San Francisco’s “Savage” New Year’s Eve: December 31, 1897

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Remembering the Past: Tradition and Temporality

As the New Year approaches, the American tradition of reflecting on the year’s past and one’s own future comes to bear on us all. The ritual of a New Year’s renewal is certainly much older than our own nation. According to historians like Michael Kammen, the New Year had always brought a cultural urge in Americans to take stock in the past, and orient one’s self towards a perceived future existence (and by implication one’s present existence). In relation to my investigation and understanding of San Francisco’s collective identity in the 1890s, public New Year’s celebrations offer a similar window into glimpsing the city’s collective identity as other participatory public events such as California’s Admission Day presents. Observing how the city’s inhabitants celebrate this cultural tradition reveals how individuals and groups understand their shared urban society’s existence in time. Similar to Washington’s Birthday, California’s Admission’s Day, and the Fourth of July, mass public celebrations demonstrated symbolic representations of the society’s social order and collective self-awareness.

"San Francisco New Years Eve, 1898"

Image in The San Francisco Call (January 1, 1898) depicting the celebration of New Years Eve as the procession passes the Claus Spreckels Building (The Call Building)

As the San Francisco’s regional economic and cultural dominance began to be significantly challenged by other Pacific urban centers like Los Angeles and Seattle, the city’s uptick in the 1890s inspired a new debate in the public sphere on the city’s regional status and future. Exemplified in James D. Phelan’s oration on opening day of the 1896 Mechanics’ Fair, San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite saw the dawning of a new era as the ending of the century neared. What was San Francisco’s role within the western most region of the American nation? How did the city’s residents see the New Year in relation to their city? One glimpse of the answer to these questions can be found in observing and analyzing how people participated in these festivities.

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Commemorating Regional Empire, Part II: “A Pacific Metropolis,” San Franciscan Visions of Urbane Grandeur

September 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Imagining an Urban Utopia

(Part I @ “Commemorating Regional Empire“)

In Part I, we introduced the concepts of the Pioneer Myth and its interpretive framework. According to much of the historiography, San Francisco as the “Pacific Metropolis” was not codified in local and popular rhetoric until after the turn of the century and especially in the wake of the Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915).[1] However, in the 1890s this urban identity seemed to already dominate many of the leading civic, business, and cultural elites’ rhetoric, including the largest newspapers of de Young and Spreckles. In 1897, the rush to the Klondike Gold Rush in particular, as well as European and Asian imperial conflicts, dominated the foreign media coverage in the papers. The reporting of these stories and the editorials that followed revealed an entrenched awareness of San Francisco as the regional metropolis of the Pacific coast. As I had mentioned in a previous post, “Commemorating Regional Empire, Part I,” San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite were especially vocal about their city’s regional dominance on the Pacific coast. What was it that the commercial-civic elite were so eager to express? What was it about San Francisco and its past that they thought was so exceptional? How did they explain the roots of their present success? And how did these ideas relate to the understanding of American Exceptionalism expressed in national politics and the media of the late 19th century?

New Era Edition

Image of California’s Minerva in “New Era Edition” of The San Francisco Call (December 19, 1897).

Throughout the headlines of the San Francisco Chronicle, Call, and Examiner, the rush north to the Yukon Territory was framed and seemingly appropriated as what they saw as a naturally Californian and particularly San Franciscan event. Their understanding of San Francisco’s dominance over the Pacific Coast region led them to think it was only natural that the city would encapsulate and integrate the emerging markets into its urban grasp.[2] The city’s dominance in western mining, and its advantages as a supply route of the explosive Klondike market were expressed very forthrightly and implicitly in editorials, reports, and published opinions throughout November and December, 1897. The crisis in the Yukon Territory at Dawson City during the winter of 1897-98 becomes, for example, an opportunity for the editors of the Call and Chronicle to demonstrate not only their superior coverage of an event in a distant land, but also the logistical abilities of the city to come to the starving community’s aid. Only San Francisco, they argued, had the ability to mount and successfully outfit such a grand humanitarian operation to rescue the starving miners at Dawson City.

