[Museum exhibit has closed but you can still enjoy this online exhibit]
When it comes to working in San Diego, geography is sometimes destiny. Much of the work that has been performed in the San Diego County area in the past was determined by the area’s terrain, climate and proximity to the sea. Yet, the variety of work that has taken place in San Diego has also been determined by the brawn and brains, talent and sacrifice of the people who have labored before us.
For the last 150 years 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 the County infrastructure viable and they have made San Diego a major center for agriculture, fishing and the shipping industry. Along with the major employers in the region came the related retail stores, governmental services, communications, entertainment, manufacturing, construction, health care and transportation related industries.
Taken from the over 2 million images in the San Diego Historical Society’s Photograph Archives, the photographs in this exhibition show San Diegans at work. The quotations from workers are taken from some of the 1000 oral histories in the Society’s Research Archives.
In San Diego the climate certainly played an important role determining the types of crops that thrived in the area. The mixture of heat, sea air and soil helped make the area’s orchards, vegetable crops, and flower industry thrive. The fishing industry was important in San Diego earlier in this century because of the fishermen who settled here and because of the enormous canneries operating 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. San Diego’s desert climate limited growth of trees that could be used for lumber. Huge rafts of logs were floated down the ocean from the Pacific Northwest and processed in the lumber yards ringing San Diego’s bay. Houses were moved from one place to another – even across the Bay. The need for water led to major dam construction and the need to move around the mountains, the desert, and the lowlands kept endless road grading projects in operation.
The temperate climate and the deepwater port were inducements to the military and the aviation industry to settle in the area. Rueben H. Fleet moved his Consolidated Aircraft Corporation to San Diego to escape Buffalo, New York’s weather. In turn the military and aviation industry brought soldiers and workers who needed to be entertained, housed, and care for. With the military came defense contractors and with San Diego’s research universities came 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 and miners of the 19th century were replaced by the beekeepers who were replaced by fruit growers. In turn the agriculture-based economy coupled with manufacturing, heavy 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, and even as orchards and large segments of agriculture have been replaced by the construction of new housing, shopping centers, and transportation arteries, new industries such as medical research and information age technologies have expanded. While major industries have relocated and industries with no history in San Diego have suddenly appeared and prospered, traditional employment remains. San Diegans still need a barber, a butcher and furniture makers. The future of work in San Diego will depend on this mixture of the 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.
See even more photos An article in the Journal of San Diego History (Summer 2000) includes several more of the photographs from this exhibit.