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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bartholomew

Old San Francisco

This post is another in my series of book reviews of books no longer in print or available. You can find most of them in digital form at Why, may you ask, review books that are no longer for sale? My answer is that some of them are great stories in themselves.

The book I'm reviewing now is the San Francisco City Directory. Actually there were a great many of them published, but I'm looking at only three samples, all from the 19th Century. As an addict of history, I'm always interested in seeing what daily life was like in the Old Days. After all, the 19th C was not that long ago. My own grandparents were all born in that century; probably many people reading this have known people who were alive then, or remembered others that were.

The City Directories are actual lists of all the people living in the city in the years they were published, their addresses and what they did for a living. Well, actually not everyone. I infer from the listings that they noted only the heads of household, since they don't mention how many were living at each address. Also, the number of women was always under counted since bawdy houses were not listed. On the other hand, I find many revelations in these public records. For example, see the illustration of “water closets,” taken from the Directory from the year 1879. These are what today we call toilets. The pictures make me wonder how they possibly worked. I would be afraid to approach one. If I were to run across one of these devices I would probably call the Bomb Squad.

These books are full of beautiful illustrations, all of them engravings. Remember, this was decades before anyone figured out how to put photographs in books. The pictures are all advertisements for various services and industries. There's one for a company in downtown San Francisco, “John Skinker Mining and Blasting Powder.” I am fascinated with an illustration for a company of stair builders: an engraving of a spiral staircase, free-standing and made of wood. I wonder if anyone today still possesses the skill to build such a thing.

The earliest City Directory I found was from 1850. As far as I know this was the first one. It's worthwhile quoting the introduction.

Bear in mind this book was published just a year after California became a state. The gold rush was in full swing, and the city was busy as a beehive. Looking over the list of citizens with their occupations, we find a full range of jobs represented from lawyers, doctors, builders, clergymen and saloon keepers. Regrettably this first volume of its kind contains no illustrations, but it does have some adverts as well as helpful guides to the city. For example, under “Amusements,” there are four diversions listed: The Aethenium Exhibition of Model Artists, Bull Fighting Arena (on Vallejo Street near Catholic Church), Dramatic Museum, and Rowe’s Olympic Circus. There are also seven newspapers listed – more than the city has today. The guide lists seven churches in addition to “Open-Air Preaching by the Reverend Mr. Taylor on Portsmouth Square on Sundays, at 2 ½ o’clock, P.M.” The directory gives the names of all 45 policemen, as well as the names of “police officers,” meaning those of higher ranks or administration. Regrettably, this volume does not list the dozens of saloons which by then existed in town.

The book concludes with a brief editorial about civic improvements. It suggests putting numbers on building lots, so that correct addresses may be found. There’s also a complaint about the problem that church bells cannot be told from fire alarms. Finally, the end pages are taken up with a few business ads. There are two book stores listed. There’s one doctor: “Benjamin H. West, M.D. Physician and Surgeon, office over the Eagle Saloon, corner of Central Wharf and Montgomery Street.” The San Jose Hotel offers board and lodging, $15 per week, while The Model on Commercial Street proclaims itself the “cheapest eating house in town. Try it.”

This first edition of the San Francisco City Directory ran to 152 pages. The Directory for 1879 has risen to 1149 tightly packed pages. It’s wonderful to look at for the illustrations alone. Reading the text gives me great insight into life of the times. There are more doctors listed than in earlier days. There is also a list of midwives, as well as a fairly long list of woman doctors. In the 1877 volume I find a full page ad for a Chinese doctor, who promises to charge nothing if the patient is not cured. There are also special sections for Chinese businesses. I think these have meaning in understanding the history of ethnic relations. It seems that every twenty years or so someone starts a movement to deport or exclude one minority group or another. In the late 19th C we had the “Chinese must go” movement. It did succeed in limiting immigration, but getting rid of the Chinese already here would have been an economic disaster. Reading the Directory, I find the Chinese had almost every kind of business going, from importing, manufacturing, theater, and retail sales, as well as restaurants and groceries. The 1879 listing is considerably shorter, in part because it was decided not to list the four hundred odd laundries in the city.

Maybe I’m just weird, but I find great entertainment in going through the old City Directories. I’m sure those from other cities would be equally fascinating. There are still some things I don’t quite understand. For awhile I was mystified by a number of listings which give the resident’s occupation as “capitalist.” I finally concluded that what they meant was banker, broker, or investor. I’m still wondering about some of the other occupations listed, such as “ivory turner.” But that’s a mystery for another day.

Oh, and of course you will find Emperor Norton listed on Commercial Street, occupation Emperor.

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