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Finding aid of the Actress and Singer Photograph Collection, ca. 1850 - 1930
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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.
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.
3 linear feet (3 boxes and 308 photographs)
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.
Collection is open by appointment for research.