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California Pictorial Letter Sheets

Excerpt from Clifford Sale (Letter Sheets): “Images of El Dorado: The California Pictorial Letter Sheet,” by 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 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.

160. [CALIFORNIA PICTORIAL LETTER SHEET]. TREMENDOUS EXCITEMENT! Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie rescued from the authorities, and hung [sic] by the Vigilance Committee, on Sunday August 24th. at 3 o’clock P. M. in the presence of Fifteen thousand People. | Lith. & Publ. by Justh, Quirot & Co. Calif. corner Montg. Sts. S.F. [Baird 274]

Crowd in foreground; bodies hanging from rafters of buildings, background. Signs for: Bullitt, Patrick & Dow, Torrey & Blanchard, H. A. Cheever & Co., Vigilance Committee Chambers, G. O. Whitney [below] Fourniture [sic]., Storage. (Issued before September 1, 1851.)

Lithograph. 16 x 25.2 cm (neat line to neat line), on a single sheet measuring 22.5 x 27.6, green wove. Very good. Creased where formerly folded, a few minor losses at folds. Peters, California on Stone, pp. 134-36. Cf. Baird 274. Another issue of Baird 274. Baird does not locate this issue with “Fourniture” instead of “Furniture”; apparently this version issued first (type in title not broken; in later issues Fourniture altered–F eradicated and O altered to resemble F. Baird also renders the title in part as “hanged” instead of “hung.” The last official act of the first Vigilance Committee, the execution of two Sydney Ducks. ($300-600)

Sold. Hammer: $300.00; Price Realized: $352.50

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