In 1905, the few people lucky enough to own cars traveled at speeds no greater than 30 miles per hour and interest in photography was satisfied by cameras requiring film and lacking adjustable settings or a flash. Yet William and Grace McCarthy managed to amass a vast collection of photographs of their road trips throughout the United States under those limitations and document early 20th century life in the process.
The California State Archives is displaying select California photos from the William M. McCarthy photo collection. In its entirety, the collection includes 2,998 photos taken between 1905 and 1938.
This exhibit is just the “tip of the iceberg” of the entire collection, said archivist Lisa Prince. She focused on the couple’s photographs of California for the exhibit, culling 79 of the nearly 3,000 images for the public display.
McCarthy and his wife spent most of their 50-year marriage in San Francisco, where McCarthy was stationed as an armament expert for the United States War Department. The childless duo were free to pursue a passion for photography and travel. They documented road trips throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba.
Prince divided the exhibit into locations and themes: California’s deserts, the Central Coast, Northern California, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park and images of McCarthy’s family and friends.
“I tried to include significant events in the state’s history,” Prince said. The exhibit includes a photo of the McCarthys posing at the the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, documenting the completion of the Panama Canal and showcasing San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Some shots were taken because McCarthy happened to be in the right place at the right time, such as a photo of the fire that destroyed the San Francisco Cliff House in 1907.
The exhibit not only is a peek into early 20th century history, but also reaches deeper into California’s history. There is a photo titled “Indian over 100 years old,” taken around 1905. According to the archives’ display, if this title is accurate, then the Native American subject was born while California was under Spanish rule.
While McCarthy was interested in history and the changing landscape of the United States, he was by no means a career historian or professional photographer.
“McCarthy definitely was an amateur photographer,” Prince said. “Some of the older (photos) are not as good as later ones.”
Still, McCarthy’s accomplishments are impressive for a novice photographer, she said. In 1905, when McCarthy was traveling the Northwest, even flashbulbs had not been perfected or made available to amateurs, rendering photography on cloudy days frustrating, and at night, impossible.
Of course, there is the possibility that the couple made such an effort to document their travels because they knew how novel this type of exploration was.
The photos were taken in the beginning stages of automobile travel, which was restricted to those who could afford automobiles, Prince said. In one 1915 photo, the couple sit in their car on the “Sacramento Causeway” – now the Yolo Causeway – one of the first major cement spans from Sacramento to San Francisco. Before the causeway was constructed, drivers had to take a longer route through Stockton.
The collection includes more personal photos, including group portraits with the couple’s family and friends. In another photo, William McCarthy feeds a small bear in Yosemite National Park, accompanied by the witty caption “Don’t feed the bears!”
The archives are mostly coordinated by the government. It is rare for the archives to catalog and display private collections, since the archives are usually coordinated by the state government, said press secretary Sam Mahood . This collection was donated by William and Grace McCarthy’s great niece Audrey Fullerton-Samora of Sacramento in 1996.
If you can’t make it to the State Archives or want to see more of the McCarthy photos, then have no fear: an expanded version of the exhibit will be uploaded in the Google Cultural Institute by mid-July. Eventually, all of the McCarthys’ photos will be available for online viewing.