A century ago Santa Rosa was a far more colorful place. Everything was clean and bright; the town almost glowed. Words on painted metal signs popped out like neon, buildings gleamed and the sky was always electric blue with white fleecy clouds in the distance. Or so it appeared in the colorized Mitchell postcards of 1910.

Of course, every town or picturesque site photographed by Edward H. Mitchell was likewise well-scrubbed and, well, pretty as a postcard. No one would spend a hard-earned penny to buy a souvenir of a grimy factory or a vacant lot. Between about 1898 and 1923, Mitchell produced approximately 8,000 views of the Western United States which are prized today by collectors for their vibrant colors. But although Mitchell always identified where a picture was taken, he almost never revealed the year. Thanks to an item in a Santa Rosa newspaper about Mitchell’s release of a new series, we know his 19 views of Santa Rosa were published in 1910.

Burbank figured prominent in this series and rightly so, as he was Santa Rosa’s main tourist attraction. Also offered were a few downtown scenes that were interesting because they caught our ancestors unawares as they were waiting for the train and shopping and loafing on street corners. Note the family staring at the photographer as the driver of their auto climbs the steps of the Post Office; note also the horse manure in the street.

We can also date when most of the photos were taken to the spring of 1910 because several of the buildings were brand new – pictured are the recently completed Sonoma County Court House, the Post Office that just opened, and Luther Burbank’s soon-to-open Information Bureau. (The only obvious exception is the postcard of Burbank’s cactus, which was a reprint from another photographer and copyrighted 1908). The postcards were also numbered in sequence, from #2419 to #2436 – except for the view of the library, which had the much lower number of 420. And with that, let’s step into the wacky world of the Mitchell postcards.

Santa Rosa’s Carnegie Library was built in 1902, heavily damaged in the 1906 earthquake, and rebuilt with a few architectural changes – you can see the Mitchell postcards for both incarnations at right. It makes fine sense that Mitchell would replace the old view with the new one and keep the same catalog number. As far as Mitchell mysteries go, this is pretty dry toast; we’re just lucky that he didn’t tinker with the town. Mr. Mitchell, it seems, liked to retouch his pictures. He liked to retouch them a lot.

Postcard collectors hunt down the variations. Hats appeared and disappeared, as did street lights, flagpoles, signs, chimneys, church steeples, even mountains in the background. Streams became walking paths. Locomotives appeared on previously empty train tracks. Young men turned into old men while still holding the same enormous watermelon. Oranges were shown growing on eucalyptus trees. His all-time most popular card was #2, “Seals on Seal Rocks”, showing the tourist attraction near the Cliff House in San Francisco. Over the years Mitchell varied both the number of seals and rocks. And speaking of the Cliff House, which burned to the ground in 1907, Mitchell had a great view of the old place photographed in the background from the crowded beach; when it was rebuilt two years later, he kept the same people on the beach and just pasted in the new building.

Needless to say, all these tweaks were a lot of work in the days before Photoshop, particularly when most modifications were trivial. On an earlier Santa Rosa card (#856) “Field of Burbank’s Crimson Poppies”, some reprints had houses in the background vanish behind painted shrubbery and a glimpse of his old carriage house blurred out. Why on earth did he bother making these tiny changes? It seems a little nuts, frankly, maybe O.C.D.

Mitchell also republished some images with new numbers and titles, so the retouching was probably intended to keep the line “fresh” in the face of much competition. While other publishers couldn’t beat him in quality, they undercut his prices in 1908, leading Mitchell to send the newspapers a statement that emphasized his business ethics:

We were the first lithographing establishment in the country to give our workmen an eight-hour day and did it of our own accord. We pay our men as much per week as foreigners in the same line receive per month, and further out money is paid to American workmen who spend it at home and keep it in circulation. It was to notify the trade of these facts that we recently added the imprint ‘Printed in the United States.’ on all our cards.”

This isn’t the place to wade deep into the history of Mitchell’s postcards; there are collectors who have documented his output and personal life to a remarkable degree (mitchellpostcards.com is a good place to start.) Still, basic information can be tricky to find; when starting research on this article, I wish I knew Mitchell partnered and licensed his work with other publishers, particularly Cardinell-Vincent, which is why his distinctive cards appear under other names and sometimes in lesser quality, including “The Road of a Thousand Wonders” series (which originated as a Southern Pacific Company advertising slogan in the October, 1905 issue of Sunset, the magazine published by the railroad).
As far as I can determine, this is the first time the 1910 Santa Rosa series has been presented together in their original context. Missing are cards 2424, 2425, 2426, and 2434; what they pictured – or even if they existed – is unknown. The Sonoma County theme continued with at least three views of Petaluma, which can be seen here, here and here.

Credits: Cards 420, 2429, 2430, Sonoma County Library; 2421, 2422, 2435, UC/Berkeley, Bancroft; 2419, 2427, 2428, 2431, 2432, 2433, CardCow.com

(CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge. Higher resolution images may be available from original source)

420 – Public Library, Santa Rosa, California
2419 – Sonoma County Court House, Santa Rosa, California
2420 – Post Office, Santa Rosa, California

(see related article)

2421 – Santa Rosa Bank, Santa Rosa, California

(see related article)

2422 – Occidental Hotel, Santa Rosa, California
2423 – Overton Hotel, Santa Rosa, California

(see related article)

2427 – Burbank’s New Residence and Information Bureau, Santa Rosa, California
2428 – Bridge and Burbank’s Residence, Santa Rosa, California
2429 – Burbank’s New Residence, Santa Rosa, California
2430 – Burbank’s Experimental Grounds at Santa Rosa, California
2431 – Luther Burbank School, Santa Rosa, California

(The school was at the current location on Julliard Park, 201 South A St.)

2432 – Burbank’s Fruitful Spineless Cactus, Santa Rosa, California
2433 – Cedar of Lebanon, Santa Rosa, California

(see related article)

2435 – Northwestern Pacific Railroad Depot, Santa Rosa, California
2436 – Interior Sonoma County Court House, Santa Rosa, California

(see related article)


A large number of handsome postals have just been turned out by Edward H. Mitchell of San Francisco showing a number of different views of Santa Rosa. They are colored and are to be sold by the local dealers at one cent each. This firm printed 300,000 cards, 20,000 each of fifteen different views. Five views are Burbank postcards and include the bridge and Burbank’s residence; the experimental grounds, his new residence, the information bureau and his old residence, and his fruitful spineless cactus. The other views are interior of the court house, exterior of the court house, Occidental hotel, Overton hotel, postoffice, public library, Santa Rosa bank building, Luther Burbank school, Northwestern Pacific railroad depot, Cedar of Lebanon.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 22, 1910

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