The California pictorial letter sheet, a combination of pictures
and stationery, is perhaps the best visual chronicle available of the
California Gold Rush.
Considered by some as the forerunner to the modern picture
postcard, letter sheets were imprinted with a myriad of images;
pioneers pushing their way across the continent, miners panning for
gold, being chased by bears, hanging evil-doers, and relaxing on Sunday
mornings. They show us the vigilance committees of San Francisco,
natural wonders such as the Big Trees, and the terrifying
conflagrations that swept through most early-day mining camps. They
visually convey the meaning of the phrase “seeing the elephant.”
Letter sheets enjoyed their greatest success during the early
1850's. Generally printed on a light-weight blue, gray, or white
writing paper, the sheets were embellished with a woodcut or lithograph made from an artist's sketch or photographer's daguerreotype. Double
sheets measured about 10 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches when folded in half, with
plenty of room for the miners' correspondence to the folks back home.
Single sheets were also available, and due to the thin paper used, the
sheets could be folded and mailed for a minimum postal charge of 40
Due to their rarity, visual quality, and historic content, letter
sheets have long been prized by collectors of things Gold Rush. Chances
are, if you've read any books concerning the California Gold Rush,
you've seen some of the images captured on this pioneer stationery, as
they have been used to illustrate countless books and articles.