January 18, 2021

Reflecting on 2020: Twenty Objects from the Archives

It seems almost cliché to reiterate how complex and humbling the year 2020 proved to be. It’s certain to go down in history books as a period of upheaval, change, and reckoning. As we continue to process the past twelve months and look forward with hope to the next dozen, we have identified twenty objects from the California Historical Society archives that connect our present to our past and perhaps offer some lessons. History helps us assess how we got to where we are, and can demonstrate ways to move forward and create a better tomorrow. Happy New Year from your California Historical Society!

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Reflecting on 2020: Twenty Objects from the Archives

COVID-19 Pandemic

In the spring of 1918, while the United States was fighting a war in Europe, the country faced a different challenge on the home front: a deadly new strain of influenza known as the Spanish flu. It struck cities hard and fast as “troops moved in cramped train cars from military base to military base, mobilizing germs that eventually made their way to almost every city. . . . The country’s large urban centers faced overwhelming death rates that local governments struggled to mitigate.”[1] James Rolph Jr., mayor of San Francisco at the time, dealt with many issues and events during his long tenure from 1912 to 1931, but the onslaught of Spanish flu was perhaps his first real test. The responses of the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to the pandemic are documented in the papers of Mayor James Rolph Jr., held at CHS. In these boxes we find details of the mayor’s efforts, under the direction of Dr. William Hassler, chief of San Francisco’s Board of Health, to understand and fight the epidemic. Included is correspondence about the mask ordinances that were imposed, rescinded, and imposed again during the pandemic’s second wave in late 1918 and early 1919.

“Wear a Mask” broadside issued by the California State Department of Health. James Rolph Jr. papers, MS 1818, box 73, folders 1–3, California Historical Society
Correspondence from William Hassler to Mayor Rolph, December 7, 1918. James Rolph Jr. papers, MS 1818, box 73, folders 1–3, California Historical Society


School Closures

In March 2020 schools across the nation closed their on-campus facilities and struggled to find a way to educate students safely during a pandemic. When the new school year started in the fall, children, teachers, school administrators, parents, and guardians had mostly transitioned to online learning. Kindergarteners started school without ever entering a physical classroom, putting a temporary hold on the traditional class portrait. As school districts grappled with how to get kids and teachers safely back to in-person learning, the idea of outdoor classes became less of a novelty and more of a considered option. This mode of teaching was advocated by German-born educator Emma Marwedel as far back as 1876, when she opened the California Model Kindergarten and the Pacific Model Training School for Kindergarteners in Los Angeles. According to her obituary, Marwedel taught “mostly in the open air, under an eighty-foot arbor of evergreens.”[2] Marwedel also established kindergartens in Washington, DC, Oakland, and San Francisco.

Emma Marwedel Pioneer Kindergarten, Oakland, 1906. San Francisco General Subjects Photograph Collection, Oakland, California Historical Society
Los Angeles schoolchildren in class on the beach, undated. California Historical Society collection at the University of Southern California Library, digitally reproduced by the University of Southern California, CHS-44508


Wildfires and Climate Change

Cry California was the quarterly journal of California Tomorrow, an educational nonprofit active from 1961 to 1983. Its mission was to bring together conservationists, planners, and regulators to conceive and adopt a California-wide planning process that would balance the needs of conservation and growth. This cover was created by Earl Thollander; its striking image is reminiscent of the red and orange sunsets Californians saw this year as wildfire smoke blanketed the skies. In 2020, more than four million acres burned. Cal Fire states: “The fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year. Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire. The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.”[3]

Cry California cover, fall 1966. PER/CATO, California Historical Society

J.A. Todd was active as a photographer in California between 1863 and 1897. In 1882, he was commissioned to take a series of photographs for presentation in a lawsuit: Edwards Woodruff v. the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company. His pictures of Nevada, Sutter, and Yuba Counties served as evidence of the destructive effects of hydraulic mining, including washed-over roads, ruined orchards, broken dams, and riverbank gravel deposits. The case’s outcome led directly to one of the nation’s first environmental laws. But Judge Lorenzo Sawyer’s ruling in January 1884 that indeed, this kind of mining endangers private lands in the agricultural sector did not completely halt hydraulic mining in California.[4]

J. A. Todd, effects of hydraulic mining California gold country, 1822. PC-RM-Todd; California Historical Society, California Historical Society, PC-RM-OV-Todd_004


