California’s population growth was one of defining trends of 20th-century America. From 1900 to 1950 the population increased 500%, going from two million to ten million. Then things really exploded, and by the year 2000 the state’s population had climbed to 34 million, making California the most populous state in America.

People have been lured west for a variety of reasons, from the gold rush to Hollywood dreams, but beyond riches and fame there has been also the promise of the sunny California lifestyle, one captured by LIFE staff photographer Nina Leen in a piece that ran in the Oct. 22, 1945 issue.

The unreservedly enthusiastic thirteen-page essay was titled “The California Way of Life,” and it’s not hard to imagine that the article affected some readers the way news of gold in Sutter’s Mill did in the 1800s. The story began with these words, which could have come from a state tourist brochure:

Californians live in a land where the sun shines 355 days a year, where the thermometer seldom falls below 46 degrees, and where towering mountains and endless beaches flank a countryside of incredible fertility. Against the background of these unique natural advantages, Californians have evolved a unique way of life which is physically the most comfortable and attractive way of life enjoyed in any region in the U.S.

It’s worth noting that this story came out just a few short months after the end of World War II, a time when readers might thirst for a new beginning. (The issue also included a story an another feel-good imagination-tickler: “victory lingerie.”)

The article rhapsodized about how Californians spent as much time outdoors as they did inside, dressed primarily for comfort, and could enjoy themselves at all income levels. An editor’s note told readers that “this was Nina Leen’s first trip to California,” and it showed in her sense of joy and wonder at these lives lived by the pool.

The story included a section on the California car culture that made “conventional city life almost obsolete,” LIFE said. “Living in a natural paradise where highways connect modern communities and farms with some of the most beautiful scenery in the U.S., the Southern Californian has created a way of life that, on the physical side, has at least some of the elements of Utopia.”

All these years later, LIFE’s view on the joys of driving in Southern California might be the most dated aspect of this story. Visions of Utopia have been replaced by environmental concerns and also by complaints about spending half your life stuck in traffic.

In the 21st century California has slowed its population growth. The total now stands around 39 million, and the numbers even dipped some during the COVID pandemic. The hard truth about Utopias is that they don’t exist (the literal meaning of the word is “no place”). But as Leen’s essay shows, sometimes pictures can make you believe they do.

Women and girls, in convertible at a drive-in, happily greet female car hop, who has just brought their drinks, from a story on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

This group drove a Model T that they had souped up with extra carburetors and other devices, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A 16-year-old just out of the pool, shot for an essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The wife of MGM’s musical director painted a portrait of her daughter Carol; the photo was shot for an essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Colleciton/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Tourists looking at the mountains in Yosemite Valley Park, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Cars moving along a highway that leads to Lake Arrowhead, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Tourists looking at the mountains in Yosemite Valley Park, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Customers visiting a drive-in beverage stand, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

MGM musical director Herbert Stothart at his Santa Monica home, shot for an essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Two young women using a wishing well, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Rancher Arthur Campbell watching his daughter riding a horse, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A lone wooden chair on hillside overlooking the hazy ruggedness of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range between Carmel and San Simeon, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Essay on California living, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A young couple filling their gas tank at a gas station shaped like airplane, California, 1945.

Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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