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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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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Popular Foundations of Identity: The Narrative of Gold’s Discovery in California

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Popular Myth of James W. Marshall’s Discovery of Gold:

          When James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848, Alta California and the western continent that would become the United States had only just begun its integration into the larger global economy. By 1898, the fiftieth anniversary of that seminal event came to bear on many Californians. Those who identified with the United States’ westward expansion saw themselves on the vanguard edge of the last frontier. The now famous “frontier thesis,” extolled by Frederick Jackson Turner had only just been declared, and California was but the latest and most promising frontier. The “frontier” according to Turner had closed when open land was gone. And to Californian’s in 1898, little seemed to be left of the frontier wilderness legacy of Alta California and the California Gold Rush. San Francisco had become the Pacific Metropolis in the eyes of many. The legacy of Marshall’s discovery in 1898, suggested that the social development of American California was founded on a single event, a single man. The Californian identity around the turn-of-the century was one of a pioneer legacy.

          Printed below is the story of gold’s discovery as presented in California’s Golden Jubilee souvenir pamphlet. The narrative had already been molded and changed since it was first told in 1848-49, as you will read. Official historian of the Society of California Pioneers, John Hittell, when presented with contradictory evidence of the date of discovery, spent a decade tracking down the sources that would speak the truth. By 1893, Hittell presented his findings. But what this change in the narrative suggests is more than a changing date of discovery, but the uncertainty of popular myth and the identities in which they are built upon. Little changed in regard to those who identified with this pioneer myth. However, the fate of John W. Marshall in his later years demonstrates that narrative truth had little influence on the popular myth of California’s birth as an American republic.

[Source Transcription]

The Story of the Discovery of Gold

          It was in the fall of 1847 that Marshall began building that famous sawmill which incidentally led to his discovery of gold. Marshall was in the employ of CAPTAIN JOHN A. SUTTER, a prominent man connected with the pioneer era. He was born of Swiss parents in Baden, February 28, 1803, and was there reared and educated. He served in the army of France until he was thirty years of age, and then emigrated to the United States. His main object in coming was to found a Swiss colony, but while examining the region about St. Charles, Missouri, he lost all his effects by the sinking of the steamer in the Mississippi River, and so abandoned the project. He then set out with a party of trappers, under Captain Tripp of the American Fur Company, to cross the Rocky Mountains. Arriving at For Vancouver, he took ship fro Honolulu, and from there came to San Francisco. He then revived his colonizing scheme, choosing the Sacramento River country for the scene of its foundation.

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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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The Identity of Space: California’s Golden Jubilee

February 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Living with the Identity of Space:

Continuing a strategy of providing the primary sources along with analysis, here is another significant statement of California and particularly San Francisco’s collective identity. While the process by which this collective identity is established is complex, (see my exchange on the USIH Bloghere) the resulting influence of an established identity is that residents of the state and the city must reconcile their own individual and group identities with those deployed by the commercial-civic elite and the socially powerful. Below is a statement printed in California’s Golden Jubilee Souvenir Program which describes the story of California and San Francisco’s rise as the most significant example of American Manifest Destiny.

Collective Statement of San Francisco’s Established Historical Identity

[Source Transcription]

Eureka!

Fifty years ago to-day a man stood shouting in the wilderness, “I have found it! I have found it!” His hand held rigidly aloft a scrap of yellow metal. It was gold! Being a simple man and ignorant of the fact that he was a maker of world history, an accident of Fate, he naturally thought to turn his find to his and his companions’ profit solely, limiting the rich secret to their own small circle. But see how Fate made little of his intentions, and how events, like a heard of stampeded cattle, overrode his plans.

There were other men and also a woman in this camp in the wilderness, and they shared the secret and soon it was traveling. Just how is not known. One account relates that the woman, having no one else to tell it to, narrated the great event to a passing teamster, who happened providentially along. But he was a doubting teamster, and teh woman finally gave him one of the little scraps of gold, –thus triumphantly convincing him. And so the teamster went his dusty way, and at the first tavern sold the metal to quench his thirst, and with it went the story. Others again say that one of the laborers grew tired of work, and, quitting, took with him some of the shining bits he had picked up in the creek bed. Presently he fell in with a man who had been a practical miner in another country, who stared and questioned, and forthwith hastened to the scene with pick and pan, –the forerunner of untold thousands of other men with pics and pans. But what does it matter how the story leaked away? It was the world’s secret, not theirs; and, while at first it crept forth in devious whisperings, it was not long before it was passing orm mouth to mouth, outspoken, and even as it passed the sound of it grew louder, thrilling and vibrating in the hearts of those who heard and passed it on to others, until its mighty voice went thundering to the four corners of the earth,–Eureka!  Eureka! I HAVE FOUND IT!

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