The Olympics

During the 2016 summer Olympic Games, Olympians born in California earned twenty-seven gold, nine silver, and sixteen bronze medals: a grand total of fifty-two.[5] This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympics were rescheduled—their first-ever postponement. When the Games finally take place, the latest new events will include skateboarding and surfing; both sports were unanimously approved by the International Olympic Committee (reactions in the skateboarding community were mixed). These sports may be new to the Olympics, but their history is deeply rooted in California and, for many young Californians, will be their inspiration to tune in to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Olympic rowing competition, Long Beach, California, 1932. Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, California Historical Society and the University of Southern California Libraries, digitized by the University of Southern California, CHS-33155


Presidential Election

A presidential election in a nation already wracked with divisions was made more problematic by a deadly pandemic. As a result, historic numbers of citizens chose to vote early by mail. Mail-in voting, also known as absentee voting, has been an established system at least since the Civil War, when many voting-age men were away from home. In the beginning, people had to state a specific reason for not being able to vote in person, but in 1978 California became the first state to allow absentee voting with no excuse necessary. That year, 4.14 percent of Californians took advantage of mail-in voting for state elections. Forty years later, in 2018, that number had increased to 65.31 percent.[6]

While the delivery, the counting systems, and the controversies surrounding elections have evolved, one thing remains consistent: the paper ballot. This piece of ephemera has enabled Americans to cast their votes for more than two hundred years, and those preserved in libraries and archives across the country are invaluable records of past elections and political issues. As author Alicia Chen writes in her book This Is What Democracy Looked Like (2020): “Printed ballots embody the material history of democracy in the United States: its idealism, its routines, and its abuses.”[7]

Regular Democratic ticket, California, 1868, from a scrapbook of political broadsides, 1860s–90s. MS OV 5097, California Historical Society 


GLBTQ rights

On June 15, 2020, in a six-to-three decision, the US Supreme Court made clear that employers may not discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Specifically, the court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of “sex” covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

This was just the latest of many battles the LGBTQ community has fought in the courts, and in the court of public opinion. In the late 1970s, Anita Bryant, an evangelical Christian, singer, and spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, launched campaigns aimed at repealing protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In protest, a Florida orange juice boycott was organized, and the San Francisco Tavern Guild, along with many gay bars and restaurants across the country, dropped orange juice from their menus.

Bryant’s initial successes led to California Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative after the conservative state legislator from Orange County who sponsored it. The Briggs Initiative would have mandated the firing of any California public schoolteacher who was gay or lesbian, or simply even supported gay rights. Harvey Milk, Sally Miller Gearhart, and many others fought in opposition, and on November 7, 1978, the initiative lost by more than one million votes.

“Defend Human Rights: Boycott All Orange Juice Products.” California social, protest, and counterculture movement ephemera collection, SOC MOV EPH; box 1, folder 13; California Historical Society
“Women’s Potluck to Learn about the Briggs Initiative and What You Can Do to Fight It,” April 23, 1978, California social, protest, and counterculture movement ephemera collection, SOC MOV EPH; box 1, folder 13; California Historical Society



When shelter-in-place orders were issued in March 2020, Californians flocked to stores to stock up on household staples that were fast becoming scarce or entirely unavailable. People scrambled to buy, among other items, toilet paper, frozen vegetables, cleaning products, and flour. Baking became a social media trend as people began focusing on things to do at home. But for thousands of Californians, the SIP mandate has meant unemployment, separation from support systems, and ongoing food insecurity.

“New Store! Valuable Goods!” Broadsides, Vault B-007, California Historical Society
“Food: Don’t waste it.” Theodore Payne, Seedsman and Nurseryman, Los Angeles (back cover). Cal BUS EPH, CHS2013.1326 [b]

Immigration and Exclusion

In 2020, issues of birthright citizenship, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and immigration policies and enforcement remained at the forefront of political debate. Immigration and exclusion are certainly not new to California. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for a period of ten years. Under the provisions of the Geary Act, which followed in 1892, these laws were strengthened and all Chinese and Chinese Americans in the United States were required to apply for, obtain, and carry a government-issued certificate of residence proving their legal presence in the United States. Any person of Chinese ethnicity discovered without such identification risked arrest and deportation. In other words, Chinese Americans were presumed guilty of an immigration offense—based solely on their ethnicity, as perceived by non-Chinese authorities—until proven innocent. Chinese residents immediately challenged these requirements as unconstitutional in singling out Chinese, but lost in the Supreme Court. It was not until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that the US policy of limiting immigration based on national origin ended.