This understanding of the city’s significance was also expressed at the expense of other regional hubs like Seattle and Los Angeles.[3] One troubled relief effort for Dawson City by western regional competitor Seattle, for instance, leads to a media discussion of how the San Franciscan effort will be much more successful due to its superior people and natural urban advantages. Daily and weekly updates of ships in and out of the bay bolstered their claims of the superiority of San Francisco’s port and her sister city, Oakland with its supporting role. Interestingly, this urban identity demonstrated by the pages of the Chronicle and Call silences the fact that many of the migrants to the Arctic Circle were of many nations and ethnicities and in fact did not travel through San Francisco. Yet since many, and according to their claims the vast majority, would consume products transported by San Francisco on their way to the Klondike, these migrants would be commercial surrogates for San Francisco’s imperial grandeur in expanding markets.[2]

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The San Francisco Call: “New Era Edition,” Part I

September 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Call’s New Era of San Francisco

Introduction:

Published on December 19, 1897 to commemorate the paper’s move into its new headquarters, the “New Era Edition” of the San Francisco Call was distributed across the state and the nation. By 1897, the San Francisco Call had been a longstanding institution in San Francisco since 1856. The front-page of this massive 80pg issue displayed a full illustration of the new structure christened the ‘Claus Spreckels Building.’ The image depicts an imposing steel and stone structure which stands in stark contrast to the pedestrian human landscape in its shadow, a clear vision of urban grandeur. Throughout the paper’s headlines the Call reports a “New Era” has come for not only the newspaper but for the city itself. The migration of the paper into the one of the largest and imposing structures in the city declared their own confidence and evaluation of San Francisco’s significance in the West.

All through the pages in the fall of 1897, the Call reported an economic resurgence in the city and across the state. The chaos of the 1870s and the stagnation of the 1880s, they argued, were behind them. Bolstered by positive economic reports in local, regional, and national markets, the editors presented a vision of the city as the Pacific metropolis. From articles on culture, arts, manufacturing, and agriculture, the Call argued for the continued dominance of the city in the region and downplayed competitors like Seattle and Los Angeles. Reporting on December 21, the Call was not at all disappointed by the overwhelmingly positive response from much of the state’s leading newspapers for the New Era Edition paper. In a way the reviews expressed a general consensus in the Call’s assessment of the region’s progress from its rough mining past. The trajectory of the region would not be slowed, according to the Call:

The earliest mode of travel to the Golden Gate was that known as coasting, for in no other way could California then be reached. San Francisco’s first settlers came hither by water, and although the pony express and overland stage which followed later were succeeded by railroad facilities for passenger and freight transportation, the coast trade of California has always been of vast importance to the people and the State, and will continue to occupy a position of steadily increasing value in the world of commerce as time goes on.[1]

"San Jose Corruption"

The San Francisco Call cartoon depicting the defeat of civic corruption in San Jose, California in the winter of 1897.

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California’s Admission Day: A “Decline of Popular Politics”?

September 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Citizenship & Civil Religion at the Dawn of the Progressive Era:

California Admission Day

San Francisco Call image of the Native Sons of the Golden West

162 years ago California was admitted as the 31st state in the Union. Does admission day (September 9) mean anything anymore?

Certainly contemporaries in 19th century California saw a great significance in celebrating the admission of their Pacific Coast republic. As it was celebrated by the Native Sons of the Golden West in San Francisco, parades, speeches, and entertainment enlivened a mass community to celebration. During the 1890’s California’s Admission Day celebrations were huge affairs of historical pageantry, carnival, and expositions. Most significantly, Admission Day also provided a public venue for elite sanctioned versions of the history of California. For instance, many attractions at Admission Day’s would carry interpretations of the significance of the Anglo-gold rush to San Francisco and the state. It emphasized the removal of the Mexican nation from sovereignty in Alta California, and California’s significance overall to national prestige.

California Admission Day, 1897

Front page image of the San Francisco Chronicle on California Admission Day, September 9, 1897

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Commemorating Regional Empire, Part I: San Francisco’s Golden Jubilee, 1898

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Regional Identity and Historic Legacies:

Newspaper reproduction of handbill for California’s Golden Jubilee

As 1897 was fading into memory, the Society of California Pioneers of San Francisco saw a unique opportunity for next year’s celebration of Marshall’s gold discovery on the American River.[1] It had been 50yrs since the Golden State began its evolution into an American place.[2] Every year in January, the Society celebrated the time, place, and people of the California Gold Rush. Composed of individuals present (or descended from) in the earliest days of American occupation of Spanish, an then Mexican California, the Society sought to preserve and disseminate the history which fueled the energy and growth of San Francisco of the 1890s. The Pioneer Myth that emerged as the narrative of the state’s development, needed little reinforcement in the city which came to dominate regional mining, commerce, and culture by the 1880s.[3] Why did San Francisco hold such a commanding presence in the memory of the inhabitants of California and the city of San Francisco? Why were organizations like the Society of California Pioneers still celebrating this event fifty years later? In short, Marshall’s discovery was but the first in a long series of events which led first to American occupation of California, then statehood, and finally the region’s economic and social development. San Francisco was the city that exemplified this transformation. And there would be no place more appropriate, the Society of California Pioneers thought, to commemorate such a seminal event in California’s history.

