Take me back in time
April 20, 2009 6:39 PM   Subscribe

After seeing these photos from the1906 quake in San Francisco, I've been interested in learning more about what life was like in California during the periods from the gold rush to the turn of the 20th century. Can anyone recommend media for me?

I love imagining life before interstate freeways and gigantic glass and steel skyscrapers, particularly out in California which really seemed to be the wild west back in the middle of the 19th century.

I've never read any Steinbeck, and I'm thinking of starting there. Steinbeck's novels are probably a bit more contemporary than what I'm really interested in, though. I want to learn about how things were built, how gold was found, when we started pumping oil, and how humans lived during all of this. Both fiction and non-fiction would be fine!

I loved the setting of "There Will Be Blood", and I'd love to watch more movies and read more books about that timeframe and subject matter. The gold rush, oil rush, railroad-building, etc. What are some great books and movies set in the time period and location?
posted by tybstar to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This might not be exactly what you're looking for, but Laurie R. King's very entertaining and well-written Locked Rooms gave me vivid images of life for the residents of San Francisco during and directly after the quake.

A little background on this book (and others in the series it's a part of): Mary Russell, the main character, and her much older husband, Sherlock Holmes (yes, THE one) trade ripostes, solve crimes and have adventures together. I've read most of these Mary Russell books and they're a lot of fun.
posted by lucyleaf at 6:51 PM on April 20, 2009

Best answer: Up and Down California in 1860-1864; The Journal of William H. Brewer

Summary (Library of Congress)

William Henry Brewer (1828-1910) was a professor of chemistry at Washington College in Pennsylvania when he joined the staff of California’s first State Geologist, Josiah Dwight Whitney, 1860-1864. On returning east, Brewer became Professor of Agriculture at Yale, a post he held for nearly forty years. Up and down California collects Brewer’s letters and journal entries recording his work with Whitney’s geological survey of California, chronicling not merely the survey’s scientific work but the social, agricultural, and economic life of the state from south to north as the survey’s men passed along.

Also excellent; Gold Dust by Donald Dale Jackson.
posted by X4ster at 6:56 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Joan Didion's "Where I Was From" is a great collection on life in California before it became what we think of "California" meaning now. Can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by amelioration at 7:06 PM on April 20, 2009

McTeague by Frank Norris is a great San Francisco story, circa turn of the last century. You might also be interested in Norris' The Octopus - personally I've never been able to plod through it, but YMMV.
posted by chez shoes at 7:13 PM on April 20, 2009

If you enjoyed those pictures, you may enjoy The Cliff House Project, a website devoted to the history of a San Fransisco landmark. The Cliff House was a resort/inn/destination that was built in 1896 and burned down in 1907. The website is very thorough and interesting. The photo section is particularly great.

It was one of my favorite Metafilter posts ever, in fact.
posted by bristolcat at 7:25 PM on April 20, 2009

Best answer: H. W. Brands' The Age of Gold is a well-regarded account of the California Gold Rush era from a well-respected academic and writer of popular history. I haven't read it myself, though, so I can't offer a first-hand review.

And if you liked "There Will Be Blood", why not also try the source material?
posted by hiteleven at 7:25 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

seconding the Age of Gold. if its half as good as "Lone Star Nation" its def worth a read
posted by knockoutking at 7:33 PM on April 20, 2009

Herbert Asbury, author of Gangs of New York, also wrote The Barbary Coast. It is reasonably well documented but was first published in like 1933. I don't know if that's enough time for perspective for you.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 8:24 PM on April 20, 2009

Thirding Age of Gold. I have read it, and it was good popular (readable by the public) history.
posted by immlass at 8:37 PM on April 20, 2009

dittoing X4ster for Brewer (I came to suggest exactly that.)

Also worth reading are the journals of John Charles Frémont, whose travels included time in California, at a formative stage a little before the gold rush. I can't find a link to his journals, though I read them online (well, downloaded onto my pda) not long ago.
posted by anadem at 8:49 PM on April 20, 2009

The Library of Congress has a great online collection that is exactly what you're looking for:
"California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 consists of the full texts and illustrations of 190 works documenting the formative era of California's history through eyewitness accounts. The collection covers the dramatic decades between the Gold Rush and the turn of the twentieth century. It captures the pioneer experience; encounters between Anglo-Americans and the diverse peoples who had preceded them; the transformation of the land by mining, ranching, agriculture, and urban development; the often-turbulent growth of communities and cities; and California's emergence as both a state and a place of uniquely American dreams. The production of this collection was supported by a generous grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

My 2 favorites in the collection:
California copy, by George F. Weeks.

Weeks, Geo. F. b. 1852? (George F.),

Washington, D.C., Washington college press, 1928.

George F. Weeks (b. ca. 1852) was a young reporter in New York City in 1876, when tuberculosis drove him to the healthier climate of California, where he spent his first months at a sanatorium near San Bernardino. He then worked on the San Francisco Chronicle and later published papers in Bakersfield and Alameda. California copy (1928) contains Week's memoirs of his journey west, and his life as newspaperman, with tales of politics, crime, and labor violence in the cities where he worked. His move to Mexico around 1906 ends Week's chronological narrative, and the last third of the book is devoted to unrelated pieces: reminiscences of a stagecoach ride, tales of California miners, an earthquake, fishing, Ambrose Bierce, etc.


Death Valley in '49. Important chapter of California pioneer history. The autobiography of a pioneer, detailing his life from a humble home in the Green Mountains to the gold mines of California; and particularly reciting the sufferings of the band of men, women and children who gave "Death Valley" its name. By William Lewis Manly.

Manly, William Lewis, b. 1820.

San José, Cal., The Pacific tree and vine co., 1894.

William Lewis Manly (1820-1903) and his family left Vermont in 1828, and he grew to manhood in Michigan and Wisconsin. On hearing the news of gold in California, Manly set off on horseback, joining an emigrant party in Missouri. Death Valley in '49 (1894) contains Manly's account of that overland journey. Setting out too late in the year to risk a northern passage thorugh the Sierras, the group takes the southern route to California, unluckily choosing an untried short cut through the mountains. This fateful decision brings the party through Death Valley, and Manly describes their trek through the desert, as well as the experiences of the Illinois "Jayhawkers" and others who took the Death Valley route. Manly's memoirs continue with his trip north to prospecting near the Mariposa mines, a brief trip back east via the Isthmus, and his return to California and another try at prospecting on the North Fork of the Yuba at Downieville in 1851. He provides lively ancedotes of life in mining camps and of his visits to Stockton, Sacramento, and San Francisco.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:29 PM on April 20, 2009

This might be a little out of your required timeframe for San Francisco (definitely turn-of-the-century!) but Lisa See's On Gold Mountain (Amazon) is a book I can never recommend enough to a wide variety of people. There's a great deal about Chinese immigration and the foundations of Chinatown in the city that has the personal touch you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
posted by saturnine at 11:06 PM on April 20, 2009

If you can find a better copy than what's on Youtube, be sure to watch "A Trip Down Market Street." It's fascinating to see glimpses of life in 1905, and watching all these cars, horses and people go about their day.
posted by Jinkeez at 4:26 AM on April 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Jinkeez's link to the Market Street video was fascinating. I found a higher res version on The Internet Archive.
posted by bristolcat at 6:27 AM on April 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

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