Reading Room Exhibit

A Tale of Two Cities: Romanticism & Reality in 1930s Sacramento

Location: CSH Reading Room Exhibition
Dates: October 2023 – October 2024
Cost: Free
Hours: Open during normal business hours

In 1939, the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce held the Golden Empire Centennial, a lavish summer-long series of events celebrating the arrival of John Sutter a hundred years before. Sacramentans reveled in the romanticized, yet largely inaccurate, telling of the past. Meanwhile, after years of suffering through the Great Depression, thousands of residents found themselves living in local shantytowns and decaying urban housing. They were barely scraping by. 

This exhibit contrasts two starkly different experiences of Sacramento in the 1930s. Photographs from the Golden Empire Centennial depict a grand celebration, while artist John B. Matthew’s pen and ink drawings show the struggles of those impacted most by economic collapse.

This exhibition is presented by the Center for Sacramento History; curated by Staci Cox and Kim Hayden.

Golden Empire Centennial 

Roaring Camp was built as a reconstruction of a mining town in Southside Park for the Golden Empire Centennial. Open all summer long, the town covered more than 12 acres and consisted of 50 buildings meant to evoke the “romance and color” of early California mining camps—minus the mud, disease, and violence. It boasted a theater, gambling halls and dance halls, shops, and concessions. Opening weekend was a hit, with 15,000 people estimated to have attended.


Hoovervilles and Matthew

Born in Berkeley in 1896, John B. Matthew settled in Sacramento sometime after his graduation from the Chicago Art Institute. He joined the staff of Sacramento City College in 1926, rising to art department chair by the time of his retirement in 1960. In the 1930s, Matthew visited Sacramento’s Hoovervilles and drew their residents from life. His sketches offer a rare depiction of the lives of those hit hardest by the Great Depression. The evident hardship experienced by people in these drawings offers a dose of reality and a stark contrast to the joy documented in the photos taken during the Golden Empire Centennial.