone, p. 137: “Also issued by Quirot & Co. as ‘Jenny Lind Theatre.’” Cf. Baird 122 (same illustration). The view is over one corner of a fenced Portsmouth Square, of the four-story El Dorado, and one-story Union, which flank City Hall (formerly the Jenny Lind Theatre). The urban scene depicts carriages, horsemen, pedestrians, and others, and the U.S. flag is waving from City Hall. The most notorious gambling hall in San Francisco was conveniently located next door to City Hall. Tom Maguire built three Jenny Lind Theatres. The first two were destroyed by fire, and the third, plagued by debts, was sold to the city for use as the town hall.
(6) VIEW OF THE PLAZA OF SAN-FRANCISCO, | on the 4th. of July 1851. | Publ. & Lith. by Britton & Rey. Califa. corner Montgy. St. S. F. Lithograph. 18.8 x 26.6 cm; 7-3/8 x 10-1/2 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.6 x 27.2 cm; 8-1/2 x 10-3/4 inches. Very fine. Variant of Baird 313b (with F. C. Butler’s sign replaced with Post Office). Cf. Peters, California on Stone, p. 137. In this splendid, teeming scene with many U.S. flags waving, San Franciscans are patriotically painting the town red during their very first Independence Day after attaining statehood. The Plaza is overcrowded with people watching a parade with quaint horse-drawn boat and barrel floats, etc. Several firefighting companies are shown with their engines. Despite the fires of May and June, there are buildings facing the Plaza with signs (Post Office, Atwill Co., Music Piano-Forte, Stationary [sic], Cheap Publications Magazines Newspaper, Burgess, Gilbert & Still; Monumental F. Co., and Justices Court).
(7) MISSION DOLORES. | Lith. & Publ. by Britton & Rey, corner Commercial & Montgomery Sts. S. Francisco. Lithograph. 17.7 x 25.6 cm; 7 x 10-1/8 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.4 x 27.1 cm; 8-3/8 x 10-3/4 inches. Very fine. Baird 173. Cf. Peters, California on Stone, p. 42 (publisher omitted) and p. 138 (Quirot & Co.). This is the only letter sheet devoted to a California mission. The mission church is at the right rear and two U.S. flags fly nearby. Many outbuildings are shown, fenced or partially fenced, with horses, riders, oxen, carts, and people scattered in the foreground and middle distance, with treeless hills beyond.
Tuolumne County. | Published by G. S. Wells, Sonora May 1853.
| Entered...1853 by G. S. Wells.... | G. H. Goddard del. | Lith. Britton
& Rey, San Francisco. Lithograph. 18 x 25.2 cm; 7-1/8 x 9-7/8
inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.5 x 27.5
cm; 8-1/2 x 10-1/4 inches. A few small spots, otherwise very fine. Baird
257. Peters, California on Stone, p. 78. Reps, Views and Viewmakers
of Urban America 423 (only bird’s-eye view listed by Reps for Springfield).
Issued with the Sonora view (see next item), but here separated. The
view shows the town square with a flagpole in the center and surrounding
buildings. Goats graze on a low knoll in the foreground. “The town is
well laid out, with a large Plaza in the centre.... Springfield has
always been noted for the quiet, good order and sobriety that distinguish
its inhabitants.... It is one of the few, and has been said the first
place in the mines that erected a church before it did a gambling house.
The latter can hardly be said ever to have existed there” (Heckendorn
& Wilson, Miner’s & Business Men’s Directory [see item
64 herein], 1856, p. ).
We owe the existence of some of the most important and handsome letter sheet town views to the maker of this view and the next, artist George Henry Goddard (1817-1906). Reps, Views and Viewmakers of Urban America, pp. 180-181: “Goddard came to California in the fall of 1850.... Born in England and educated at Oxford, he worked in London as an architect and civil engineer and exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy in 1837 and 1850. He was also a town planner.... In the goldfields Goddard had no luck as a miner and at first could not find work as a surveyor. Early in January 1852 he wrote his brother from the mining town of Columbia that he and an Irish doctor had formed a partnership in a ‘General and Drug Store.’ Goddard sketched his new home of Columbia as a thriving mining camp, as well as the nearby towns of Sonora and Springfield, which also owed their existence to rich gold strikes.... Goddard found viewmaking an unprofitable enterprise. He complained to his brother, ‘My views have done me little good. You are aware that in publishing them the stone remained security to the lithographers for the bill of expenses and as they are sold very slowly, the latter seize[d] the stone and published a great lot of copies in letter sheets and selling them at a cheap price have made a good deal of money by it.’” Goddard was one of the first artists or publishers to register his prints for California copyright. See Greenwood, where several of his copyright registrations are noted (p. 482, nos. 8 & 10, p. 484, no. 30). See also Albert Shumate, The Life of George Henry Goddard (Berkeley, 1969). Wheat has a long discussion of Goddard’s rare and important 1857 map of California (Mapping the Transmississippi West 921 & IV, pp. 59-63; Maps of the California Gold Region 302).
from the North. | Published by G. S. Wells, Sonora May 1853.
| Entered...1853 by G. S. Wells.... | C. H. Goddard del. | Lith. Britton
& Rey, San Francisco. Lithograph. 18 x 25.2 cm; 7-1/8 x 9-7/8
inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.2 x 27.5
cm; 8-3/8 x 10-1/4 inches. A few small spots, otherwise very fine. Baird
257. Peters, California on Stone, p. 78. Issued with the Springfield
view (see previous item), but here separated. Reps locates the Springfield
view, but not this Sonora view. Drawn by G. H. Goddard, whose name appears
here as C. H. Goddard (see preceding entry). This view of Sonora’s main
street with a church at the far end is serene, probably the opposite
of the reality at the time.
