A Glimpse at 19th Century Commerce and Consumers in the Golden State
On January 24, 1848, California was changed forever. Following James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, thousands of people rushed into California, with the non-Native American population growing from less than 20,000 in 1848 to more than 223,000 in 1852. For the most part, only those miners who arrived in 1848 found the success they were seeking. After 1848, merchants such as Sam Brannan, California’s first millionaire, were the main beneficiaries of the boom.
Most people arrived in California with the bonanza mentality, intending to get rich quick and go back home with their money. While many left empty-handed, many others set up businesses. Among the fortune seekers who stayed were several well-known Californians, such as Leland Stanford and James Lick who were to make significant contributions to the state.
The explosion of commerce after the Gold Rush also led to California’s first-in-the-nation trademark law and a fascinating collection of product labels and logos registered with the Secretary of State.
Goods ranging from cigars and champagne to peaches and patent medicines contained labels with detailed artwork depicting the California landscape, ports, stereotypical colonial images of Native Americans (it should be noted that the depictions of Native Americans in trademarks and other media in the colonial period were harmful and inaccurate - visit the page for more information), and iconic images of the new state — grizzly bears, gold miners, Minerva, the Capitol dome, and colorful produce.
These images and more are showcased in a newly digitized collection of 3,940 trademark applications filed with the Secretary of State between 1861 and 1900. The originals are held by the State Archives and their digitization was made possible through a grant from the National Archives' National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) with assistance from the Friends of the California Archives. These "Old Series Trademarks" provide a colorful glimpse of commerce and consumer goods in the Golden State at a time when the industrial revolution and transcontinental railroad brought transformative change and expansive new markets for products from California farms, vineyards, and factories.
California’s ground-breaking Trademark Registration Act of 1863 allowed businesses to register images and labels for any product with the Secretary of State and made it unlawful for others, without consent, to use the same trademarked items to sell similar or counterfeit goods. An 1861 law allowed registration of brands on certain beverage bottles.
These trademark laws, enacted nearly 10 years before federal trademark legislation, encouraged consumer recognition and brand loyalty for particular goods and gave trademark owners the security to expand, market, and innovate. This, in turn, became a pillar of modern economic development and commerce in California and nationwide.
The "Old Series Trademarks" reflect social trends and cultural norms of the Victorian era, including sometimes racist or stereotypical depictions of ethnic groups. At the same time, the collection captures California’s unique spirit of innovation and the belief that anything is possible in the Golden State.
To take a trip back in time, browse the entire collection of trademark files, each with the company or applicant name and signature, a product description, and label or sketch of the trademark. Use the search tool to find specific items of interest by product, geography, image or other descriptions. Or start your journey with the significant groupings identified by Archives staff by clicking on the headlines below.