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 cents.
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.