The Streets of San Francisco in 1877


The following 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 the Seventies.

I beg your pardon, but I cannot get over the streets or the swarms of vehicles, from the milkman's cart with its huge tin jugs to the lumbering truck piled high with trunks and bales. Bread, vegetables, meat, beer, soda, are carted about on wheels and hawked most insistently in all the varied tones of their motley distributors, but always in the same ungainly and monotonous accent. Venders scuttle about in conveyances, hopping off and on at every instant to make a sale or to go to the next. Coaches puff up the steeps with whole families. Ladies ride in landaus and carriages, leaning back negligently on their furs, white veils floating over their flowered hats. Blue-clad Chinese slink down the sidewalks, their arms away from their bodies as though for flight, their pigtails bouncing rhythmically against their backs, snow-white stockings showing over shoes or boat-shaped slippers.

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 boundaries.
Yet somehow I am not persuaded. Among us, when an unhappy woman succumbs to these distractions her fate is determined by poverty, betrayal, or some other motive springing from the mysterious depths of the heart. From the little I gathered concerning these poor girls, I judge that here this is not so. Rather they dispose of their attractions as a piece of merchandise. The traffic is in cold blood, as if it were a question of liquors or cloth. Transactions are evaluated with detachment and calculation. Rise and fall in demand are applauded and lamented as the rise and fall of molasses or tobacco might be. And jewelry shops, restaurants, hotels and dance halls stimulate business by the presence of a pretty woman, much as they might employ a music-box or a bowl of goldfish.

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).

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