The Lure of Gold | History | Smithsonian
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The Lure of Gold

The Lure of Gold

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The nugget he had pulled from the mine near Sierraville, California, weighed a whopping eight pounds, so James Woolsey did what came naturally during the gold rush: he had his "likeness" taken to commemorate the event. For three or four dollars, a forty-niner could walk into a daguerreotype studio--located in the tent city that had sprung up in San Francisco, or in one of the portable wagon-studios that plied the mining camps--and have a cased image made to send to loved ones back home. Business was especially brisk when a steamer was about to leave for the East. In his advertising broadside, photographer William Shew advised: ". . . it is for your advantage to call soon after the steamer leaves, and you will have a much better chance to get good pictures."

For a short window of time it was a free-for-all, as people worked shoulder to shoulder toward the same goal--gold. Very quickly the native Californians and early Spanish Californios were overwhelmed by people of all backgrounds, coming from all directions--by wagon train from Council Bluffs, Iowa, by horseback from ranchos to the south, by ship from China.

"Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush," organized by the Oakland Museum of California, brings together 150 daguerreotypes and ambrotypes from that wild time. On view in Oakland from January 24 through July 26, the show will travel to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

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