Today, the Golden State is famous for its awe-inspiring, redwood-filled national parks and its winding coastal highways dotted with bright orange California poppies. However, many of the state’s first postcards captured a different side of the landscape—a dog-eat-dog frontier where underpaid immigrants worked their fingers to the bone. As for the natural world, it was a force to be reckoned with, as seen in postcards following San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire, which depicted the burgeoning metropolis as a pile of rubble.
After the Great Earthquake, the city rebuilt quickly in order to host the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, affirming its resilience in the eyes of the world. The fair’s organizers hired photographers from the Cardinell-Vincent Co. to capture the event’s lavish pavilions and landscaped grounds on beautiful hand-colored postcards.
California also inspired some unconventional companies to get in on the postcard business, like the Pacific Coast Steamship Co. and the Union Oil Co., which added to their profits by printing colorful Photochrom postcards of California destinations. Other publishers focused on particular themes, like Sing Fat & Co.’s images of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown or Frasher’s, Inc.’s imagery of the state’s open landscape still populated by Native Americans. Eventually, postcards captured California’s leap into modernity with its abundant farmland, freeways, and, of course, movie-studios.