The Gilded Empire represents one historian’s investigation of Gilded Age and Progressive Era San Francisco (1870-1917) – consisting of primary sources, various histories and essays, as well as significant historiography


  • All posts regarding San Francisco in the 1890s will be published on the “Gilded Empire” page – in the menu to the left.
    • Also, for an extended introduction click, “Preface.”
    • For a look at Gilded Empire’s references, click “Historiography.”
    • For a sustained analysis of one particular aspect of San Francisco’s identity in the Progressive Era, read below or, click “California’s Golden Jubilee.”
    • For a look at associated primary sources and texts, click “Source Transcriptions.”
    • Lastly, for definitions of critical concepts or processes, click “Glossary.”
  • For discussions on California public history, trends in the historical discipline, as well as historical lectures and events, click “A California Historian” in the menu. This will take you directly to my G+ page.

Introduction: Culture & Society in the American West

This blog seeks to investigate how San Franciscan’s imagined themselves and their city’s place in the burgeoning communities of late 19th century California. San Francisco was conceived in the milieu of the California Gold Rush which framed a dynamic and rapid socio-economic development. This trajectory created a shared regional identity foundation rooted in an accepted, and inherently shared history. Those who lived and worked within San Francisco’s influence could not ignore the historical legacies of the Gold Rush that surrounded them. San Francisco by the 1890s was still a society outlined in the legacies of the California Gold Rush. As one writer among this community intimated  in 1883:

“from out of an unparalleled confusion and incongruity of race and class, by the due process of intelligence, wholesome conduct, and perseverance, the wild city of the tumultuous gold-hunting period has become a home of affluence, of society and fashion, of enterprise and sound prosperity, of wholesome laws and general good order.”

How did San Franciscans in the Progressive Era envision their city and its transformation from a chaotic gold port city to an urbane , civilized metropolis in what seemed to be a single generation?

How did San Francisco maintain its image of a city born for and by Anglo-pioneers of the California Gold Rush in the face of a rapidly expanding, industrializing, and cosmopolitan society?

What urban structures, processes and social dialogues transmute and communicate San Francisco’s cosmopolitan identities into an imagined, and largely shared urban collective identity?

How do these constitutive legacies translate into the repositories of historical memory – cultural traditions, physical relics, and written histories?

Who were the most powerful agents in maintaining and promoting the established imagining, and who sought to challenge  or modify it?

In particular, one understudied event in San Francisco’s history lends itself to answering some of the above questions – California’s Golden Jubilee, 1898. Only four years after the hugely popular Mid-Winter International Fair (1894), San Franciscans were eager to demonstrate once again, not only their city’s economic prowess, but also their society’s demographic and political strength during a significant national turning point in US history.

What would become of American society after the failure of radical Reconstruction? How could the benefits of corporate capitalism be retained while mitigating its seemingly inherent destructive behavior? And how could late 19th century Americans protect themselves from the equally destructive aspects degrading American morality from the influences of the Second Industrial Revolution?  The Progressive Era, as this transitional period has been referred, speaks not to any particular vision of social progress or moral uplift, but to an impulse – a feeling – emerging in the late 19th century that defines social evolution by what has come before and what should be changed for the better. Corruption, immorality, and radicalism must be, as many progressives might claim, moderated for the continuation of the social and political evolution since 1776.

Presenting an Imagined Community: California’s Golden Jubilee, 1898

         The Golden Jubilee and Mining Fair was held in San Francisco from January 24 to March 5, 1898. In the midst of a struggling regional economy, a desperate coalition of associations representing San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite transformed a private legacy of commemoration into a mass civic celebration of San Francisco’s growing preeminence on the Pacific and its ability to capture the accelerating Yukon gold rush. The regional legacy of remembering that fateful day James W. Marshall discovered gold, revealed that as the anniversary approached conflicting visions of San Francisco’s past were retooled and reconciled for the sake of shared civic gain. Every January the Society of California Pioneers had privately observed this anniversary. However in 1897, as San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite were preparing for a new progressive era in the city’s future, three of the most prestigious associations began planning a cooperative commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold on the American River. This commemoration would honor the legacy begun by a single man’s destiny only fifty years prior and present a vision of the city as the Pacific Metropolis.

         The resulting celebration, coined California’s Golden Jubilee and Mining Fair, opened to a grand cavalcade of fraternal, civil and military strength, including a procession of historical pageantry demonstrating San Francisco’s progressive growth from its sleepy Latin past, and finally closed with an extravagant five week long exhibition of the natural, manufacturing, and industrial advantages of the city. The Society of California Pioneers did not envision such a celebration in the summer of 1897. But by Christmas of that year, business and civic leaders saw a different commemoration in mind – one more grand and celebratory that had been attempted since 1894. The grandest spectacle, according to the “Official Souvenir Program,” was the opening of the Golden Jubilee Mining Fair, Saturday January 31. On that night, with numerous separate associative processions converging around San Francisco’s famed Mechanics’ Pavilion, the turning of a golden key in Washington D.C. by President William McKinley ignited the electric lights and drew the giant curtain aside, revealing the entrance to the Golden Jubilee Mining Fair – a celebration of not just James W. Marshall, but a celebration of the society that had developed from its seed.

For more on California’s Golden Jubilee, click “here” and these popular posts @ Gilded Empire:

Digital Humanities: Accessibility & Digitization

In some ways this blog seeks to follow a new trend within the historian’s community known as Digital History (or more broadly Digital Humanities). As Daniel J. Cohen has characterized this new movement in, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web:

“we can do more, reach more people, store more data, give readers more varied sources; we can get more historical materials into classrooms, give students more access to formerly cloistered documents, [and] hear from more perspectives.”

Therefore, the Gilded Empire is also an attempt to both advance my own discipline’s presence on the web, as well as present the past in new and innovative ways.

Of course, all comments, critiques and suggestions are encouraged.

Creative Commons License
Gilded Empire: A Blog by Mark Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: