Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fair Lights and a Lady Lost


Ferry Building Lights
The "1915" lights mounted in homage to a similar display on the Ferry Building tower a hundred years ago for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition -- were turned on at about 6:15 on March 3. A crowd gathered around officials for the small presentation, which included Willy Brown and Mayor Ed Lee, and the numerals and border lights were illuminated to cheers. I have to say, it warmed my San Francisco history-geek heart to see it.

The Ferry Building in 1915

San Francisco Welcomes the World and a Lady is Lost in the Crowd
CAR LINES READY FOR THRONGS TODAY -- A San Francisco Chronicle article of February 20, 1915, the day the Panama-Pacific Exposition opened, details how the city would be dealing with the huge flow of people. It was announced that ferries, street railways and bus lines would transport 50,000 people an hour. (1) 

San Francisco, a small city that had very recently tumbled and burned to the ground, was now poised to handle the "greatest crowds in the State's history." In the end, nearly 19 million people visited the fair. To have that many people flow through our modern city as it is now would be monumental. To think of what it must have been like in 1915 is boggling -- and many must have been overwhelmed. One of those people was a woman who found herself at the Ferry Building with no idea of who she was or where she was. From a Chronicle article dated September 20, 1915:

In  a state of physical collapse and suffering from loss of memory, a fashionably dressed woman about 60 years old and of apparent refinement, was taken in charge by Policeman Elmer J. Esperance at the Ferry building about 6 o'clock last evening at her own request. From a railroad ticket to Chicago, which was validated yesterday, and visiting cards found in her handbag she is thought to be Minnie J. Risser of 2319 Hampshire Road, Cleveland Ohio. 

The unfortunate woman, who wore jewelry worth more than $2000 and had $61 90 cents in her pocketbook approached the policeman and said: "Officer, I will have to throw myself on your mercy; I haven't the slightest knowledge of who I am, where I live or what city I am now in." (2)

It goes on to say... "She was in a state bordering on hysteria" and told the police officer that she had no idea how she'd gotten to San Francisco. When taken to Harbor Emergency Hospital she was quieted, but her "lapse of memory was not broken" and she was taken to the Detention Hospital (?) late that night. 

The article reports that a telegraph was sent to her address in Cleveland, but no reply had been received. It is then noted that when she approached the policeman, "she carried a small camera with an exposition tag attached." Minnie had been to the fair, and either something significant happened to her -- or her senses were simply overcome by it all. 

 This is a found photograph of a woman standing in front of
the Ferry Building in the teens. While it's not certain that 
it was taken in 1915, it is possible. This lady can be a
stand-in for the elegantly dressed, poor lost Minnie. 

1. San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current File); Feb 20, 1915; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: San Francisco Chronicle, pg. 9. Accessed in March 2015 at 2. San Francisco Chronicle (1869-Current File); Sep 20, 1915; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: San Francisco Chronicle, pg. 7. Accessed in March 2015 at

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Typewriter You Can Climb

This month a hundred years ago, the Panama-Pacific Exposition opened. Built on tidal marsh filled in with dredged sand, mud, and a dollop of earthquake rubble to fluff it up -- the fair showcased San Francisco's recovery from the 1906 devastation, the completion of the Panama Canal, world industry, and a fantastical vision of the past formed of towering historic-themed palaces constructed with chicken wire and stucco facing.

Exhibits of the technological future included a full scale model of the canal, and a working Ford automobile assembly line where fair-goers could take in the astounding spectacle of a car being produced in ten minutes. And, there was the giant Underwood typewriter. Hard to say if it is more the stuff of a writer's dream or nightmare -- maybe both: a machine on which you could dance out your story in a giddy Busby Berkeley dream sequence... or the looming, mocking, mechanical transmogrification of writer's block!

The California Historical Society is marking the Centennial Anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with events and two exhibits illustrating the history of the fair, including photographs, souvenirs and artifacts.

A Panama-Pacific International Exposition promotional postcard.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Film, Fur, and Theaters on Market Street

In this 1947 street portrait, a woman walks on Market Street past a movie theater playing "Ride the Pink Horse," a noir film of revenge set at a rural New Mexico fiesta, staring Robert Montgomery. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by crime writer and critic Dorothy B. Hughes. This lady is looking somewhat noir herself with that dramatic fur collar and her shadowed eyes.

The movie was released in October of 1947, so most likely it is late fall or early winter in San Francisco, which is usually very mild if not downright warm. The smallest suggestion of a smile at the corner of her lips may be due to the fact that it was probably only just cool enough to break out that fancy coat and she was thrilled to be wearing it. Either that or she's feeling the heat in the name of fashion -- the people behind her don't look quite so bundled up!

This is the third one of my collected walking portraits that was taken in front of a Market Street movie theater, while three others show their subjects in front of large department stores. It seems these were both prime locations for the anonymous strolling street photographers to take their "walkies" -- which capture such dynamic and brief, candid city moments. Viewing the above image with the others (see previous posts), they begin to form a micro history of a mid-Market Street long lost.

The old St. Francis Theater building on Market Street (at Mason & Turk), which can be seen in the posted walkie of my grandmother from the 1930s, and still stood as of about two years ago -- is now gone, along with the other buildings to the east of it. On my last walk past the site, construction had only just begun, and ghost signs were exposed on the buildings at either end. One is for "Anhauser-Busch Lagers / Milwaukee Steam / on Draft," and "Brunswick Whiskey"; the other was harder to read, but seems to say "Chicago... / Tailoring Co." These will be covered up again soon by the new shopping mall, if they haven't been already, not to be revealed again until the next change of city fortunes.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

If You Are Willing (Or, Hooking Up in San Francisco, 1914)

Postcard, postmarked 1914, Angel Island

I've had this tattered postcard for years, and hadn't previously noticed how much information it contains. But in fact, the card tells a story and suggests that nothing has changed much, only the means are slightly different. The brief note is from soldier Jack, who has addressed the card to "Miss Mabel McGown  / c/o Hale Bros. / 5th and Market St. / Alteration Department." The card is postmarked April 21, 1914, Angel Island, which lies in the San Francisco Bay. Above his note he has indicated "Ft. McDowell." At this time, Angel Island was a military base where soldiers were processed for embarkation and return, and it was also an immigration processing and detention station. Structures related to these uses still stand, and are part of Angel Island State Park.

Mabel is presumably a seamstress, and she works at the post-1906 Hale Bros. Department Store building (which currently houses Nordstrom Rack), on the southwest corner of 5th and Market. Jack writes on the front in pencil "If you are willing," and on the reverse:

Are you coming over some time? 
                             Best regards,

Regards from H. and H.
to your friends A. and H.

Mabel did not give him her home address, and it would seem she met him and his friends while out and about with her girlfriends, "A. and H." Possibly the girls took a ferry to Marin on a day off, or attended an event in Golden Gate Park, where they met Jack and his pals, who were likewise taken with the modern working girls.

I hate to doubt Jack's sincerity, but the card makes me wonder. It's clearly suited for the purpose of connecting. Were they available for sale at the commissary on the island? Did he buy it especially for Mabel, or did he keep a supply of these for just such a purpose, as a sort of early Tinder? Send enough of them out as tangible ballots of "like," and surely there will eventually be a match?!

That he sent the card care of the department store raises other questions. It would likely have first passed through the manager of the Alterations Department before reaching Mabel, and how would that have been viewed? Did it put her in hot water with her boss? The moral policing of the 19th century had shifted, war in Europe was looming, times were changing, and people regularly used postcards as we use email or texts (to meet up; change plans; convey quick information) -- with a stamp being cheaper than a telegram. But still. The current equivalent would be a guy meeting a girl at a cafe, who only tells him she works at a particular shop, and to later reach her and press his case he sends an email to her care of the general customer service address!

Did Jack and Mabel eventually reunite, maybe for a picnic in the park with their friends, or a journey out to the Cliff House for a day? The card came to me grouped with a 1909 novelty picture postcard of a Lee McGown, who seems likely to be her brother (along with friend Chris Pratt -- at left?). Another card, postmarked from Salt Lake City October 31, 1911, includes a note from him that says "Heres to it Mabel, Drink it down and will have another shot on this Halloween night... From Wicked Lee."

So, Mabel held on to Jack's postcard through the years, together with those from her brother. Maybe she held on to Jack, too.

Mabel lived on Carl St. at Stanyon

Friday, December 19, 2014

Edge of 2014

22nd and Carolina Street, looking towards Twin Peaks

Just a little view on offer -- to get back into the swing of things after a bit of a blog hiatus. I was recently spending time on Potrero Hill, often walking in the early morning. You soon get the true measure of your condition as you head upwards. And I was reminded of how some of the most amazing vistas of the bay and downtown are to be found there. The inward views, like the one above, are best when the fog is still hanging on. After you reach the top of a hill it takes a few minutes of heavy recovery breathing, but when you look up and around you get your reward.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A San Francisco Intersection, 1931 and 2014

At Masonic Avenue and Page Street, 1931

In his first years, my dad lived with his parents in the Haight Street neighborhood, first at an apartment on Waller Street, and then on Masonic, between Haight and Page. Here he is at 4 1/2 years old, in 1934, standing just down from his house. This corner of the city hasn't changed all that much in the intervening eighty-three years. The building at the intersection behind him is essentially the same--except for the trees in front!

