San Francisco’s Commercial-Civic Elite: A Reminder of Civic Duties and Responsibilities

March 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

During the period which has become known as the Progressive Era in American History, San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite  operated within this progressive impulse in an attempt to promote a more harmonious, efficient, and progressive social development. Especially in San Francisco and California, the social, economic, and class chaos of the 1870s and 1880s had a profound impact on the city’s leadership, civic and commercial. Business leaders, politicians, and influential individuals began to operate in a new social paradigm which attempted at base to preserve the benefits of the Second Industrial Revolution and Corporate Capitalism, but also to regain a semblance of social cooperation, harmony, and stability. While the benefits of the new economy were clearly apparent with the rise of general material prosperity among the population, the depths of poverty, strife, and conflict grew even deeper through all classes. During the 1870s and 1880s, workers clashed with workers, capitalists debated capitalists, and reformers from both sides worked against themselves and the other. Emerging from this dramatic period and pace of change was a sense that something had been lost in this economic paradigm shift. If liberty, community, and family were the foundations of a harmonious and self-sufficient society, how in the trend away from these practical ideals, can society continue to fulfill the ideas of the Revolution of 1776? Industrialization, corporate capitalism, and a clear class based society produced, not community, but discontinuity in American society.

In San Francisco during the 1890s, this progressive impulse led many of the city’s commercial-civic elite to initiate programs that would foster social harmony and cooperation among a diverse and clearly divided urban society.  One way that commercial and civic leaders attempted to foster these ideals of cooperation and harmony was to promote widespread participation in events which celebrated the city and its people. Civic celebrations like California Admission Day, the Fourth of July, and the anniversary of James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold, presented opportunities for the commercial-civic elite to shape society in their own Progressive image. By fostering civic cooperation among classes, businesses, and peoples, the elites saw it as a program of in socialization – or more rightly Americanization. If the traditional ties that bind peoples together were weakening – community, family, and religion – a new civil program must replace it to maintain a cohesive American urban society, they thought. In planning civic celebrations and events in this period, San Francisco’s commercial-civc elite attempted to order their society en mass.

To get a sense of the ideology and percepts of this progressive impulse, I have posted numerous sources of San Francisco’s elite reporting their programs of cultural ordering and Americanization. (Under keyword “collective identity“)  Another, from Edward Coleman, a very influential individual among San Francisco’s elite, illustrates the duties and responsibilities of citizens in celebrating their city and its progress. Calling for widespread participation in California’s Golden Jubilee (1898), Mr. Coleman appealed not to individuals or groups, but to the populace as a whole and explained the duty they had in celebrating and funding Marshall’s discovery of gold fifty years prior. It was the duty of these citizens to celebrate what the city’s elites saw as a shared historical precedent.

The San Francisco Call, December 1, 1897:

[Source Transcription]

Edward Coleman:

During the recent meeting of the California State Miners’ convention in this city the suggestion was made that California should fittingly commemorate, on January 24, 1898, the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of gold in the state.

The idea commended itself strongly to the Miners’ Association, was enthusiastically taken up by the Society of California Pioneers, which annually celebrates the occasion, and soon enlisted the energies of the Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West.

Several meetings of representatives of these bodies have been held, an organization has been effected entitled “California’s Golden Juiblee,” and it has been decided that the celebration and the anniversary shall take place January 24, 1898. Should the public support justifly the extension, the celebration will last one week. So far the plan includes a great parade typical of the Golden West and its history, balls, banquets, special entertainments, military and naval displays, etc.

To carry out this project will involve the outlay of not less than $50,000, which can be well expended in imparting the dignity and attractiveness necessary to the display. To raise this sum the general public must be appealed to.

The discovery of gold by Marshall on the American River January 24, 1848, virtually created the great and grand State of California, and should be honored to the full by all Californians for that reason. At the present time it is particularly advisable that Calfironians should remind the world that it still holds the record as the gold-producing State of American with a product of $1,300,000,000, and give the world at lareg an opportunity to learn that the state contains mineral riches which will keep it in the front rank for an indefinite number of years

California as a state and San Francisco as the metropolis have but to draw the eyes of the world upon them to be accorded the commercial supremacy that only ignorance or rival interest has ever denied them. A golden opportunity to do this, while affording entertainment to our citizens as well as to the thousands who will come from the coutnry and the surrounding towns, is presented in the golden jubilee, and the jubilee commitee trusts thtat the enterprise of our merchants, property owners, and tradesmen will immediately insure a clebration worthy of San Francisco.

The city will be throughly canvassed by committeemen whose books will show that they are officially authorized to collect for the entertainment fund, and by an arrangement with the Bank of California that institution will be the depository of all moneys so collected. In order to assist the work of the canvassing committee an arrangement has been made whereby checks may be sent directly to the Bank of Califonria. All cheks should be drawn in the name of Henry S. Martin, treasurer.

Further Reading @ Gilded Empire:


  • Berglund, Barbara. Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press Of Kansas, 2010.

  • Gillis, John R., ed. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

  • Hill, Patricia. Dallas: The Making of a Modern City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

  • Issel, William, and Robert Cherny. San Francisco 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

  • Rydell. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

  • Wrobel, David M., and Michael C. Steiner, eds. “Forging a Cosmopolitan Civic Culture: The Regional identity of San Francisco and Northern California.” Chapter to Many Wests: Place, Culture, and Regional Identity, edited by David M. Wrobel and Michael C. Steiner. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997.


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