Early Libraries on the Barbary Coast

The Bar of a Gambling Saloon  By Frank Marryat Courtesy Bancroft Library

The Bar of a Gambling Saloon
By Frank Marryat
Courtesy Bancroft Library

Have you heard that Mel Gibson is preparing to write a television series set in San Francisco? In a recent article on Hoodline, the series “Barbary Coast” will be set in the Financial District, Chinatown and North Beach and based upon the book by Herbert Asbury with the same name.

This book is indeed a page turner – filled with the brothels, gambling dens, saloons, hoodlums and prostitutes that will make up a good show à la Deadwood. There’s nothing about libraries in Asbury’s book however, which is irritating to this librarian/historian, because their role in San Francisco’s early days was fraught with politics, intrigue, and sometimes a bit of danger!

Reading rooms, stocked with newspapers and books brought from the east, started cropping up in the City almost immediately after gold was “discovered” in January, 1848. I use the term “reading room” rather than “library” because I consider a proper “library” to be an entity that has a staff, circulation policies, plans for collection development, and a system of organization.

The earliest “reading room” that has left a trace may have been in the Colonnade House on Kearny Street – “a genteel establishment a few doors down from Portsmouth Square”. An announcement of plans for the room was made in the Californian starting in mid March 1848. Weeks and weeks passed with no update however and it is unclear if the room ever came to fruition.

Then in June of 1849, above a store operated by Messrs. Jewett and Mulhado, the city’s first Merchants’ Exchange opened. It had ambitious plans to carry the principal American newspapers, bulletins and books, and host a daily meeting at 1:00 pm for the conduct of business. A year later, the Clay Street Reading Room opened claiming to keep a register of people in the mining districts, lists of passengers arriving from the states, and newspapers from all over the Union including foreign papers in German, French and Spanish.

At least twelve more Reading Rooms would open between 1849 and 1854. Some were part of social clubs. One was in a hotel (the What Cheer House). One, linked with a bar, was dedicated to the intellectual and literary needs of the tiny African American population. The largest however, appears to have been the “General Library” operated by William Schleiden who claimed to have 18,000 volumes in multiple languages. Mechanics’ Institute wouldn’t have this many books until 1873!

These reading rooms went beyond collecting books and periodicals – they were intelligence offices and places to socialize outside of the dens of vice mentioned so prolifically in Asbury’s book. Those with an entrepreneurial bent would frequent them to keep tabs on the business climate back East, research potential products to import or hear about the latest gold strikes. Those looking for friends and family at large in the gold fields or to make connections with potential business partners would surely be there as well. To make the place feel like home and encourage hanging about, these rooms often had chess boards too – just like the Mechanics’ Institute would have when it opened its doors in 1855.19th

I look forward to Gibson’s interpretation of the Barbary Coast – and hope that he decides to set a few scenes, for reality’s sake, in one of San Francisco’s Reading Rooms because there was more going on here than whiskey, whores and hoodlums. For further – or less salacious – reading on early local history I suggest you check out:

Mud, blood, and gold : San Francisco in 1849 by Rand Richards

San Francisco, 1846-1856 : from hamlet to city by Roger W. Lotchin

Making San Francisco American : cultural frontiers in the urban West, 1846-1906 by Barbara Berglund.

The public city : the political construction of urban life in San Francisco, 1850-1900 by Philip J. Ethington

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