Most descriptive studies of the psychopathology of schizophrenia have focused on the period following illness onset. Little attention has been paid to the assessment of psychopathology before onset of psychotic symptoms. In this study, 71 first-hospitalization patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective, or schizophreniform disorder using DSM-III-R criteria were assessed on measures of premorbid adjustment, clinical history, and presenting symptomatology. A pattern of progressive decline was characteristic of 21 percent of the cases--primarily males with a long-term history of psychotic symptoms before first hospitalization and a trend for more severe negative symptoms at hospital admission. Patients who had a stable pattern of good premorbid adjustment experienced symptom onset and first hospitalization at a later age than those with a chronically poor premorbid adjustment. Time from onset of first psychotic symptom to first hospitalization varied from less than 1 month to over 20 years and was not associated with symptom severity or age of first psychotic symptoms. Systematic characterization of the earliest manifestations of schizophrenia may be important in identifying subgroups of patients with a similar course of illness, and may ultimately facilitate diagnosis, treatment, and understanding of the pathophysiology of schizophrenia.