The Journal of San Diego History
Spring-Summer 1998, Volume 44, Numbers 2 & 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

By Gregory L. Williams

Guide ~ Images ~ About Collections ~ About Albums ~ Index


Hotel del Coronado under construction

The Booth Historical Photograph Archives of the San Diego Historical Society contains over two million images. These images show San Diego County from the mountains and desert to downtown and the beaches. Dating back to the 1860s, the collection tracks the expansion of the West, the development of the San Diego area, the contributions of various ethnic groups, the geographical formations of the region and the connections between San Diego and Baja California.

It is the way that familiar places used to look that brings so many people to the photograph collection of the Historical Society. With two million or more photographs, the SDHC Collection is one of the most important regional collections of photographs in the nation.  It allows the public access to San Diego’s past and clues as to why it looks like it does today. Decade after decade commercial, journalistic or family photographers in San Diego have focused their work on familiar neighborhoods, beaches, harbors, and buildings. This collection, then, allows researchers the opportunity to see how San Diego looked over one hundred years ago, how it has changed, what was being worn, or driven, or sailed.

Crossing the Border In addition to its obvious local connections, the Society’s photographs should be seen as a collection of regional, national and international significance. From a national perspective the collection documents what became of the San Diego area as it was settled by immigrants from the east, the south and elsewhere. Issues relating to water in arid climates, Native Americans, relations with Mexico, air and automobile transportation, suburbanization, agriculture, and recreation are addressed and presented through the work of many late nineteenth and twentieth century photographers. The size of this collection certainly allows in depth examination into the rapidly changing cultural, political and social mores of the region, state and nation.


For years the Historical Society’s photographs have been used by researchers in need of illustrations, but the photographs have also lined the walls of restaurants, businesses, and public institutions. Researchers have used the images in books, films, television news, and computer home pages. Property owners have used the collection to document the design changes in buildings or houses in the city. Environmentalists have used the collection to establish locations of toxic sites. This collection is also fun, intriguing and poignant. The opportunity to ‘read’ photographs which show San Diego’s past brings a greater understanding of the way the city has evolved. G.A.R. Parade May 2nd 1899


Jane and Larry Booth The nucleus of this collection is represented by the work of several commercial photographers who worked in San Diego between 1870-1940. A large segment of the work of three early photographers was purchased by the Union Title & Trust Insurance Company in 1947. In the following three decades the collection grew under the guidance of curators Larry and Jane Booth to well over 150,000 images. In 1979 the collection was transferred to the San Diego History Center. During the 1980s and 1990s the collection expanded rapidly with the work of several important twentieth century photographers, and the huge addition of the photographs from the San Diego Union-Tribune. This collection is large enough to illustrate thousands of books and diverse enough to contain a specific photograph of an obscure building torn down before World War I. The collection continues to expand with both the images of professional photographers and the small donations of photo albums or family photographs by historically minded San Diegans.

The collection is not only diverse but also well preserved. Copy negatives or duplicate negatives have been made of large groups of photographs that were once in danger of disappearing because of deterioration. It has also been well preserved by longtime staff members and a corps of longtime volunteers who are responsible for maintaining this most important component of San Diego’s past. In 1994 the Historical Society honored former curator Larry Booth and former archivist Jane Booth for their many years of work in preserving photographs by naming the collection: The Booth Historical Photograph Archives.

Gregory L. Williams, (Former) Curator of Photographs at the San Diego History Center, has worked in curatorial and archival positions at the New Jersey Historical Society, Rutgers University, Colonial Williamsburg, the Oregon State Archives, and the South Carolina Historical Society. He has a Masters’ degree from the University of Oregon. He has compiled and written the Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Early American Research Reports, Guide to the Records of Consumers’ Research, and other guides and articles. He has curated several exhibits including, “San Diego: All in a Day’s Work.”