View of exhibition presented in CHS’s storefront windows on Mission Street in San Francisco
On view June 2, 2023 through June 30, 2024
Rare, Historical, and Curious: Selections from the Collection
Available to the public, for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week
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Since its inception in 1871, the California Historical Society (CHS) has been gathering and preserving historical material from throughout the state. The art, artifacts, ephemera, letters, manuscripts, photographs, and much more tell extraordinarily diverse stories about the past. They open windows to history that allow us to see beyond major events and names to the unfolding of more complex narratives and the unique experiences of ordinary people. They inform contemporary understandings of the past and give us insight into our present moment.
This exhibition considers a range of materials from various time periods and subcultures. Some of the items are unique, or clearly present matters of great importance. Others are more puzzling, even confounding to our attempts to decipher their meanings or the circumstances in which they were created. All of them provide nuanced views into the struggles, accomplishments, and preoccupations of participants in California’s history.
This exhibition is presented in the street-level windows of the California Historical Society’s building at 678 Mission Street in San Francisco. Rare, Historical, and Curious was inspired by Charles Chester Pierce’s collection of photographs, which he called the C. C. Pierce Collection of Rare, Historical and Curious Photographs, Illustrating California, the Pacific Coast and the Southwest. Pierce’s photographs are part of the California Historical Society’s long-term deposit at the University of Southern California.
Back to America
Miné Okubo, art editor, and Jim Yamada, editor, Trek, vol. 1, nos. 1, 2, 3 (December 1942, February and June 1943). Lithographs.
California Historical Society, Joseph R. Goodman papers on Japanese American incarceration
Trek was a literary and arts quarterly published from December 1942 to June 1943 by inmates of Topaz War Relocation Center. Topaz was a concentration camp located in the Sevier Desert in central Utah where Americans of Japanese descent and Japanese immigrants—most of them from the San Francisco Bay Area—were incarcerated under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 during World War II. Topaz was known for its art school, which was led by a roster of accomplished artists. Some, along with their literary counterparts, contributed to Trek. Artist Miné Okubo, who later published the first book about the American concentration camp experience, created many of the journal’s illustrations. For Trek’s covers, she sketched scenes of daily life populated by specific individuals, showing the ways in which inmates relied on one another and made do in crowded, spartan conditions.
Taro Katayama, author, and Miné Okubo, artist, “Beyond the Gate,” Trek 1, no. 2 (February 1943). Lithograph. California Historical Society, Joseph R. Goodman papers on Japanese American incarceration
In his 1943 article “Beyond the Gate,” journalist Taro Katayama considers what it will be like to “go back to America.” The question reflected the profound loss of civil liberties experienced by those incarcerated at Topaz. Katayama left the camp soon after publishing this article, not to return to his hometown of Salt Lake City but to enlist for combat duty. He and other Topaz inmates volunteered to join the special Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team as an affirmation of loyalty to the United States. Katayama served until 1945, the same year Topaz closed.
Henry Fukuhara, artist, drawing depicting the creation of a service flag for military volunteers from Topaz incarceration camp from Portfolio of 50 scenes of the Relocation Centers, 1944. Lithograph. California Historical Society, Joseph R. Goodman papers on Japanese American incarceration
Gold Rush Potatoes
Photographer unknown, Potatoes (7 1/2 lbs.), ca. 1850. Daguerreotype. California Historical Society
CHS holds a significant collection of Gold Rush–era daguerreotypes, including this peculiar image of potatoes. In California, daguerreotypes were typically portraits—mementos coveted by loved ones who were separated by distance. Enterprising daguerreotypists occasionally made outdoor views, despite difficult conditions outside the studio, because California scenes were particularly valuable. Still-life daguerreotypes were especially rare, making the seemingly unremarkable subject matter of this picture all the more curious.