Chinese women and children at Angel Island immigration station, California, ca. 1910–40. California Historical Society
Certificate of residence for Lung Tang, laundryman, age 36 years, San Jose, April 24, 1894. Certificates of Residents for Chinese Laborers, MS 3642, California Historical Society



In 2020 we commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the national right to vote. The decades-long fight for suffrage was waged by tens of thousands of women across the nation, but others faced battles to remove barriers not just to voting, but to the civil and labor rights of all women. Most people know about Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers and director of the national boycott during the Delano grape strike in 1965, but the movement’s rank-and-file women played significant roles as well. These women remain the unacknowledged backbone of the labor movement. In an article on the topic, Lori Flores observes: “Women became the lifeblood of the union . . . . Women of all ages stood on picket lines, and some suffered violence . . . . When [César] Chávez defied a court-ordered picketing injunction at particular lettuce ranches, 15 women chose to get arrested with him.”[8] The farmworkers’ success was historic. From 1970 to 1973, the UFW represented sixty thousand grape and lettuce pickers across the state. Of these, more than half were women.

“Vote to Give California Women the Ballot,” undated. California Equal Suffrage Association, San Francisco, Cal.; California Ephemera Collection, California Historical Society
Striking grape workers marching from Delano to Sacramento, 1969. General Subjects Photography Collection, California Historical Society

Racial Justice

Frustrated by the slow progress of the civil rights movement, Oakland college students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in 1966. The party advocated militant self-defense against police brutality in minority communities and railed against capitalism with social programs such as the Free Breakfast for Children and community health clinics. The Panthers’ broad project of battling racist oppression by empowering individuals helped transform black consciousness in the Bay Area and across the country. The bold graphic style that artist Emory Douglas, the party’s minister of culture, created for the Black Panther newspaper and other printed matter portrayed black people and communities in ways never before seen in mainstream media.

An image we saw frequently in 2020, in photographs of protesters and in graphic form, was a raised fist. The gesture has been associated with revolutionary struggles since at least the late nineteenth century.[9] African American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the gesture a symbol for the Black Power Movement when they each raised a gloved fist during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Around the same time, the Black Panthers began using a woodcut rendering of a clenched fist designed by movement artist Frank Cieciorka in 1967. Today, stylized variants of a raised fist are frequently used by the Black Lives Matter movement and other leftist groups in street art and social media.

The Black Panther: Black Community News Service, June 7, 1969. California Social, Protest, and Counterculture Ephemera Collection, California Historical Society

In 2020, the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery by police or former police officers drew millions to the streets to protest a long history of police brutality and systemic racism. Less than thirty years ago, the acquittal of four officers, whose brutal beating of Rodney King was one of the first captured on video, led to riots in the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Thousands of protesters in LA and other cities were arrested. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a lawsuit against Frank Jordan, then mayor of San Francisco, citing unlawful mass arrests and use of excessive force against protesters. The records of the ACLU-NC document hundreds of civil rights legal cases over the last century involving police brutality, the complicit oversight of those in supervisory positions, and attempts to curtail the right to protest by a variety of institutions.

ACLU files suit challenging mass arrests, September 3, 1992. ACLU-NC records, MS-3580, California Historical Society, MS-3580_1480_003


Looking Forward…

If you’re looking for ideas regarding how to celebrate a less eventful, safer year in 2021, we leave you with some recipes from Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender: The Only Practical Treatise on the Art of Mixology. Published in 1891, this classic contains nearly four hundred recipes for absinthes, cocktails, and coolers as well as some valuable trade secrets that we are now all let in on.

Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender, 1891. Vault 641.874 B644, California Historical Society
“Valuable Secrets for Liquor Dealers,” from Cocktail Boothby’s American Bar-Tender, 1891. Vault 641.874 B644, California Historical Society

[1] Kirsten Moore, “Medical Manipulation: Public Health as a Political Tool in the 1918–19 Influenza Epidemic in San Francisco,” Voces Novae 3, no. 20 (2018): https://digitalcommons.chapman.edu/vocesnovae/vol3/iss1/20.

[2] “Emma Marwedel: The Death of a Prominent Teacher,” San Francisco Call, November 18, 1893, California Digital Newspaper Collection,


[3] California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), “2020 Fire Season,” https://www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/2020/.

[4] “California’s First Environmental Law,” California Department of Parks and Recreation, http://www.150.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=27596.

[5] Derek Miller, “The States with the Most 2016 Olympic Medals,” Smart Asset, August 24, 2016, https://smartasset.com/mortgage/the-states-with-the-most-2016-olympic-medals.

[6] “Historical Vote-by-Mail (Absentee) Ballot Use in California,” Secretary of State website, https://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/historical-absentee.

[7] Alicia Yin Cheng, This Is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2020), p.12.

[8] Lori Flores, “The Neglected Heroines of César Chávez,” Colorlines, March 31, 2014, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/neglected-heroines-cesar-chavez.

[9] Gottfried Korff and Larry Peterson, “From Brotherly Handshake to Militant Clenched Fist: On Political Metaphors for the Worker’s Hand,” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 42 (1992): 70–81.