The Streets of San Francisco in 1877
description of San Francisco in early 1877 was recorded by Guillermo
Prieto while he was in the city as a political exile from Mexico. He
spoke virtually no English but kept detailed notes of what he saw and
did each day. These notes were eventually published in Mexico as serial
installments entitled Viaje a los Estados Unidos (A Journey to
the United States). Selected portions were translated by Edwin S.
Morby and published by John Henry Nash in 1938 as San Francisco in
Everywhere ambulant peddlers make their way through the multitude, laying insolent siege to pocketbooks. They have trays of flowers; handcarts full of peanuts and oranges; pen-knives, buttons, neckties, lemonade and soda-pop in boxes on tripods. And the American sentiment of equality extends even to what I had always considered natural categories of merchandise. Between a jeweler and a milliner, sellers of fruit, celery, conserves, soaps and shoes invade the sidewalk. Rows of shawls, cashmeres and parasols are broken by legs of beef and mutton that hang from their pegs and catch the scarf of the passerby. Solemn hymns resound from a church beside the stable where a horse is being subdued for treatment. Adjoining the portable mineral-water stand, newspaper headlines cry out in every tongue; and just beyond the toy shop an anatomical figure silently proclaims the presence of a surgeon or a dentist.
The drugstore has a flavor all its own. It has pill boxes, of course, and jars and bottles that cure every ill, prolong life, and win back strength and beauty. But it also harbors towels, scents, cravats, chest-protectors, glass eyes, trusses, and heaven knows what else. And to this storeroom for the needs of man we are led by great flasks of colored water that serve as beacons in the night across the wide expanses of the dark.
This is a restless, wilful and changeable country. Its auctions assume a special importance. When people move from one place to another they leave all they own behind. They change locations as snakes change their skin, preserving nothing. They seem unwilling to carry with them even memories. Yet they leave nothing without a price. Every street has its auctions. Carts, carriages, mattresses, pictures, pianos, and all the homeliest artifacts of private life are gathered in a heap. And as the one who leaves leaves all, the one who stays stays with it, never scrupling, never caring for the source, picking up and making immediate use of the objects he collects. In the same manner hats, shoes and garments, known as second-hand, are bought and rebought.
As I think I have said, the feverish activity of the main avenues is not reduced at night, but merely changes its aspect. A thousand tricksters, sharpers and charlatans display their wares by torchlight. Here a man swallows cotton tufts and draws from his sleeve the finest thread. His spools command a high price. Beyond him a sage operates an electrical device for treating hemorrhage, rheumatism, dyspepsia, and every scourge of unhappy mankind. There a man has birds who predict the future by picking up bits of colored paper. Farther on a gypsy tells fortunes to some rustics, and a spiritualist relates conversations with the shade of Santa Ana's widow or of Lincoln's assassin, Booth. An astronomer expounds celestial phenomena before a telescope that reveals only unbroken darkness. An educated dog divines what you have in your hand and which girl in the crowd is your soul's mate.
Musical cafés, minstrel theaters, peep-shows and mountebanks announce their continued existence with wind instruments, but somehow fail to drown out the paper rolls that tear themselves to shreds on the simpering strains of Offenbach and the spicy sallies of "The Daughter of Madame Angot." Three awkward souls with harps and fiddles, frayed coats and silk hats sob out a hymn to Garibaldi with the heartfelt sentiment of an empty stomach.
On moonlit nights parks
and gardens are very popular. The Park and the Cliff House, which juts
out over the sea towards the seals who are the city's wards, are crowded
until the late hours. But where the traveler finds a nocturnal animation
that leaves him speechless is in Dupont Street [Grant Avenue] and its
vicinity. This area of the city is about three miles in extent. With few
exceptions it is composed of dwellings inhabited by sirens who devote
their charms to luring the fragile. Day and night the fair residents
display themselves at their windows. Glimpses of the interior caught
from the street reveal mirrors, statues, candelabra and the eternal,
perpetually chiming piano. Doors bear such names as "Miss
Emma," "Miss Virginia," and "Señorita Adela."
This avoids confusion and insures that there will be no mistake on the
part of a person who has been handed a card in the street. At night a
group of beauties in fancy dress crowd the doorways. Sultanas,
priestesses, Grecian women, Amazons, Olympian goddesses call out in
every language for the traveler to rest his weariness, and exalt the
virtues of their various establishments. Sometimes the stairways are
full of beautiful young women whose variety of tongues is an
entertaining parody of Babel. English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Russian
and American girls here have no other mission than to perfect good looks
and sociability, and travelers come in swarms to benefit by their
open-air instruction, prudently kept by the police within fixed
The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker's book, More San Francisco Memoirs: 1852-1899, The ripening years (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1996).