Images of El Dorado: The California Pictorial Letter Sheet
Gary F. Kurutz
Director of Special Collections
California State Library
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 foothill 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 light-weight 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.
The development of this California stationery did not happen in isolation. Overnight, California emerged as an artistic and publishing center with a worldwide audience. As Overland Monthly writer Francis E. Sheldon pointed out, artists converged on the gold country in the full maturity of their careers, not to find new subjects for paintings but to strike it rich. But, after a back-breaking season scratching for gold in mosquito-infested gulches, these artists turned back to their god-given talent. Well-trained artists like Charles Christian Nahl, Harrison Eastman, Thomas Armstrong, and George H. Baker saw in California a human drama unlike anything seen before, and its fabulous natural wonders provided the proscenium arch for this influx of humanity.
Into this equation entered a new form of picture-making, the daguerreotype. Robert H. Vance and other daguerrian artists traversed Northern California and pointed their box cameras in the same direction as those who worked with a sketch pad. Their presence would change forever how America viewed earthshaking events like the run for gold.
As it turned out, the artist's skill with a pencil and not a paintbrush drew the most demand. The world wanted to know everything about California, and the woodcut and lithograph made from an artist's sketch or daguerreotype proved to be the cheapest and quickest way to meet that demand. Paintings took too long, were expensive, and could not be reproduced.
Simultaneously, San Francisco in the space of a couple of years became one of the major publishing and printing centers in the country. Newspapers started and died by the dozen, and by 1849 books rolled off the San Francisco presses. Shortly thereafter, illustrated newspapers and books appeared carrying scenes devoted exclusively to California and the West. Bonestell and Williston in 1853, for example, published The Wide West, a Sunday literary paper adorned with dozens of woodcut illustrations. Newspapers in Sacramento and the mining towns also supplemented words with pictures in their holiday editions. Many of these same scenes appeared in book and pamphlet form, including Bonestell and Williston's California Characters, Mining Scenes and Sketches (1855), Anthony & Company's Idle and Industrious Miner (1854), Justh & Quirot's Adventures of the Firm of Brown & Jingo (c. 1851), Barber & Baker's Sacramento Illustrated (1855), and Alonzo Delano's Pen Knife Sketches (1853).
By 1856 California boasted its own pictorial magazine, Hutchings' California Magazine. Within less than a decade, Californians were producing illustrated newspapers, books, and magazines equal to those published in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. And with its pictorial letter sheets, California offered its own unique contribution to American publishing.
Despite the availability and popularity of these pictorial publications, the miners and other California adventurers craved something else, something that could be sent home more easily. Enterprising publishers and book sellers quickly saw more than one use for these California woodcuts. Many of the same images that appeared in the pictorial newspaper did double duty as illustrations for letter sheets. Publishers copied other cuts to lithograph stones for the stationery trade. What could be better than combining a work of art with a letter?
San Francisco dominated the letter sheet business, since this gateway to the gold fields attracted the greatest concentration of artists, lithographers, printers, publishers, stationers, and book sellers. This instant city, importantly, provided the lion's share of customers, for it was here that most miners sat out the rainy season and from here that their letters were mailed home. Firms like Britton & Rey, Justh & Quirot, Noisy Carrier, Cooke & Le Count, and Payot printed or sold pictorial stationery by the tens of thousands. Important examples were also contributed by Sacramento¾especially during the heyday of James Anthony and Barber & Baker¾and by a few of the mining towns.
James M. Hutchings, editor of Hutchings’California Magazine and a friend of California's Cruikshank, Charles Nahl, emerged as the most important letter sheet publisher. Living in Placerville, the native Englishman issued a series under the title of Hutchings’ California Scenes. Hutchings enjoyed the distinction of publishing in 1853 the best known of all letter sheets, The Miners' Ten Commandments. Its "good book" style text was surrounded by ten appropriate cuts. Hutchings apparently liked this moralizing, as indicated by two more letter sheets: The Miner's Creed and Commandments to California Wives.
Subject-wise, publishers of letters sheets selected themes inspired by the California experience and, like the books and newspapers centering on the Gold Rush, conveyed all forms of emotion. The life of the miner was superbly developed. Images of argonauts working long toms, pulling mules loaded with equipment and supplies through a ravine, swirling a wash pan, encountering a grizzly, or flipping flapjacks on Sunday morning convey, as well as the most cogent words, a sense of the arduous work involved in searching for gold. Views of hydraulic mining, miners weighing their gold, and the San Francisco Mint demonstrated how quickly gold mining evolved into a sophisticated industry.
Artists delineated the mushrooming growth of Queen Calafia's cities, towns, and mining camps. Together these form a remarkable visualization of urban development not found elsewhere in the country. San Francisco, not surprisingly, led the way, and bird's-eye views and maps made between 1851 and 1869 record its transformation from a jumble of tents and shacks hugging Yerba Buena Cove to a sophisticated brick and granite urban center. The leading mining towns and supply centers provided excellent subject matter for the letter sheet artists. Portraits of Agua Fria Town, Downieville, Goodyears Bar, Grass Valley, Iowa Hill, La Porte, Onion Valley, Sacramento City, and Sonora gave viewers in the east a good idea of the living conditions experienced by their husbands, sweethearts, children, and siblings.
Attesting to the speed and efficiency of artist and publisher, this stationery served a reportorial function, with some sheets published within a day of the event they represented. In this way, visual news of California was carried to all points. Letter sheets recorded the fires that constantly swept through San Francisco, Sacramento, and Marysville, the explosions and wreckage of ships, and the earthquakes of 1865 and 1868. Images of festivals, parades, churches, temples, schools, hotels, and business blocks demonstrated to the world that civilization and stability could survive in this helter-skelter environment.
No series of events attracted greater attention than the workings of the 1851 and 1856 vigilance committees. The dramatic executions of James Stuart, José Forner, and Casey and Cora, the assassination of James King of William, the scenes of vigilantes on the march, and their headquarters at Fort Gunnybags provided subject matter for over a dozen letter sheets. Few events in American history up to that time received such thorough graphic reportage.
California's diverse population and sublime natural scenery, of course, attracted the letter sheet artist. James M. Hutchings and his competitors issued letter sheets depicting native Californians and their customs, Chinese in the mining camps, the native Californios capturing a grizzly bear, wild life, and the majestic Mammoth Tree Grove.
The humor and pathos of this era did not go unnoticed. Artists expressed the loneliness and misfortune that many endured as reflected in the example drawn by Harrison Eastman, Do They Miss Me at Home. Californians, however, enjoyed poking fun at themselves and their predicament, as demonstrated by such lively and witty cartoonlike examples as Adventures of Mr. Greenhorn, A Bachelor in a Tight Place, Dame Partington In California, and Mr. Gringo's Experiences as a Ranchero. The great expectation of finding easy wealth in California and subsequent disillusionment offered a perfect theme for satirization.
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 five or ten 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 non-pictorial 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.
Henry H. Clifford, in the introduction to his 1993 keepsake on letter sheets, noted that only two books have been written about this unique stationery, Joseph Baird's aforementioned work and Harry T. Peters' California on Stone. It had been Mr. Clifford’s ambition to create a book illustrating all known letter sheet images. Perhaps the unsurpassed collection documented in this auction catalogue will inspire realization of that goal. Such a book would add immeasurably to our appreciation of a publishing phenomenon inspired by the rush for gold.
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