My dad loved it when I moved to this neighborhood, as he retained boyhood memories of it and recalled his parents talking about those early days. Over the years I've walked by his childhood house countless times, as I did just this Friday. I was reminded that it was Father's Day weekend, and of how much he had loved the City. Here he is in front of his house with a Kewpie-faced little friend, "Luciele":

Masonic Avenue, San Francisco, 1931

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pearlies on Powell Street

Mr. and Mrs. Tinsley in San Francisco
My mother has been sorting and cleaning her old files, and came across a news clipping from 1967, announcing the death of the charitable Pearly King of Southwark, London, Fred Tinsley. [1] I asked her why she had saved it, and she had no idea–except that maybe because he reminded her of Emperor Norton, our own titular local royalty. And it’s true, there’s a certain shared sense of whimsical pageantry. It’s easy to imagine that Emperor Norton would have recognized the regal standing of the Pearly King and his consort, and greeted them with all due decorum. The original Pearly, Henry Croft, started the custom of decorating his fundraising suit with pearl buttons in the 1880s, just after Emperor Norton expired at a corner on California Street.

Norton I (c. 1819-1880), Emperor of the US and Protector of Mexico

The accompanying news photo shows Mr. Tinsley and his wife with a Powell & Hyde Street cable car in the background, passengers peering out at them. It was taken on their visit for the “London Week Festival” in 1962. The Duke of Edinburgh made a visit at that time, as shown in a newsreel, so I’m guessing that might have been the impetus for the theme week. The principle event seems to be Prince Philip’s address for The English-speaking Union’s world conference at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, where he reportedly informed the delegates that their chief job was “…to keep things right and to prevent things from going wrong.” [2] And for some added color: Chelsea Pensioner “town crier” Alfie Howard [3] was brought in to hand out leaflets, a leggy model was stationed at Union Square with a mini-dress Beefeater costume, a Routemaster bus took on the City’s hills, and a “British Art Today” exhibit was held. 

The San Francisco Almanac [4] doesn’t include this British themed fanfare in its chronology for 1962, but does list President John F. Kennedy’s visit that same year; the passing of the $792 million dollar BART bond (“the first [new] rapid transit system since Philadelphia, 1907”); the infamous escape of three men from Alcatraz; the first boxing ring set up in Candlestick Park, for a Gene Fulmer/Dick Tiger middle-weight fight; and the closing of the Forbidden City Chinese nightclub. Pearlies, presidents, escaped convicts, boxers, and defunct nightclubs—just your garden variety year in San Francisco. 

In the Tinsley clipping, and another US article from the 1970s, it was lamented that this special tradition of fundraising was dying out, that the younger generation no longer cared about it, and were perhaps embarrassed by it. Adam Joseph, who briefly ran a Pearly Museum in the East End, is quoted as saying that “…today’s youngsters live in smart flats and think donkeys and barrows [the street carts that were the original Pearlies' livelihood] are a joke. ‘They’d prefer a car and a television set,’ he said.” [5] However, a quick Google image or Pinterest search shows the survival, or perhaps resurgence, of at least a lively aesthetic interest. The Tinsleys themselves have entered the canon of fashion history, as seen in Jay Calderin’s Fashion Design Essentials: 100 Principles of Fashion Design (p. 78). And, according to the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society, “about 30 Pearly Families continue the tradition to raise money for various charities.”

The 1967 clipping states that the pearly suits that Tinsley and his wife wore, “with about 70,000 buttons, may be sold to an American curio collector,” as they had no "heir to their 'empire.'" Sad, in a way, if that's what happened. 

I was recently at the Horniman Museum in South London, looking at a temporary display of the Pearly King of Dulwich’s costume and accoutrements, and a woman standing next to me said to her toddler: “Look, it’s the Pearly King’s coat!” The boy whizzed by the glass without looking in and exclaimed, “The Curly King, the Curly King!” She didn’t correct him, allowing him to enjoy his  museum experience in his own manic-toddler way, and I wondered what the possible attributes of a Curly King would be. It seemed no less fanciful than a Pearly King.
Henry Croft (1861-1930), the original Pearly King
You can visit this commemorative statue at the Crypt gallery in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

1 “A Cockney King Dead at 74.” Clipping, journal unknown (probably San Francisco Chronicle), 1967.
2 “British-U.S. Unity is Hailed by Philip.” New York Times (1923-Current file). Nov 14, 1962: ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010), pg. 5. Accessed April 22, 2014 .
3 “London Town Crier’s ‘Hear Ye! Catches Fancy of Children Here...” By John C. Devlin. New York Times (1923-Current file). Nov 6, 1962: ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010), pg. 35. Accessed April 22, 2014
4 Gladys Hansen. San Francisco Almanac. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995, pg. 83.
5 “London’s Pearly Royalty A Dying Breed.” By Della Denman, Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file). April 22, 1974: ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010), pg. 41. Accessed April 22, 2014 .