Perhaps potatoes were something to memorialize. Given the inflationary prices and food scarcity in mining towns, a crop of potatoes could be worth a small fortune. The choice of subject matter could also have been inspired by the potato famine and economic depression in Ireland, which began a few years before the Gold Rush and precipitated mass Irish immigration to California. It is equally possible that the composition of carefully stacked potatoes—like a mound of precious gold nuggets—was meant to parody how the new medium of photography heroized its subjects.
Pollard & Peregoy, lithographers; Cooke & LeCount, publishers, View of the Plaza of Marysville, 1850. Lithograph. California Historical Society
Health and Happiness
Maker unknown, front and back of God’s eye, from the collection of Hipolita Orendain de Medina, ca. 1850. Paper, thread. California Historical Society
CHS’s collection of the personal effects of Hipolita Orendain de Medina (ca. 1847–1922) provides a window on Northern California’s Mexican American community in the late nineteenth century. Hipolita was a young child when she left Mexico for San Francisco with her mother and sister in the late 1850s. Thanks to a silver mining fortune left behind by her late father, she grew up with wealth, social connections, and an education. She married a diplomat, with whom she had four daughters, but the relationship did not last and Hipolita, now self-dependent, supported her children by working as a seamstress. She wrote poetry and journal entries. She also meticulously collected “recuerdos de amistad” (tokens of friendship), including essays, letters, well wishes, portraits, and cards she received from friends and family. This Ojo de Dios (God’s eye), a gift from a friend, combines an Indigenous Mexican craft tradition of weaving yarn around a wooden cross with a Victorian centerpiece imprinted with the sentiment “salud y felicidades” (health and happiness).
G. D. Morse, photographer, Mrs. Hipolita (Orendain) de Medina, December 25, 1881. Albumen carte de visite. California Historical Society
Maker unknown, outside and inside of God’s eye box, from the collection of Hipolita Orendain de Medina, ca. 1850. Paper, thread. California Historical Society
Thrills, Chills, Spills
Above left: Photographer unknown, Walkathon Derby pavilion, Gardena, ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print. Above right: The Airdrome, Alameda, Thrill, Chills, Spills 2,500 Mile Walk-a-Way Derby, ca. 1930. Printed flyer. California Historical Society
During the Great Depression, the dance competitions that had gained popularity a decade earlier morphed into a craze for contests of endurance. Dance marathons became live, twenty-four-hour entertainment attractions. When some cities began to ban the controversial events, promoters rebranded them as walkathons, evoking Olympic athleticism or the Guinness Book of World Records rather than the frivolity of the roaring 1920s. A cash prize of $1,500 (equivalent to about $33,000 today) was significant enough in hard times to induce contestants to risk injury or even death by exerting themselves for days on end with just ten minutes to rest every hour. Partners took turns holding one another up while the other slept on their feet. For promoters it was a perverse racket that drew increasingly large crowds as competitions dragged on and desperate participants came ever closer to collapse.
Above left: National Hall, San Francisco, the Minstrel All Colored Endurance Walk-a-Thon Contest, ca. 1930. Printed flyer. Above right: Unknown newspaper, featuring a photograph of a collapsed walk-a-thon participant, ca. 1930. Newspaper clipping. California Historical Society
Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was the first to describe the insular contestant community and the tragic sexual exploitation that was sometimes part of it. The book became a 1969 film starring Jane Fonda.
Photographer unknown, Walkathon participants, ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print. California Historical Society
Enlightenment of Sentient Beings
Sutter Street Commune, Kaliflower 2, no. 33 (December 10, 1970). Lithograph. California Historical Society, gift of the Friends of Perfection
Kaliflower was a critical resource for the “free city” that sprouted in the 1960s involving a network of nearly three hundred cooperative communities across the San Francisco Bay Area. The Free Print Shop of the Sutter Street Commune, later known as Kaliflower Commune or the Friends of Perfection Commune, began publishing the free weekly in 1969. Kaliflower—a play on the name Kali Yuga, the fourth and most violent stage of the world, according to Sanskrit scripture—celebrated the counterculture’s pursuit of personal and political freedom, and spiritual and social transformation. Adopting the free philosophy espoused by the activist collective The Diggers, the newsletter included lists of items needed or offered, how-to articles, and announcements, presented in a densely packed graphic style that conveyed the energy and urgency of the larger countercultural project. The publication also manifested the collaborative, homegrown ethos of the communes with its unattributed, hand-drawn illustrations and hand-sewn Japanese-style bindings.
