The Book


Consuming Identities: Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), ISBN no. 9780190268978

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Book Description


Photography, lithography, and steam printing created a pictorial revolution in nineteenth-century society. The proliferation of visual prints, ephemera, spectacles, and technologies transformed public values and perceptions, and its legacy was as significant as the print revolution that preceded it. Consuming Identities explores the significance of the pictorial revolution in one of its vanguard cities: San Francisco, the revolving door of the gold rush. In their correspondence, diaries, portraits, and reminiscences, thousands of migrants to the city by the Bay demonstrated that visual media constituted a central means by which people navigated the bewildering host of changes taking hold around them in the second half of the nineteenth century, from the spread of capitalism and class formation to immigration and urbanization. Images themselves were inextricably associated with these world-changing forces; they were commodities, but as representations of people, they also possessed special cultural qualities that gave them new meaning and significance. 

Visual media transcended traditional boundaries of language and culture that divided diverse groups within the same urban space. From the 1848 conquest of California and the gold discovery to the disastrous earthquake and fire of 1906, San Francisco anticipated broader cultural transformations in the commodification, implementation, and popularity of images. For the city's inhabitants and sojourners, an array of imagery came to mediate, intersect with, and even constitute social interaction in a world where virtual reality was becoming palpable. 

Advance praise for Consuming Identities

“Consuming Identities is a magisterial account of San Francisco and the rise of visual culture in the nineteenth century.  It transforms our understanding of the city, of the nation, and of the significance of photography and prints to people’s lives.  Brilliantly conceived, tirelessly researched, and intricately and elegantly written, it is one of the most important books on American culture to appear in years--destined to become a classic.”

~ John Stauffer, Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and of African and African American History, Harvard University, and the author, most recently, of Picturing Frederick Douglass

“This is an extraordinarily intelligent study of the visual culture of nineteenth-century America, focussed on the specific locale of San Francisco.  Stories of gold, earthquake, and photography converge in a rich tapestry of vernacular images of miners, criminals, prostitutes, and celebrities.   Immersing the reader in a visual world produced and consumed in a singular place and time,  this book shows us how the study of visual culture works at its best.  It plumbs deeply into a unique archive that has wide-ranging implications for the construction of modern identities in an age of accelerating desires and dangers.”

~ W. J. T. Mitchell, Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History, the University of Chicago

“The California gold rush and the state's admission to the union coincided with the rise of photography and the development of visual culture. This offered Californians from a variety of social backgrounds a fresh way to understand themselves and to represent their experiences to the rest of the country. In this groundbreaking study Amy K. DeFalco Lippert examines the effects of these new forms of cultural expression on California and the nation as a whole. The study offers a significant new understanding of the manner in which Americans attempted to cope with the social and economic changes that swept over the country in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

~ Robert M. Senkewicz, Professor of American History, Santa Clara University

Book Reviews

"A superb chronicle of mass culture in San Francisco in the mid-late nineteenth engaging, and often compelling, narrative about the importance of visual culture for understanding Gold Rush-era San Francisco....It is provocative, informative, and encyclopedic in its coverage of San Francisco’s visual culture in the decades bridging the Gold Rush. In short, Consuming Identities is sure to become a staple in the bookcases of historians studying visual culture, urban history, and the West." 

Jennifer M. Black (Misericordia University) Published on H-California (July, 2018) 


"Engagingly written, meticulously researched, and extensively documented, this handsome volume examines the development of visual imagery in San Francisco in the last half of the 19th century; the rapidity with which almost every method of image reproduction appeared regardless of its place of origin; and what this imagery meant, culturally, socially, and historically. Lippert (American history, Univ. of Chicago) succinctly describes the unique origins of the city itself, the impact of the Gold Rush and the rise of Gold Rush photography, the appearance of individuals from almost every region of the world, and the rapid dissemination, both local and distant, of visual images. The author’s discussion, in the introduction, of the 'pictorial revolution' embraces not only acknowledgement of changes in the production of images through the rapid appearance of the latest international developments in daguerreotypes, but also what the commodification of these images meant for the citizens of San Francisco and the nation as a whole. Her perceptive interpretation of this burgeoning visual culture takes advantage of many resources that have been only modestly interpreted. Particularly valuable are the detailed, comprehensive notes that accompany each chapter."

P. D. Thomas (emeritus, Wichita State University), published in Choice (Sept. 2018)