Wines, Brandies, and Vinous Products at the Mechanics’ Institute’s Industrial Expositions, 1857-1899 – Part 1

On October 23, 2014 I gave a talk at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society’s Grapes of Past event about the wine industry of San Francisco as it was reflected in the 31 Industrial Expositions of the Mechanics’ Institute. These expositions took place between the years of 1857 and 1899 and were marvelous “snapshots” of the city and state’s burgeoning industrial output.

The following posts will be the text of Wines, Brandies, and Vinous Products at the Mechanics’ Institute’s Industrial Expositions, 1857-1899.

Thanks for having me tonight. I’m Taryn Edwards, I’m one of the Librarians on staff at the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco – one of the oldest libraries in the West, the oldest chess club in the United States, and an amazing community. As you may know, we’re still around on Post Street right at Montgomery. We were founded in December of 1854 making us 160 years old, and I’m here to talk with you about one of our 19th century fund raising endeavors – the 31 Industrial Expositions that we hosted between the years of 1857 and 1899.

Interior of Mechanics' Institute, 2nd floor. Courtesy of Mike Duckworth

Interior of Mechanics’ Institute, 2nd floor.
Courtesy of Mike Duckworth

Since 1854, the Mechanics’ Institute’s mission was to be a school of technology, a library and lecture hall for the educational advancement of the working class.  By 1856 however, it became clear that membership dues were not enough to keep the lights on and pay the staff. The Institute’s finances were so dire that the librarian offered to work for free!

The directors had to come up with a plan so they decided to host an Exposition – like other Mechanics’ Institutes did in the eastern United States and Great Britain – to raise money to support the classes offered by the Institute, provide money for the purchase of Library materials, and to promote local industry and agriculture. The concept of “buy local” is not new. In 1850’s California it was just as important because very little was produced in the state. Its economy was completely tied to the production of gold – a very unstable source of capital, and most goods had to be imported – including the important things in life – beer, wine, and spirits.

UntitledAdvertisements for the upcoming fair were distributed at post offices, labor exchanges and in newspapers up and down the State advertising the upcoming Exposition and inviting manufacturers, inventors, farmers, miners, and artists to take part. There was no cost for Exhibitors and prizes were to be awarded.

By the summer of 1857, the Institute erected a Fair Building on a sandy hill on the outskirts of town – on Montgomery Street between Post and Sutter (where the Crocker Galleria shopping center is now). The wood frame building had a canvas roof and was approximately 18,000 square feet. The first fair hosted 650 exhibits, three of which were wine. They came from the vineyards of Messrs. SAINSEVAIN BROS. and KOHLER & FROHLING from Los Angeles, and GENERAL MARIANO VALLEJO who owned a large property in Sonoma.


Vintners at the 1857 Exposition


So why would someone exhibit at the Fair?

  1. These fairs were a great marketing opportunity as the public was invited to attend.
  2. They were a means for entrepreneurs to hook up with investors.
  3. Great shopping and networking opportunities – if you were looking for new employees, supplies or equipment the Fair was the place to see the goods
  4. Wonderful way to test new products or services on the market – particularly food items. Samples were given to the public of beer, wine, chocolate, fruits, breads and candies, cheese. I imagine it was like Costco, only better!

The 1868 Exposition was the next notable one for wine. Though a smallpox outbreak in the City affected attendance, 10,000 people showed up for opening night. This building was erected on Union Square at Geary and Stockton. It was four times the size of the first fair building, approximately 72,000 square feet and was illuminated by 12,000 gas lamps.

4th Pavilion – 1868, 1869, and 1871 Fairs,  Union Square.  Mechanics’ Institute Archives

4th Pavilion – 1868, 1869, and 1871 Fairs, Union Square.
Mechanics’ Institute Archives This photo was taken by Eadward Muybridge – his signature is on the far right. He called himself “Helios” back then.

Some of the wonderful displays that included a pyramid of barrels filled with whiskey, a revolving wine glass stand that made music as it went around and the West’s greatest display of quartz crushers, loaves of sugar, mounds of apples, shoes, saddles, and the delightful products of twelve vintners.

To give you a little perspective, the 1860’s shows the wine industry ramping up dramatically. In 1869 the State producing $900,000 a year in wine or in today’s money $15,525,070.

Growth of Wine Industry State Wide

Growth of Wine Industry State Wide


The 1868 fair had displays from twelve different vintners – most from Los Angeles but we begin to see wines from the Sacramento area and Sonoma. Each vintner showed several different varieties of wine and offered tastes to the public.

Advertisement for Eclipse Champagne Circa 1888

Advertisement for Eclipse Champagne
Circa 1888

There were also two kinds of sparkling wines on show produced by Buena Vista Vinacultural Society in Sonoma and I. Landsberger who had offices in San Francisco.

These two producers made sparkling wine in the champagne fashion, by natural fermentation in the bottle.

This was especially appreciated because there were several OTHER companies producing “so-called champagne or sparkling wine” that forced carbonic acid gas through the use of a soda fountain into sweetened still wine but this product was essentially a party killer, causing nausea and headache.


Stay tuned for Part 2.


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