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Publetariat Dispatch: What was San Francisco like in 1880? The Economy

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!
In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, historical fiction author M. Louisa Locke shares some of her research findings about life in 1880’s San Francisco.

This is the first in a multi-part series describing San Francisco in 1880. For those of you who have read either Maids of Misfortune or Uneasy Spirits, or my short stories,  this will provide you with some deeper understanding of the city where  my main characters, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, lived as children in  the 1860s and returned to as adults in the 1870s. If you are not  familiar with my Victorian San Francisco mystery series, I hope these  historical pieces will pique your interest––although I promise my  fiction is much livelier reading. All the material quoted below is from  my thesis, “Like a Machine or an Animal: Working Women of the Far West  in the Late Nineteenth Century,” University of California: San Diego  dissertation, 1982 pp. 60-69.”  I must say, it is much more entertaining  to convey historical information through fiction than heavily footnoted  fact!

Part One: The San Francisco Economy

“In 1880 San Francisco, with a  population of 233,959 residents, was the ninth largest city in the  United States. Located at the end of the peninsula that separates the  Bay of San Francisco from the Pacific Ocean, this city of hills, sand  dunes, fogs, and mild temperatures had been only a small village called  Yerba Buena less than forty years earlier.  This small village was one  of the chief beneficiaries of the incredible influx of people into the  region after the discovery of gold to the north in the winter of  1847-48.”

[For those of you who have read Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits––Annie  Fuller, her parents, her Aunt and Uncle, and her housekeeper, Beatrice  O’Rourke, were among those who traveled west and settled in San  Francisco in those first years.]

“Commerce dominated San Francisco’s  economic structure through out the nineteenth century. Its fine natural  harbor and its location near both ocean shipping lanes and interior  river routes stimulated much of the city’s early economic growth. The  city served as the port of entry for the massive flow of people and  goods into the region during the Gold Rush, and once agriculture  developed in the interior in the 1860′s San Francisco also became the  major port to handle goods shipped out of the region. The disruption in  trade resulting from the Civil War further promoted the development of  agriculture in the Far West, and San Francisco merchants worked hard in  the 1850s and 1860s to ensure that all goods entering or leaving the  region passed through their hands. By and large they were successful,  and their control of the region’s trade remained firm until the  completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. As late as 1875,  San Francisco still handled at least ninety percent of all the goods  leaving the state and a major share of the trade leaving the Northwest.”

“As a commercial port city, San  Francisco first developed manufacturing that centered around supplying  shipping needs and processing the raw materials that constituted the  bulk of the city’s trade. By the late 1850s a few firms also began to  manufacture a significant amount of the heavy equipment used in  hydraulic mining.  In the 1860s…the Civil War and the completion of the  transcontinental railroad fostered the development of a new kind of  industry within San Francisco––the manufacturing of light consumer items  for regional markets. The dislocation of Eastern trade during the Civil  War not only aided the development of agricultural lands in the Far  West but also encouraged San Francisco’s manufacturing sector by  diverting capital investment from the cities of the East to the Far west  and by forcing the latter region to look to San Francisco to supply its  consumer needs.”

“The high shipping rates of the Central  Pacific Railroad acted as a protective tariff for the city, and the  railroad gave San Francisco easier access to raw materials and to  regional markets for its manufactured goods. The construction of the  railroad also attracted great numbers of Chinese and European immigrants  who flocked to San Francisco once their job with the railroad ended.  This new abundance of labor, in turn, drove down wages in the city and  encouraged the creation of the first large-scale manufacturing  establishments in the city. As a result, by 1880 San Francisco had a  mature, broadly based manufacturing sector that completely dominated the  Far West. San Francisco ranked ninth among cities in the nation in  value of products…most important industries in 1880 were meat packing  and processing, sugar refining, boot and shoe making, heavy metal and  machine making, men’s clothing, and tobacco and cigar making. San  Francisco’s continued vitality as a commercial center and its growing  manufacturing capabilities also insured that the city acted as the  financial capital of the region. The headquarters of almost all of the  California banking institutions were located in San Francisco, and banks  in other cities were often dependent on San Francisco capital.”

“Despite this relatively favorable  working climate, San Francisco was not in any way protected from the  economic cycles that affected the rest of the nation, nor were the  laboring classes immune form exploitation by their employers. In fact,  the high wages of the 1850s and 1860s and the popular myth that fortunes  were easily made in the Far West promoted unrealistic expectations that  were dealt a particularly harsh blow when hard times hit the city in  the 1870s. With the completion of the railroad in 1869, the chronic  labor shortage that had kept wages high vanished, and for the first time  there was severe unemployment throughout the state. The national  depression sparked by the Panic of 1873 reinforced the local downturn in  business, and in 1875 the collapse of the Bank of California and the  decline in the output of the Comstock Lode (in which much of the city’s  capital had been invested) added to the city’s difficulties.”

“Even though a visitor to the city in  1880′…was much struck by the depressed air of the tradesmen,’ and a  Norwegian pastor implored his countrymen living in the Midwest not to  come to San Francisco expecting to find jobs easily, by 1880 San  Francisco’s economy shared in the recovery that was sweeping the nation.  The development of manufacturing in the city, which had in part been  fostered by the very economic difficulties of the 1870s (because it  lowered wages), meant that the city entered the new decade with an  economy that was more diverse and stronger than ever.”

[It was the Panic of 1873 and the  subsequent national depression that had played a key role in Annie  Fuller’s late husband’s financial ruin back east and it is the  improvement in San Francisco’s economy that Annie takes advantage of as  the clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl, when she offers business advice to local  businessmen like Mr. Matthew Voss in Maids of Misfortune.]


This is a reprint from M. Louisa Locke‘s site.


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