The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1986, Volume 32, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Early California Oil: A Photographic History, 1865-1940. Number Four, The Montague History of Oil Series.

By Kenny A. Franks and Paul F. Lambert. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1985. Illustrations. Index. 243 Pages. $34.50. 

Reviewed by Lawrence B. de Graaf, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton, author of several articles on Western black history.

This history of the oil industry in California is an effort to rectify the minimal treatment which that topic has received from state historians. It focuses on the boom period from the 1890s to 1940, when most of California’s oil fields were developed. Following an introduction summarizing the earliest oil explorations statewide, the book is organized by the geographic regions which contained oil. The history of various fields is summarized in a brief text, then illustrated with an extensive array of pictures. Overall, there are more than 300 photographs covering 160 pages, as opposed to 73 pages of text. Therein lie both the merits and the weaknesses of this book.

The photographs are well done. Their physical quality is immediately impressive, for none are blurred or difficult to distinguish in detail. The selection well portrays several features of the oil industry. Panoramic shots depict the barren terrain of many oil fields, and the evolution of technology is well covered. One obtains a good idea of living quarters and some aspects of oil work, while the drama of oil history is portrayed in gushers and fires. These photos are complemented by excellent captions. Many are small paragraphs, and they carry much of the story of evolving technology and working conditions.

The text, on the other hand, bears weaknesses typical of illustrated histories, It is too limited to treat its subjects in depth, to have good style, or to offer thoughtful organization. In several chapters the text is a series of facts with little connection or analysis. Paragraphs are short and not always arranged in a coherent sequence. While technical terms are few, readers unfamiliar with them will wish for explanatory footnotes or a glossary,

The text also suffers from the geographical organization of the book. Significant developments that merit an overall analysis are treated piecemeal in various chapters. Technological changes, from wooden to metal derricks, dropped bits to rotary drills, wagon to pipelines, are fragmented among the regions in which each change first occurred. Getty, Union, and other large companies are mentioned with no analysis of why they became so large while many other firms disappeared, The geographical arrangement does make this work more thorough in its coverage of oil in the state than many others, but the detailed naming of fields, tracts and wells is oddly not complemented by maps, which makes the details overwhelming in places.

Some readers will criticize the tone of this book, for it celebrates the growth of the industry and minimizes its social and environmental impacts. Only a few adverse working conditions are mentioned and only one strike. Waste and neighborhood encroachment are noted, but more recent environmental concerns are omitted.

San Diego history buffs will be disappointed, for the relative lack of oil fields in this area led the authors to go no farther south than Orange County. They will also miss an analysis of the impact of oil on the state as a whole. But they should appreciate the two chapters devoted to the development of the industry in the Los Angeles basin, particularly the dramatic pictures of how congested those urban fields were. They should also appreciate the good overview of the development of the oil industry for the novice in that field and considerable details for scholars to build on.