Healthful Fermented Liquors at the Mechanics’ Institute’s Industrial Expositions – Part 1

On July 24, 2014 I gave a talk about the beer industry of San Francisco as it was reflected at 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 industry all types. What does this have to do with my biography project? Well, my subject was heavily involved with the Industrial Expositions and learning about them – has helped enormously with understanding his times. The following posts will be the text of that speech. The Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco was founded in December of 1854. It aimed to be a school of technology, a library and lecture hall for the educational advancement of the...

I Smell of Cut Grass, Sunshine, and Lighter Fluid

My writers’ group spent a spirited morning last month discussing “place” and how one’s home and environment affect one’s life story. We gave ourselves the assignment of writing a short essay on where we are from – below is my contribution. I Smell of Cut Grass, Sunshine, and Lighter Fluid I haven’t always spent my days in the whistling corridors of the Financial District, Nights and weekends are spent across the Bay in San Leandro – a blue collar burg known for its cherries in the 19th century and now as a place with parking but no where, other than fast food and Chinese to eat. ………. I was born in Oakland, California in the sterile halls of the Naval Hospital on the hill above Highway 580 and the Oakland Zoo....

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...

Dreaming of my subject’s life

Back in December I crafted an outline, detailed table of contents, and sample chapter for the Hazel Rowley Prize offered by Biographers’ International. It was an extremely useful exercise for a variety of reasons but, perhaps it’s needless to say, I didn’t win the prize. While I was moderately disappointed, by the time the decision was made (sometime in April?) I was already well on the road to rethinking my proposal’s contents. It so happens that the night I submitted my materials I had a terribly vivid dream about my subject. In my dream, not only was he alive and well, but his workshop was located within the confines of a beached submarine that I had the pleasure of touring.  With my subject as my guide, he showed me around the place,...

Bearing Witness to Modern War

As you’re probably aware, the “Recently Returned” shelf in a Library is a treasure of interesting materials that you would not think to look up on your own.  The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War by Samuel Hynes is one such gem that I found recently.  Before you think, how depressing another book on war, read on…I know you, like all of us, have been touched by war.  This book is not a history but a reflection on the “personal narratives” of soldiers, that is, the box of Grandpa’s letters from his service in France, the rotted leather diary carried through Dad’s tour in ‘Nam, the raw Born on the Fourth of July, or the shell-shocked Robert Graves’ trench ruminations. The author, Samuel Hynes, is a distinguished scholar and Professor Emeritus from...

What’s In My Book Bag

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to start keeping track of the books I’ve read. As a lifelong heavy reader I’ve started and stopped this sort of record keeping a couple of times. Since I’ve started my biographical project however, keeping track of informational and inspirational sources has become a necessity. In the same place (a Black n’ Red hardbound notebook) I record both the fiction and non-fiction titles I read, along with a few notes on their content and my thoughts. The only rule is that I must read the book in its entirety (no skimming – I’m a champion skimmer). Here’s what I’ve been reading that relates to writing. Developmental Editing: a handbook for freelancers, authors, and publishers by...

Learning From Other Biographies

I awaited the publication of Karin Sveen’s  The Immigrant and the University: Pedar Sather and Gold Rush California with great anticipation because it is set in Gold Rush California and follows the life of Pedar Sather, for whom Sather Gate, the Campanile, two professorships, and the Sather Center at the University of California at Berkeley are named.  Sveen’s book boasts a preface by Kevin Starr and has been beautifully translated from Norwegian by Barbara J. Havelund – beautifully because the author’s voice clearly shines through with dreamy passages such as this from page 20. “I picture him in his cabin, head bowed over his grammar book and dictionary, in calm weather and when storms tore at the sails and tugged at the rigging. I...