Biography / Administrative History
Scope and Content of Collection
Title: Actress and Singer Photograph Collection, ca. 1850 - 1930
Collection number: Actress_B000552
Society of California Pioneers
3 linear feet (3 boxes and 308 photographs)
Society of California Pioneers.
San Francisco, California 94107-1272
Abstract: Actress and Singer Photograph Collection, ca. 1850 - 1930 contains 308 card photographs, cabinet cards, carte-de-vistes, enlarged
studio portraits, photographic miniatures, and halftones. These publicity images are of some of the most celebrated female
thespians and opera singers from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. In San Francisco, female performers were welcomed
with open arms due to the majority of the population being male, yet only true talents like Lotta Crabtree and Adah Isaacs
Menken prospered. Many of the photos in the collection are the product of popular San Francisco photographic studios. The
collection is not a gift from any one person; rather it is a group of photos complied from various donors. The collection
is organized alphabetically by actresses' last name and are in fairly good condition.
Physical location: Stored on-site at the Society of California Pioneers
Languages represented in the collection:
Collection is open by appointment for research.
Property rights reside with The Society of California Pioneers. All requests for permission to reproduce or publish must be
submitted in writing to the Librarian.
Actress and Singer Photograph Collection, ca. 1850 - 1930. The Society of California Pioneers.
Biography / Administrative History
In the early half of the 19th century, California's population consisted mostly of Native American and Mexican inhabitants.
In 1848 gold was discovered, attracting hundreds of thousands of settlers from the East Coast and beyond. San Francisco quickly
grew from a rural settlement to a thriving boomtown. At first, the Gold Rush miners were satisfied with lewd entertainment
supplied by brothels and saloons. Men regularly played female theatrical characters because of the lack of women living in
what was still considered a wilderness outpost. Traveling acting troupes, desperate for cash, would perform in any structure
that would hold a crowd - a practice later dubbed "barnstorming". Although it was risky, many women began to flock to the
burgeoning city with dreams of fame and fortune. concurrently, the significant male populous started to desire more refined
performances and would pay big money to see a pretty face. Even so, being attractive and able to memorize lines was hardly
sufficient. Only women who possessed striking thespian talent, pitch perfect singing voices, or eccentric stage presence gained
true notoriety. Some of these starlets were motivated to become playwrights or company managers, experiencing great commercial
success at a time when women were generally thought of as the weaker sex. Conversely there was a serious possibility of obscurity,
since local actresses and singers were often less celebrated than big names from Europe. The eventual completion of the Transcontinental
Railroad reinforced San Francisco's status as a first-class, show business town. Women could now travel cross-country with
propriety, dramatically increasing the number of female residents. Veteran and amateur actresses arrived from all over the
world, triggering the construction of many new auditoriums. In the 1880's, celebrity publicity escalated due to the development
of modern photographic processes and the overland telegraph. All of this hype gave birth to more photographic studios and
specialized entertainment critics. Amusements were now being marketed toward specific audiences, usually separated by social
class. Theater was San Francisco's favorite public diversion, with more spectator seats per capita than any other U.S. city,
until the earthquake of 1906, which destroyed nearly every opera and playhouse.
||Actress and Singer Photograph Collection
Scope and Content of Collection
This collection includes over three hundred actress and singer publicity photographs and images (halftones). In the 19th and
early 20th centuries, leading ladies were often referred to as prima donnas and either sang in the soprano or contralto range.
Some photographs indicate the performer's voice type by handwritten inscription. The majority are standard size photographic
prints, mounted on paper of various weights called card photographs. Many are smaller format carte-de-vistes, which were widely
popular throughout the 1860's and into 1870's. The collection also contains larger cabinet cards, which took over as the most
popular type of portrait in the late 1870's. There are also enlarged studio photographs and miniatures. Some are vignettes,
which means the portrait was taken from the bust up and fades into the surrounding white background. Others show the full
subject posed in stage costume or formal dress. Halftones that were likely clipped from periodicals also appear in the collection.
Imprints can be found on the recto and/or verso and most commonly name the actress or singer pictured. Other imprints indicate
authorship and can include the photographer's name, studio name, studio address, or all of the above. A considerable portion
of the photos are inscribed on the recto with well wishes "To Pat" and signed by the pictured actress or singer. A mounted
photograph of Shakespearean actress, Marie Booth Russell, reveals "Pat's" formal title with an inscription on the recto that
says, "To William S Kelly ("Pat") Best wishes from Faithfully Yours, Marie Booth Russell 1910". Each of "Pat's" mementos also
have a handwritten inscription on the verso (ie. Shelly #88). It is unclear whether these inscriptions say Shelly, Skelly,
or possibly refer to William S. Kelly. The inscriptions on the verso could also be unrelated to "Pat", as they were obviously
labeled years later with a ballpoint pen. About twenty-five photographs in the collection were a gift from Ms. Ruth McCarthy
to the Society of California Pioneers and are inscribed with "Mrs. P.E. McCarthy" on the verso. The collection appears not
to be that of one person or donor. Generally, the photographs are in good condition. Collection includes 3 boxes sorted alphabetically
by actresses' and singers' last names. Box 1: B000552: Contains starlets A-F, begins with Emma Abbott and ends with Caroline
Franklin. Box 2: B000553: Contains starlets F-M, begins with Beatrix Franco and ends with Daisy Murdock. Box #: B000554: Contains
starlets M-Z, begins with Louise Natali and ends with Flora Zabelle.
The photographs are from various files and arranged alphabetically in folders.
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in
the library's online public access catalog.
Abbott, Emma, 1850-1891
Crabtree, Lotta, 1847, 1924
Davenport, Fanny, 1850-1898
Elite (Photographic Firm)
Grand Opera House
Housworth, Thomas, 1829-1915
Menken, Adah Isaacs, 1835-1868
Modjeska, Helena, 1840-1909
Opera--California--San Francisco--19th century.
Opera--California--San Francisco--20th century.
Russell, Lillian, 1861-1922
Taber, Isaiah West, 1830-1912
Tivoli Opera House (San Francisco, Calif.)