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A Way to Remember: Joaquin Miller and the California Gold Rush

March 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Faith of the Pioneer Myth: 

As California approached its 50th birthday of statehood, its most renowned “poet of the Sierras” penned what would be the motto of remembering the California Gold Rush. Published in the official pamphlet of California’s Golden Jubilee, most visitors and many of the state’s residents would be exposed to this prose. In remembering the Gold Rush, California’s residents referred to the lines in bold (below) for reflection, assistance in commemoration, and in some ways social retribution when invoked in the name of reforming California’s savage past. But more than anything else, Joaquin Miller’s words became a significant temporal linkage. Those who wanted to invoke the Pioneer Myth of California simply had to recite the few words, “The days of old, the days of gold, the days of ’49.”

{Source Transcription}

“’49.”

We have worked our claims,

We have spent our gold,

Our barks are astrand on the bars;

We are battered and old,

Yet at night we behold

Outcroppings of gold in the stars.

Chorus–

Tho’ battered and old,

Our Hearts are bold.

Yet oft do we repine

For the days of old,

For the days of gold.

For the days of forty-nine. (my emphasis)

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Debating Collective Identity: Does a Social Collective Identity Exist?

February 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

What is Collective Identity?:

A couple of months ago I weighed into a blog debate about historical methodology on the U.S. Intellectual History blog. Needless to say, I was deboned and quartered by another reader on my logic and methodology. Of course I was excited that my post had sparked a transition in the conversation, however it also provided a moment for me to clarify my ideas in writing. Therefore, I have posted below my side of the debate with the included inquiry questions. The point of this post is not to defend my abilities, but to demonstrate some great insight I had while thinking about these issues being brought up with my methodology.

As soon as California became an American state, influential individuals and groups began to establish historical narratives and perspectives on the past that legitimized and defined America’s conquest of Alta California. But how do the ideas of the few transform and transmute into a collective identity of place?

Join the discussion by posting below or responding on Twitter ~ @Calhistorian. I also encourage anyone interested to visit the U.S. Intellectual History blog for a locus of discussion and community. Any suggestions, challenges, or reading that I should know, feel free to post.

Discussion:

Q: Do individuals whom have deeper memories think or act differently than those with shallow memories?

A: As David Lowenthal suggests in, The Past is a Foreign Country, “all present awareness is grounded on past perceptions and acts.” And if so, could not an individual’s particular understanding of temporality, influence the construction of their identities and actions, let alone frame the landscape of their memories which seem to define in large part the characteristics of one’s cultural identity? Additionally, and as suggested by Ray Haberski’s post referenced above (Marking Time Through War), an individual’s broader understanding of temporality results not from a linear extrapolation of the past but from a non-linear, wrinkling web of retrospection.

Memories are certainly “of ‘the past'” as you say, however the character of the past recalled, the depth into history one’s memories travel, and the meaning placed on that depth, seem to represent formative structures of individual identity. “The past,” Lowenthal reminds us, “is both historical and memorial; its scenes and experiences antedate our own lives, but what we have read and heard and reiterated makes them part of our memories too.” Therefore, we should attempt to not only understand what memories a historical actor values, but how that actor’s memory is transfused with diverse and often contradictory conceptions of the past that are not of their own making.

In the words of R. G. Collingwood, the past is called into “being by recollecting and by thinking historically, but we do this by disentangling it out of the present in which it actually exists.” When James D. Phelan, mayor of San Francisco in 1896, announced the “New San Francisco” in a speech given to the Mechanics’ Institute, he presented a version of the past that had a direct causal connection with his present through his advocation of the City Beautiful Movement. In the speech (click for full source) he acknowledged and traced republican and democratic (political systems, not party) precursors as antecedent to San Francisco’s own version of American exceptionalism. Phelan wrote that:

[O]n the map of the world the great bay and harbor, opening into 76,000,000 miles of ocean, was stamped by the hand of Fate and destined for empire, and passing generations, now floating on the tide of fortune, dimly conscious of the greatness of their metropolis, little appreciate the strength of their position and the value of their heritage. We are, perhaps, too close to the object to take an extensive view. We have groveled too long in the slough of self-depreciation, and should arouse ourselves to the dignity of our citizenship, and more particularly to the duties of the hour.

Significantly, Phelan’s understanding of this progressive social perfection of American republicanism was just as much a consequence of his deep memory as much as his position in power and stance on urban reform. Phelan even seemed to understand and act on the difference between those with shallow and deep memories and in some ways indicating his derision for those who failed to understand his long-view of history and the nation’s progressive evolution of republican societies.

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