Sonora, headquarters for the Southern Mines, was established by Mexicans from Sonora in 1848. Watson, California of the Fifties (text opposite plate 32): “By July  5,000 people had swarmed into Sonora camp, Mexicans, Chileans, Americans, and men from every nation under the sun. The narrow main street thronged with excited gold seekers. One had to fight a way through the babel. Here were diggings richer than dreamed of. Authorities say that within a four-mile circle, over $400,000,000 has been the amount of gold produced to date.” Delighted Canadian miner William Perkins described exotic and enchanting Sonora: “The habitations were constructed of...upright unhewn sticks with green branches and leaves and vines interwoven, and decorated with gaudy hangings of silks, fancy cottons, flags, brilliant goods of every description; the many-tinted Mexican zarape, the rich manga, with its gold embroidery, Chinese scarfs and shawls of the most costly quality.... The scene irresistibly reminded one of the...brilliant bazaars of oriental countries” (from Three Years in California..., Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964). Due to enforcement of the foreign miner’s tax and other pressures, many foreigners left Sonora in 1854.
| Lith. & Published by Britton & Rey, corner Montgomery &
California Sts. Lithograph. 18.8 x 25.6 cm; 7-3/8 x 10-1/8
inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.3 x 27.2
cm; 8-3/8 x 10-5/8 inches. Very fine. Variant of Baird 202, which has
the imprint of Quirot & Co. Cf. Peters, California on Stone,
p. 138. Reps lists a letter sheet view of Placerville (Baird 203), but
not the present one.
The view illustrates a small village nestled in a ravine with sparse tall trees on low hills in the background. On the main street, two U.S. flags are flying, and the only buildings identified are Empire and Arcade. Oxen-drawn carts and horsemen are in the foreground. Although undated, this early view of Placerville is probably from 1851 or 1852. Gudde, p. 250: “The site was first settled in 1848 by William Daylor of Sutter’s Fort and became known as Dry Diggings. In 1850 the camp was named Placerville because the streets of the camp were almost impassable on account of the numerous placering holes. The town never bore the name Hangtown, as is often asserted by contemporary as well as modern writers. It was simply a nickname given to the place because of an incident which occurred on January 22, 1849, a Sunday, when two Frenchmen and one Chileno were hanged, as witnessed by E. Gould Buffum.” Hart, A Companion to California, p. 332: “An important stopping point on a major overland trail, [Placerville] enjoyed a population boom, becoming a supply center, a station on the Central Pacific Railroad, and the western end of the Pony Express.”
CITY. | Lith. & Published by Britton & Rey corner of California
& Montgomery Sts S-Francisco. Lithograph. 19.2 x 25.7 cm; 7-1/2
x 10-1/8 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring
21.4 x 26.5 cm; 8-3/8 x 10-1/2 inches. Very fine. Baird 151. A wide
main street stretches back at the center, and buildings are on each
side (the only legible sign is Southern Miners at left). Rolling hills
with scattered trees are in the background. Reps does not list any views
of the town of Mariposa, at the southern end of the Mother Lode country.
Though undated, this view was probably first published between 1851
and 1852 (Peters, California on Stone, pp. 132-138).
Mariposa, county seat of Mariposa County, has the state’s oldest courthouse (1854), which is not yet shown in this view. In 1847, Frémont acquired the claim for Mariposa Rancho at the foothills below Yosemite, and the town sprang to life when gold was discovered on Mariposa Creek in 1849. In 1850 and 1851, the Mariposa Battalion, a deputized body of the state militia, conducted punitive expeditions against Native Americans, who not understanding the concept of land ownership, attacked miners invading their lands. In their reconnoitering, the battalion, under the leadership of James D. Savage (the “Blond King of Tulare”), named and explored Yosemite Valley.
(12) The Miners | Lith. & Published by Britton & Rey corner of California & Montgomery Sts. San-Francisco. [lower right]: No. 3. Lithograph with elaborate floral border. Central vignette 10.4 x 16.7 cm; 4-1/8 x 6-1/2 inches; image area 16.3 x 22 cm; 6-3/8 x 8-5/8 inches; on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.5 x 27 cm; 8 x 10-5/8 inches. Small hole in upper blank margin, otherwise very fine. Baird 157. Peters, California on Stone, p. 70. The number 3 at lower right indicates the lithograph was part of Britton & Rey’s numbered series of letter sheets. The view, which was lithographed from a contemporary photograph, shows miners working windlasses with buckets into vertical openings in the ground. Other miners are standing about, one carrying a water bucket. Rocky terrain and low hills are in the background.