The Friends of Perfection donated a full run of Kaliflower to the California Historical Society with a statement of their wishes as to how the material would be used:
The artists, writers and printers worked for love alone, and their work should not be used as mere fodder for academic dissertations or empty, exploitative books, where the author is concerned with his own status or personal gain, rather than with the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
Sutter Street Commune, Kaliflower 2, no. 16 (August 13, 1970). Lithograph. California Historical Society, gift of the Friends of Perfection
The Cockettes were a gender-bending theater troupe founded in 1969 by Hibiscus (George Harris) with members of the Kaliflower Commune. The group lived together and performed irreverent parodies of show tunes at the Palace Theater in North Beach. Their ad hoc shows combined psychedelic dancing and set design with flamboyant costumes—thrift-store finds hand sewn into exaggerated versions of the glamorous clothing worn by Hollywood icons. Flaunting their disregard for traditional codes of sexuality and propriety both on- and offstage, the group championed gay liberation, feminism, and communal living. They also opened the door to theatrical, transgender street fashion.
Sutter Street Commune, “The Cockettes Perform Rue de Can Can,” Kaliflower 1, no. 38 (January 8, 1970). Lithograph, gelatin silver print. California Historical Society, gift of the Friends of Perfection
Charlotte L. Brown, Plea to the court in Charlotte L. Brown v. Omnibus Railroad Company (page one), 1863–66. Handwritten manuscript. California Historical Society
Charlotte L. Brown was an educator and activist whose legal challenges to racial segregation on San Francisco’s streetcars resulted in landmark court rulings. On April 17, 1863, as she was forcibly ejected from a segregated streetcar in San Francisco, Brown promised the conductor that she would seek redress. She won her case against the Omnibus Railroad Company in 1863—the same year African Americans were first legally allowed to testify in court against white people—but just three days later she was again forced from a streetcar. She again successfully sued, forever changing the city’s transportation laws. Brown’s lawsuits stand among the most important civil rights cases in California history and served as precedents for similar struggles across the country. The legal documents in CHS’s collection include Brown’s powerful handwritten testimony.
Transcription of page one:
Resided on Scotland Street between Filbert & Greenwich on 17 Apr 1863
On 17th 1863—I started from home for the purpose of visiting my physician on Howard St. On going down Filbert, when one of the cars came along and the driver hailed me by giving me a signal of raising his hand. I returned the signal, the car stopped and I got in. It was 7 or 8 o’clock p.m. I entered from the rear platform. The car then started immediately. There were 3 passengers in the car at the time I entered, two gentlemen and one lady. I took my seat about midway and on the left hand side. I rode to the corner of Jackson and Stockton, Betw Union and Greene, the conductor went around to collect tickets and when he came to me I handed him my ticket and he refused to take it. It was one of the Omnibus RailRoad tickets, one that I had purchased of them previous to that time. He replied that colored persons were not allowed to ride. I told him I had been in the habit of riding ever since the cars had been running.
Above right: Photographer unknown, Omnibus Cable Company car leaving turntable at Potrero Avenue and 24th Street, San Francisco, ca. 1889–93. Albumen print. California Historical Society, de Young Museum Collection
Charlotte L. Brown, Plea to the court in Charlotte L. Brown v. Omnibus Railroad Company, 1863–66. Handwritten manuscript. California Historical Society
For more, check out the collections of the ACLU of Northern and Southern California in our digital library.
The California Historical Society is grateful for the support of our sponsors, the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District and San Francisco Grants for the Arts.