Where to stay in San Francisco

I had an interesting reference question recently: was there the equivalent of AirBnB in the 19th century? and How did San Francisco cope with the tourist industry? The person who asked the question wasn’t exactly sure what she was after in terms of an answer but it led me on an illuminating romp through the old city directories and historic newspapers.

Hotels were built in the San Francisco area as early as the mid 1840’s (then it was called Yerba Buena). One of the first known hotels was called the City Hotel, ironically because there was no City yet (!) opened by William Leidesdorff.  Another one that claims to be the first was the Portsmouth House, opened by a fellow named Brown in 1846. After the declaration of war with Mexico in mid 1846, more and more people found reason to come to California and of course the discovery of gold in 1848 brought thousands of mostly young men to the area. As a result, lots of hotels and boarding houses started cropping up to house and feed them all. According to Kimball’s city directory published September 1, 1850, there were forty eight hotels and houses, and forty four individuals who operated “boarding houses”. What exactly defines a hotel vs a house is unclear – some of the houses were listed as being of the “sporting” variety making it obvious what their aims were. Others, like the Albion and the American went by both designations, house and hotel.

The “discovery” of Yosemite in 1851 and its nearly immediate commercialization via publications like Hutchings’ Illustrated California helped bring people to the state for strictly fun. The magazine was a wonderful booster of what later became known as the California lifestyle – sort of a proto-Sunset Magazine. I encourage you to look at Hutchings’ Illustrated, you can read it all here. The magazine is beautifully packaged with lithographs and funny asides – you’ll get a kick out of it.

For more context into the magazine’s publisher, check out The making of Yosemite : James Mason Hutchings and the origin of America’s most popular national park by Jen A. Huntley. It’s wonderful read especially for its coverage on California’s burgeoning tourist industry.

For more on Yosemite, consider viewing the California Historical Society’s current Exhibit – Yosemite: a storied landscape.





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