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Everyday Life and People

Questions to Consider

What was everyday life like during the Gold Rush era?

How did people dress?

How did they live, shop, and entertain themselves?

About the Images

The images in this group offer a glimpse of daily life in California during the mid-1800s in big cities like San Francisco and in smaller, rural towns like Dixon and Nevada City. These photographs show some of the everyday people of the time, as well as the shops, saloons, and other establishments that served them.


Many people who came to California to strike it rich eventually abandoned their dreams of gold. They stayed in California and worked as farmers or merchants, relaxing in saloons or coffee houses and marrying and raising families. This group contains several portraits captured in Daguerreotypes and cased photographs that depict a variety of everyday people: a young Gold Rush widow in black mourning attire; a gold seeker with a pick axe, a pan, and a gun; and a farmer and wagon maker (who founded the town of Dixon in 1852), alongside images of his two children.

The daily needs of people during the Gold Rush were much like ours today. Photographs of buildings shown here include a furniture store, a mortuary, a general merchandise store, and a grocery.

The mining industry and the growing population triggered a need for timber. As one lithograph illustrates, abandoned wooden ships that would otherwise be left in the bay were pulled ashore and turned into stores and buildings in San Francisco. In rural areas and mining towns, buildings were often constructed of unfinished logs, like the Coyote and Deer Creek Water Co. office near Nevada City.

In their leisure time some people frequented coffee houses or saloons. There was even a barroom in at least one gold mine, as one lithograph shows. The photograph of Abe Warner’s Cobweb Palace in San Francisco — a saloon that was formerly a butcher shop — shows monkeys and parrots roaming freely. And when people wanted other kinds of entertainment, they could attend Maguire’s Opera House in San Francisco or — for just 38 cents — spend the afternoon at King's California Circus.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 5:

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports about important ideas, issues, or events.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver informative presentations about an important idea, issue, or event.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.3 Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood. (4.3.3))

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.2, 4.4.4)

Grade 5:

5.8 Students trace the colonization, immigration, and settlement patterns of the American people from 1789 to the mid-1800s, with emphasis on the role of economic incentives, effects of the physical and political geography, and transportation systems. (5.8.4)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)

What is a Daguerreotype?

Daguerreotypes are one-of-a-kind images created on silver-plated copper. Daguerreotypes are named for their creator, the French commercial artist Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, who discovered the process in 1837.

What is a cased photograph?

Some Daguerreotypes were called “cased photographs” because they were presented in miniature framed cases.

What is a lithograph?

Lithographs — prints made from drawings on stone or metal plates — became a popular form of newspaper illustration in the 19th century.