(13) The Miners. | Lith. & Published by Britton & Rey cornr. Comml. & Montgy. Sts. [lower right]: No. 4. Lithograph with elaborate decorative border incorporating four small views. Central vignette 10 x 16 cm; 3-3/8 x 6-1/2 inches; image area 20.2 x 24.5 cm; 8 x 9-5/8 inches; on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.4 x 27.2 cm; 8-3/8 x 10-3/4 inches. Very fine. Baird 158. The larger view at center shows miners pumping water into a flume and panning gold at the river’s edge. Four marginal views: Sutter’s Fort; Mokelumne Hill; two miners in front of a tent by a fire; one miner standing, another resting under a tree. The central illustration of this lithograph image was taken directly from a photograph.. See Baird (p. 18) and Peters (California on Stone), p. 70.
It is also part of Britton & Rey’s numbered series.
(14) Celestial Empire in California.| Miners | Gamblers | Lith. & Published by Britton & Rey. Cornr. Monty. & Cala. Sts. San Francisco. Lithograph. Two images, each measuring 12 x 19 cm; 4-3/4 x 7-1/2 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 27.2 x 21 cm; 10-3/4 x 8-1/4 inches. Very fine. Baird 26. Peters, California on Stone, p. 69 & plate 22. The top illustration shows Chinese at their camp, with tents beside a river, eating with chopsticks or getting haircuts and their queues plaited, while in the background work progresses. This image appears to be a mirror image of the lithograph Chinese Camp in the Mines, in J. D. Borthwick, Three Years in California (London, 1857). The lower interior scene illustrates many Chinese gambling around a table with other tables in the background.
(15) GAMBLING IN THE MINES | Monte [upper] | Faro [lower] | Lith. & Published by Britton & Rey. | San Francisco California. Lithograph. Two images, each measuring 12 x 19 cm; 4-3/4 x 7-5/8 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 27.2 x 21.3 cm; 10-5/8 x 8-3/8 inches. Very fine. Baird 86 (the unnumbered issue). Peters, California on Stone, p. 70 & plate 27. In the top image miners are seated or lounging on a table playing monte as a crowd mills about in the background. Lower image is of two top-hatted men at a table play faro with some miners, again with a large crowd behind. These two images are similar to two lithographs in Borthwick, Three Years in California (London, 1857). These wonderful images allow the modern viewer to understand, as no printed words could, life and recreation in the mining camps. Not shown in the image is that both these games were notoriously rigged in favor of the gambling establishments.
(16) Miners at Work with Long Toms. Lithograph. 25.5 x 18.7 cm; 10 x 7-3/8 inches on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 26.7 x 21.3 cm; 10-1/2 x 8-3/8 inches. Baird 159 (suggesting Britton & Rey and date of 1852). Cf. Peters, California on Stone, p. 138 (Quirot ed.). According to a statement Baird quotes from the Justh & Quirot edition, the image was copied from a daguerreotype. At top (the largest of three illustrations) miners shovel earth and gravel into long toms, with houses and trees in background; beneath upper scene at left is a miner with a pick, shovel, and pan; beneath this miner, also at left, is a scene with a contemplative, seated Native American; the whole enclosed in a beautiful and unusual tree, leaf, and arrow border. This is one of the more attractive letter sheets.
(17) Bar Room in The Mines [upper]| Long Tom. | Lith & Published by Britton & Rey S. Fo. Lithograph. Two images, the upper measuring 12.2 x 19.1 cm; 4-13/16 x 7-1/2 inches; the lower measuring 12 x 19.1 cm; 4-3/4 x 7-1/2 inches; on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 27 x 21.3 cm; 10-5/8 x 8-3/8 inches. Very fine. Baird 7. Peters, California on Stone, p. 66; America on Stone (facsimile following p. 36). The upper image is set in a wood cabin with primitive furnishings, bottles and barrels on shelves, a blanket and pan on the floor. Two men play cards at a table as a third looks on; a bartender serves two others. The lower view shows mining works in a wooded hilly region and four men with picks and shovels, one drinking from his pan, with a Long Tom nearby and a cabin in distance. The artwork appears to be by J. D. Borthwick, a Scottish artist who joined the Gold Rush but abandoned mining when he found that he could make more money sketching miners and mining life.
(18) The Mining Business in Four Pictures | Lith. & Published by Britton & Rey, corner of Montgomery & Commercial Sts. S. F. Lithograph. Four vignettes, each measuring 9.5 x 12.4 cm; 3-5/8 x 4-7/8 inches, on a single sheet of blue-grey wove paper measuring 21.5 x 27.1 cm; 8-1/2 x 10-3/8 inches. Very fine. Baird 171. Peters, California on Stone, p. 76 & plate 34. Left to right, down: Going in to It (two miners resting with their packs, stream in background); Making Something (one miner with pan of gold, other jumping joyously); Making Nothing (two discouraged miners looking into large hole they have dug); Going out of It (two miners trudging toward village in distance). Gold Rush pathos and humor.