City Scenes

Questions to Consider

What regional differences do you see between streets and buildings in different cities?

What differences do you see between the streets in these images and those around you today?

How do the places where people socialized during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as shown in these images, compare to the places people meet today?

Exploring the Images

The images in this set give us a view of what life in California was like at street level in the late 19th century and early to mid-20th century. The growth of cities and arrival of new immigrants following the Gold Rush added to California’s ethnic diversity. In less than 100 years, California’s population exploded: from just under 100,000 people in the first 1850 census to over 5.5 million people by 1930.

Geography and Industry

Many of these city scenes reflect the environment. Others show the impact of major industries connected to the area’s geography. The present-day ghost town of Bodie in Mono County was constructed high in the mountains, alongside gold mining operations, so most building and living supplies had to be transported to the area.

The early gold country town of Grass Valley had elevated covered sidewalks and balconies to protect people from muddy, unpaved streets and the mess of horse-driven transportation.

Early images of Signal Hill in Long Beach feature the oil derricks that were so closely linked to the area’s development. And Westwood, in Lassen County, grew up around the lumber industry, where mills were a common sight. Orange groves frame several early agricultural boomtowns, lending the inspiration for place names like the city of Orange in Orange County.


The culture of cities is also reflected in their buildings. Farming cities like Fresno displayed their growth and agricultural wealth with multistoried buildings in the central downtown areas. Sacramento, the state capitol, copied the nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C., with a grid of streets radiating from the centrally located Capitol Building.

Influence also came from neighboring Mexico. As early as 1904, mounted patrols began guarding California’s southern border. When the border patrol became official in 1924, towns soon developed along the U.S.-Mexico border. Calexico was established to serve as a border checkpoint, and housed a U.S. Customs Office.

Some cities still maintained elements of Spanish and Californio society in their adobe buildings. This can be seen in the first federal court building in Monterey, and the beautiful Spanish patio of the Mission Inn in Riverside. San Diego kept some of the Spanish Colonial architectural style but demolished and rebuilt larger, more modern buildings like the Santa Fe Train Depot.

Social Gathering Places

Stores, saloons, drugstores, theaters, hotels, and churches became central meeting places for people in towns and cities. By the 1890s, residents of the San Bernardino area might have purchased food staples from Casner and Burns Grocery Store. Spots like Pinks Saloon along the north coast provided places for people to gather, relax, and enjoy food and drink. Early drugstores, like Clements in El Centro, also served as the local ice cream parlor, lunch counter, and film processor.

Theaters, like this one in Marysville, became sites for popular culture. People who lived far from cities could still enjoy live performances and vaudeville acts. Some were later converted to movie theaters.

Hotels, like the Acheson Hotel in Berkeley, were meeting places for travelers and residents alike. Churches also served as community hubs. Some, like St. Vincent Cathedral in Los Angeles, provided a geographical and social landmark in a rapidly expanding city. 

Streets, too, developed around social needs, many times based on the local industry or environment. Portsmouth Square in San Francisco organized neighborhood development around a central plaza. Third Street in Santa Monica was envisioned from the start as a comfortable shopping district. And the storefronts on Palm Drive near Desert Hot Springs, with their palm-lined walkways, consciously incorporated elements of the desert lifestyle.

Many of the cities pictured here have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. With the growth of the suburbs after World War II, for example, tracts of agricultural land became housing developments or shopping malls. Yet some old buildings and streets remain, providing vital links to a city’s history and origins.
[Pinks Saloon, corner of Trinity and Edwards Streets]
203. Portsmouth Square or Plaza, San Francisco.
Acheson Hotel
The 1st Federal Court in Calif. Built of adobe in 1836 cor. Polk & Hartwell Sts. Monterey Calif. Photoed [sic] Jany 1929.
St. Vincent Cathedral, Los Angeles, Calif.
Looking down Third Street, Santa Monica, Calif.
Producing oil wells on famous Signal Hill, Long Beach, Calif.
Orange, 1890, S.E. Corner of Culver and S. Glassell
Spanish Patio, Mission Inn, Riverside, Calif.
Casner and Burns Grocery Store, [graphic]
Demolition of the old Santa Fe Depot Railroad Station
Street Scene, Westwood, Calif
814. Main Street, Grass Valley, from the Wisconsin Hotel, Nevada County.
1212. Sacramento City from the new Capitol Building, Looking East.
Marysville Theatre
Intersection of Mariposa and I later Broadway streets Fresno California
Bodie, Calif, as seen from the Old Standard Mine
New Tahoe Inn, Tahoe City, Cal.
Palm Drive Palm Springs Calif.
Entering Mexico at Calexico, Calif. showing U.S. Customs Office on Left
El Centro, Calif., From Clements Drug Store

Choose another Local History Mapped Set:

How we mapped the images

The images in this set attempt to represent a variety of regions and communities. We researched each one to determine its closest possible location. Learn more (PDF)

If you have information about an image that will help us more accurately map it, let us know.

Teachers' Toolbox

How to use Local History Mapped (PDF): ideas and activities for the classroom

Relevant Analytical Skills and Content Standards (PDF)

K-6 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities (PDF) (Source: Geographic Education National Implementation Project)

Five Themes of Geography (Source: Joint Committee on Geographic Education of the NCGE/AAG)

City Scenes