In 1851 Lawrence and Houseworth left the mines and settled in San Francisco where Lawrence sold jewelry. A short time later, he opened an optical shop opposite Portsmouth Plaza. In 1855 Houseworth joined the business. Many years later, Houseworth recalled that it was the first optical shop on the West Coast. Their advertisements promoted imported optical, mathematical and philosophical instruments, Joseph Rodgers & Son's cutlery, magic lanterns, billiard balls, and chalk.
In 1859 Lawrence & Houseworth added stereographs to their inventory. Their stock included images from around the world published by the London Stereoscopic Company, as well as a small group of views documenting Nevada and California. As a way to entice the public, the store displayed the stereographs in their windows.
Lawrence & Houseworth were not the first to promote California through photographs. A decade earlier, San Francisco and the California gold fields were extensively documented by the daguerreotype process. Of the many daguerreotypists working in the West, Robert H. Vance is best remembered for producing three-hundred unique daguerreotype views of San Francisco and the gold fields. In the 1850s these images were displayed in galleries in New York City and St. Louis, making realistic view of the West available to the American public. (Unfortunately Vance's daguerreotypes are no longer extant.)
Capitalizing on the growing market for stereographs, in 1863 Lawrence & Houseworth decided to publish views under their name and made a concerted effort to acquire more photographs. They advertised their desire to purchase stereoscopic negatives of the Pacific Coast. Photographer Charles Leander Weed provided the company with three series of negatives: Sacramento during the Great Flood of 1862; Silver Region, Nevada Territory; and A Trip to Washoe. At this time, Lawrence & Houseworth also hired Weed to make photographs of Yosemite Valley, the trade routes east of Sacramento, and Native Americans in the Sierra foothills. Alfred A. Hart, the official photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad, may have supplied the firm with negatives of hydraulic mining operations in the Sierras.
Lawrence & Houseworth's inventory grew and the firm soon offered the largest collection of stereographs on the Pacific Coast. Their inventory for California alone numbered more than one thousand different views. As might be expected, the company offered numerous views of California's largest cities, San Francisco and Sacramento. These photographs documented hotels, businesses, private residences, and street scenes, including views of San Francisco's Chinatown. In addition, the firm offered extensive documentation of the mining regions of California and Nevada. These boom towns had catchy names like Gold Hill, Dutch Flat, Timbuctoo, Drytown, Hope Valley, and Volcano.
The demands of publishing stereographs required the prospering firm to move to larger quarters in order to accommodate darkroom and printing facilities. The firm's new offices were located on Montgomery Street in San Francisco's business district. In addition to stereographs, the company sold carte de visite portraits of famous personalities. Tourists and new residents of California purchased views of the West to show their friends and relatives back East.
The popularity of Lawrence & Houseworth's extensive photographic inventory was confirmed during the San Francisco Mechanics' Industrial Fair of 1865. A review in the Mining and Scientific Press stated: "Their stereoscopic views have occupied a prominent position in the Art Gallery, and have never, from the time they were first introduced, remained five minutes of time without being occupied by visitors."
George S. Lawrence retired from the business in 1868 and the firm was renamed Thomas Houseworth & Company. The company was always in need of new photographs to document the growth and change of the region. Charles Weed, who had previously made numerous photographs for the firm, had moved his studio to Hong Kong, so Houseworth commissioned the photographer Eadweard Muybridge to make a set of mammoth plate photographs of Yosemite. Meanwhile, another local firm, Bradley & Rulofson, also approached Muybridge about his Yosemite views. In the end, the views were published by Houseworth's competition. To make matters worse, the San Francisco press covered the squabble between Houseworth and Bradley & Rulofson. This publishing fiasco left Houseworth in debt and damaged his reputation.
The 1870s saw a increase in the number of firms publishing stereographs. Even East Coast publishers offered views of Yosemite and other western locations and prices for stereographs plummeted. Houseworth cut back on the number of stereographs that he offered for sale. He took up photography, primarily working as a portrait photographer, as a way to gain a new audience. He photographed celebrities and promoted their portraits through an illustrated catalog.
In the late 1870s Houseworth's financial troubles escalated. For the next decade he continued to eke out a living as a photographer, but later worked as an accountant, a physical culture instructor, and an optometrist. Houseworth died on April 13, 1915, at the age of 86.