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The Beckers Viewer

Nineteenth century Americans were fascinated with photography. The first photographic experiments were made in Europe during the 1830s, and by the 1860s wet plate photography had become a lucrative business in America. Hundreds of studio photographers cranked out the most popular photographic product of the day: customer portraits printed on visiting cards, a Victorian version of the selfie.

Also popular was the stereograph, an early form of 3D in which two nearly identical photos were mounted on stiff 4×8 inch cards; when seen through the lenses of a special viewer they produced a three-dimensional image. Families would assemble large collections of stereo cards; topics included travel, anthropological, historical, and otherwise educational photos, religious subjects, fine arts, humorous subjects and news of the day. So many of these cards were produced that they are still ubiquitous in antique stores and on sites like Ebay.

Eadweard Muybridge was an eccentric English inventor, shady wild west character, and erstwhile hobnobber with the rich and famous whose photographic experiments would eventually, through the machinations of Thomas Edison, lead to the invention of cinema. In the 1860s, not being suited to the sedate indoor life of a studio photographer, Muybridge took his photographic equipment outdoors and became one of the earliest landscape photographers in America. His stereo views of Yosemite Valley and Alaska were eagerly purchased by Americans who could never otherwise experience such places.

One of Muybridge’s early projects foreshadows motion pictures by about thirty years. He made a series of stereo views of San Francisco taken from atop a hill on the edge of town. By turning the camera slowly left to right and taking serial photos, he made a panoramic representation of the city. Around this time a device was being produced in New York called the Alexander Beckers Viewer; it was a stereograph viewer that could hold up to fifty cards, and the user turned a knob to flip between views. When Muybridge’s panoramic San Francisco views were placed in the Beckers Viewer they produced the effect of what would later, in filmmaking, be called “panning.”

(Ball 75)

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San Francisco in the 1850s

A traveler arriving by boat to San Francisco in the 1850s would have been greeted by a weird sight: hundreds of square-rigged vessels drifting empty in the bay, abandoned by would-be gold hunters who had no further use for them.

San Francisco was discovered by the Spanish in 1769. A desolate area of sand dunes and hills, for nearly a century it boasted little more than a chapel and a few huts. In 1848 its population was around 500. In that year, gold was discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill, and by 1850, the sleepy village had exploded into a boomtown of 30,000 people.

The area was a natural port. The first prospectors to arrive lay planks between the wharves to serve as makeshift bridges; these soon became city streets. Beyond the wharves lay hundreds of tents and shacks constructed from boards ripped from abandoned boats. The buildings were connected by swampy dirt roads and hastily-constructed sidewalks made of flour sacks, old stoves, tobacco boxes, and in one instance, a grand piano.

By 1853 this shantytown was one of the biggest cities in the nation, with 46 gambling halls, 144 taverns and 537 places that sold liquor. Rowdy young men roamed the streets, looking to spend their gold as fast as they found it. Fortunes were made by those who sold goods and services to the miners; eggs went for a dollar apiece, a pound of butter for six dollars, a pair of boots for a hundred. Many of the newly-rich moved directly from shacks into mansions.

Ninety-two percent of the population were men between fifteen and forty-four years of age. The mere rumor of a female arriving in town could cause the saloons to empty and a crowd to gather at the docks. With only one woman to every dozen men, brothels flourished; the going rate was 100 dollars a night, roughly the price of a house.

Violence in the city was rampant; although a police system was put in place, disputes over land were most often settled by force. Mob rule prevailed, and vigilante groups defied public authority, intimidating or even abducting and imprisoning those foolish enough to serve as public officials. The murder rate hovered at about five murders every six days. It was a particularly dangerous place for new arrivals from Australia; viewed by the locals as rabble from a penal colony, they were often accused of crimes and hanged without the benefit of a trial.

Despite these wild-west tendencies, from the beginning San Francisco also had a strong progressive element. The opportunity for adventure and sudden wealth drew not only capitalists and criminals, but intellectuals as well. By 1853 the city supported a dozen newspapers and a strong community of writers, and was home to more college graduates than any other city in the United States. It quickly became the most cultured city on the West Coast, with many of the roughest-hewn gold prospectors also avid theatergoers. From its earliest days, San Francisco was tolerant, even fascinated, by anything different; then, as today, the city balanced peril with progressiveness, crime with culture.

(Chang 34-36)

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The Tulsa Race Riot

The late 1910s witnessed a wave of white-on-black racial violence throughout the American West. Major race riots included those in Houston (1917), East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Elaine, Arkansas (1919) and Omaha, Nebraska (1919).

The last and worst of this wave of racial violence erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. Tulsa was at that time a rapidly growing city, mostly white but with a sizeable and prosperous black population; the city was tightly segregated, and the homes and businesses of black middle-class families were centered in an area called Greenwood.

The incident began when a black man named Dick Rowland was falsely accused by some white men of having made advances upon a white girl. Rowland was arrested and locked in a courthouse jail; that afternoon, a white newspaper announced in bold headlines that there would be a lynching that night.

A group of Greenwood’s leading citizens and property owners decided to intervene. At dusk, about two dozen got their guns and drove to the courthouse. Already a white mob of several hundred was assembled. Approaching the sheriff, the Greenwood men offered their services; the sheriff informed them that he had already contacted the National Guard, and that the situation was under control. The men, convinced for the moment, got in their cars and returned to Greenwood.

Meanwhile, the white mob was growing. At some point, part of the mob tried to break into the National Guard armory to seize guns and ammunition; the Guard held them off but failed to disperse them. News of the escalation reached Greenwood; this time, from 50 to 75 men assembled and returned to the courthouse.

No one knows who fired the first shot, but someone did, and a riot broke out. The Greenwood men, outnumbered 75 to 3,000, managed to fight their way out of downtown and back toward their own neighborhood. The white mob followed them; fighting continued all night, and sometime the next morning, Greenwood began to burn. In broad daylight, as their homes and businesses went up in flames, as many as 6,000 blacks were rounded up and force-marched to internment centers.

The destruction continued all day. White newspaper photographers followed the mob and took pictures of the burning buildings. The National Guard did nothing to stop the violence; the whites freely continued destroying property as they chose.

The number of deaths due to the violence was never accurately established. Estimates range from 30 to 300 persons dead; perhaps half of these were white men. More than 1,000 homes and businesses in Greenwood were destroyed; black Tulsa lay in ruins. White officials at the city and state levels openly blamed the riot on the small group of black men who had arrived downtown with guns. Many black families left the city, never to return.

The violence in Tulsa began a panic in Los Angeles, when rumors of a Klan riot began to circulate; reportedly, black Los Angeles had been scheduled for the “Tulsa treatment” on July 4.

But it didn’t happen. Los Angeles was a very different place from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was a southern-style city, and Greenwood was the kind of all-black neighborhood that didn’t exist in the cities of the West Coast. In places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, blacks lived and worked in mixed neighborhoods, interspersed with whites, Mexicans, and Asians. There would be no way to attack the “black district” without destroying the property of many non-blacks. This diversity could not, of course, prevent violence on an individual basis, but it may explain why the cities of the West Coast escaped the race riots so prevalent during this period.

(Flamming 130-133)


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