by Greg Williams
Curator of Photographs
When it comes to working in San Diego geography is sometimes destiny. Much of the work that has been performed in San Diego County in the past was determined by the area’s terrain, climate and proximity to the sea. Yet, the variety of work in San Diego has also been determined by the brawn and brains, talent and sacrifice of the people who have labored before us. Over 250 images from the San Diego Historical Society’s Photograph Department were shown as part of the “All in a Day’s Work” exhibition. This photo essay shows a representative portion of the images in the exhibition. The exhibition covered several areas of labor including agriculture, fishing, early high tech, retail work, factory work, construction, office work, transportation related work and public safety.
For the last 150 years or so San Diegans have profited from the sea. They have manicured the rugged terrain. They have created a mecca for recreation and a bastion for national defense. They have worked ceaselessly at keeping an ever-growing county infrastructure viable. San Diego has been a major center for agriculture (oranges, lemons, avocados), the fishing industry (tuna, kelp, canneries), aviation (Consolidated Aircraft, Solar Aircraft), the military, (the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines), the Harbor (import and export), and recreation (the beaches, the theater, the Zoo). Along with these major employers came the related retail stores, governmental services, entertainment, construction, health care and transportation related industries.
In San Diego the climate certainly played an important role in determining the types of crops that thrived in the area. The mixture of heat, sea, air and soil helped make the area’s orchards, vegetables crops, and flower industry thrive. The tuna industry was important in San Diego in the 20th Century because of the fisherman who settled here and because of the enormous canneries in operation at the Harbor. Geography has also had an effect on the construction and transportation industries. The terrain of San Diego has kept successive generations of bulldozer operators busy flattening and rounding off the land to construct buildings and houses. The climate that prevented large forests from growing here led to the importation of lumber from the Northwest, and indirectly contributed to the house-moving business. The need for water led to major dam construction and to the need to move water across the desert and the mountains. The temperate climate and the deepwater port were inducements to the military and the aviation industry to settle in the area. Rueben Fleet moved his Consolidated Aircraft to San Diego to escape the weather of Buffalo, New York. In turn, the military and aviation industry brought soldiers, sailors, and defense workers who needed to be housed, cared for and entertained. With the military came defense contractors who helped spur San Diego’s research universities and high technology companies that have equipped San Diego with the tools to compete in today’s global marketplace.
As San Diego’s population has multiplied decade after decade, the workforce has continued to expand. The cattle ranchers of the 19th century were replaced by beekeepers who were replaced by fruit growers. In turn, the agriculture-based economy coupled with manufacturing, industry, the military and aviation led to a large post World War II expansion in employment. With the end of the Cold War and the onset of a service-based economy, new industries such as bio-medical research and information age technologies have expanded. However, traditional employment remains. San Diegans still need barbers, butchers and furniture makers. The future of work in San Diego will depend on this mixture of new and old types of employment, and how wisely employers continue to feed off the sea, the harbor, the landscape, the climate, and the vastly skilled workforce.
The photographs in this essay and the Exhibition, initially were taken to document a routine contemporary event or an activity and used for publicity, insurance claims, or newspaper ads, but now provide us with the opportunity to glimpse the not-so-distant past. The photographs give us a chance to compare and contrast both how the occupations of San Diegans have evolved and how they remain familiar. Some of the earliest photographs presented here were taken by J.A. Sherriff. Working in the 1870s, Sherriff, like many of his successors, photographed construction projects, views of the city, and merchants in front of their stores. Also featured in the exhibition are the photographs of Guy Sensor who seemingly photographed every car dealership, factory, restaurant and new home in San Diego between 1925 and 1940; Roland Schneider and Florence Kemmler Schneider, who recorded a wide cast of strange characters and events happening around town in the 1920s; Norman Baynard who served the community for 30 years (1940s-1970s) by documenting African-American life; Larry Booth who covered San Diego on the ground and in the air for Title Insurance’s promotional magazine Title Trust Topics during the 1950s and 1960s; and Charles Schneider who photographed everything from models to power line workers between 1950 and 1985. Especially important are the Core Collections of photographs and negatives in this exhibition. These collections include the vast archive of the Union Tribune Photograph Collection, the TICOR Collection, and the SDHC Negative Collection. The San Diego History Center Research Archives contains the works of other photographers such as Herbert Fitch, Walter Averette, Lee Passmore, F.E. Patterson, Harry Bishop, Jimmy Erickson, and Howard W. Rozelle, who photographed San Diego in their studios, from airplanes, on the edge of cliffs and in the middle of busy streets trying to get the best shot for their client. Their photographs now available to the public in the Society’s Research Archives, are a testament to the endurance of their work.
Gregory L. Williams is Curator of Photographs at the San Diego History Center. He has held several curatorial and archival positions, including the New Jersey Historical Society, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Oregon State Archives. He has a Masters’ degree from the University of Oregon and has written several archival guides and articles. Contact him at email@example.com