Portrait Gallery: Los Angeles Firefighter George Cornelson, ca. 1900s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among the many portrait photographs in the Homestead’s collection, among the most interesting are vocational ones, which show the subjects in clothing or with some other elements that indicate the work they did.

Today’s entry shows George Henry Cornelson of Los Angeles dressed in a firefighter’s uniform.  At the time the photo was obtained, it was assumed that Cornelson was a member of the Los Angeles Fire Department as a paid firefighter.  Yet, a little poking around shows that Cornelson was a butcher by trade and it appears that he was a volunteer firefighter.

Firefighter George Cornelson Los Angeles 2011.299.1.3
A circa 1909 portrait of George H. Cornelson, who appears to have been a volunteer firefighter in Los Angeles.

The portrait came with two other images, showing a firefighting crew in action in a residential neighborhood in Los Angeles.  Those photos were taken by a professional photographer, suggesting that the activity was a training exercise of some sort and that it was to be documented.

One of the views has Cornelson identified by name and an arrow drawn to him as he ran down the street with his compatriots, some pulling a two-wheeled vehicle with what looks like a large water barrel on it.

Cornelson is identified by a pencil inscription in this interesting view of a crew of men in street clothes, some pulling a two-wheeled vehicle with what looks like a water barrel down a residential street.  The image, taken by a professional photographer, appears to show a training exercise.

None of the men, however, are in uniforms, but are, rather, in street clothes, which lends credence to the idea that they were volunteer firefighters.  The second photo is taken from a distance on the same street and shows men spraying water from a hose on a house, though there doesn’t appear to be a fire.

As for Cornelson, he was a native of Missouri, born there in February 1874 to Prussian emigrants John, a carpenter, and Helena.  His oldest sister was born in Prussia, but the other four children were born in Missouri and the family’s migration took place in 1871.  The reason for the move to America may well have been because of the war between Prussia and France that took place around that time.  By the early 1890s, however, the family headed west and settled in Seattle.

Some of the same men shown in the image above are spraying water with hoses towards a bungalow, though there isn’t an appearance of fire or damage to the house, again suggestive of a training exercise.

By 1900, the Cornelson family was in Los Angeles, where John was working as a brewer.  George, however, was living in Manchester, New Jersey, where he was working as a butcher.  He’d recently married and had a baby daughter, soon followed by a namesake son.

But, by 1906, Cornelson was remarried and in Los Angeles, perhaps because the death of his first wife.  Living in South Los Angeles near Western and Slauson, Cornelson was, in 1910, working as a newspaper clerk and perhaps the photos of Cornelson and his fellow volunteer firefighters, which date to May 1909, were taken in his neighborhood.

The 1910 federal census listing for George Cornelson and his family in South Los Angeles, about a year after the photos above were taken.

When he registered for the draft during World War I, Cornelson was working as a meat cutter for a company in Hollywood and lived just a few blocks away.  By the 1930s, he moved out to the sticks in Encino and was a farmer.  Presumably he was still living there when he died at the end of 1937 at the age of 63.

When acquiring historic artifacts, I often wonder how a given object found its way from an original owner to wherever it wound up when I obtained it for the Homestead.  Usually, there’s no way to know.  Perhaps Cornelson kept these in his possession when he died.  His widow may have left them to one of their children and it may have wound up in the hands of a photo dealer or someone picked them up at an estate or garage sale.

In this case, that provenance, or history, isn’t known, but the portrait of George Cornelson in his firefighting uniform is an early one and is one of many examples the museum has of vacation portrait photography, so check back for others in this series.


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