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Ajeeb The Chess Automaton of 1890

The Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1854 and in our earliest days, when our library was still small, and our complete slate of services not yet established, finances were tough! California was 25 years away from granting public funding for libraries. To supplement the Institute’s income, our trustees decided to put on a fair to celebrate what makes San Francisco special: its invention, ingenuity and to highlight locally made products.

The first fair was held in 1857, and ultimately 30 fairs over the next 40 years were hosted to help support the Institute’s goals.

The last fifteen fairs, between 1880 and 1897, as well as many civic and cultural events were held at a massive building known as the Mechanics’ Pavilion. This stood at Larkin and Grove at the Civic Center near City Hall, right where the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is now. This building was nearly 4 acres big and could hold well over 10,000 people at one time.

At the fair of 1890 there was a special exhibit - an automaton, or mechanical man called Ajeeb who was world famous for his chess playing abilities. Ajeeb was a life-sized fellow with a movable head, torso, and right arm – everything you need to play a good game of chess! He sat on a cushion mounted on a large box that purportedly contained his mechanical gears and works.

Built by an English cabinet-maker named Charles Hooper, Ajeeb was immediately put to work earning Mr. Hooper’s bread and butter, playing chess. He was first seen at the London Polytechnical Institute in 1868 and was a smash hit. He then spent the next few decades touring big cities in Europe – visiting Berlin, Breslau, Dresden, Leipzig, Hanover, Magdeburg, Cologne, Elberfeld, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Brussels, and Paris before crossing the Atlantic and taking the United States by storm.

Ajeeb appeared to be animated, wound up in fact by the turning of a giant key that was in his back. Of course he was not really playing chess himself – there was space to hide a person inside the box upon which he sat. Charles Hooper was the first person to play chess hiding inside Ajeeb until about 1889. Then he hired other chess and checker masters - the smaller they were, the better! Some of the players were even rumored to be missing their legs in order to more easily fit inside Ajeeb’s cabinet. Some of these people included chess superstars such as Charles F. Moehle, Albert Beauregard Hodges, Constant Ferdinand Burille, Charles Francis Barker, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, Doc Schaefer, Peter J. Hill, and Jesse Hanson.

In 1890 Ajeeb found his way to San Francisco. His owner at the time, John Mann, paid $955 for a license to exhibit Ajeeb at the fair of that year which was held between September 18 and October 25, 1890. In May, before the fair, presumably to drum up interest in Ajeeb’s appearance, the San Francisco Call featured an article that explained how Ajeeb and other popular automatons worked. Despite the spilling of this secret – that Ajeeb did not actually have a mind of his own  - he still proved to be a popular exhibit at the Mechanics’ Institute’s 1890 fair though the fair managers peevishly noted after the fact that his ticket fee was too high (an additional 25 cents, on top of the daily ticket charge of fifty cents) so attendance was not as robust as it could have been had the ticket been lower.

Ajeeb may not have been the most renowned of chess players to ever take part in activities for the Mechanics’ Institute but he certainly was well traveled and, at least according to these pictures, quite well dressed.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Posted on Oct. 27, 2021 by Taryn Edwards

California Sojourn

California: its Gold and its Inhabitants: a British gentleman’s impressions of the barbarous Far West, review by Taryn Edwards, staff librarian. 

I adore first person accounts of people’s travels to California, and we have several in our library’s collection. One of the funniest is Henry Vere Huntley’s pithy California: Its Gold and its Inhabitants.

Sir Henry Vere Huntley (1795-1864) was a British naval officer who  served in many exotic locales during his extensive service career.  Described by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as an “impetuous man, prone to direct and dramatic actions,” Huntley led a life of energy,  intrigue, and some profound screw-ups.  During the thick of the  California gold rush, he found himself in San Francisco as the gentleman  representative of the Anglo California Gold Mining Company – a quartz  mining outfit centered in Browns Valley in Yuba County near Marysville.

Huntley’s stint in the far West was troubled from the start – the  machinery he had imported from Britain to grind the quartz was useless,  there were few paying places to mine, communication with the company’s  board of directors took months, and there was never enough money.  Nevertheless, in his published journal of 1852, Huntley rises to the  occasion – sometimes delighted by the rusticity of the frontier and at  other times, utterly appalled by the trials that he, an English gentleman, was forced to endure. 

Huntley’s book, told in a stuffy, querulous, downright prissy voice, is laugh out loud funny – especially if read to an audience in a mock British gentleman’s accent. Go ahead, you’ll be the life of your Zoom party! The text is filled with details about business and social engagements and the tricky differences between Americans in the Far West and Brits in dining and hygiene habits. For example, grossed out by hotel and boarding house accommodations, Huntley describes with disgust how at one, all he received for washing was “a bit of soap the size of a shilling and a veteran hairbrush…used by all of the travelers who liked it” and at another, he received only a “a towel fourteen inches square – I measured the towel in my room. For this two dollars are charged. If you object to having anyone in the room with you, four dollars must be paid.”

Additionally, Huntley is put off by the habit of San Franciscans not offering meals in courses. While dining at an acquaintance’s house, he states with incredulity, “we had a roast duck and an oyster pie to be  eaten together; after that had been accomplished, I had put on my plate  at the same time – gooseberry tart, cheese, and preserved ginger. How  very strange this seems to us, who see no reason for being in a hurry  about such matters.” He later remarks peevishly, “as soon as the dinner is over you go away;  you are asked to eat only; the delight of an English dinner party, and  evening afterwards is unknown to the Californian American.”

He also mentions with fascination that, “The American from the  “backwoods” cannot feel that he is a bore to any one; on the contrary,  he thinks he can entertain [others] by a long history of his own  biography, especially that part of it which has been subjected to disease of any kind; this disposition to speak of self pervades even better classes and the backwoodsman in the United States.”

Aside from humor, the most useful take away for historians is for  understanding the transportation experience between California’s cities,  towns and mining camps. Look forward to many descriptions of unsanitary  hotels and privations on the road washed down with “eternal champagne, till one sickens at the sight of it….and how the men drink!”

 

Posted on Sep. 21, 2021 by Taryn Edwards

Member Spotlight: Jeanne Powell

Librarian Taryn Edwards has managed the activities for writers at the Mechanics’ Institute for twelve years. One of the writers she works with is Jeanne Powell who manages our drop-in writers group Write If You Dare. She has also spoken to our literary community several times and will be a panelist at the next Writers Lunch on August 20. 

Jeanne, how did you first become acquainted with MI?

Not long after I left New York and Michigan and moved to San Francisco, I discovered the Library. I was a legal secretary working in the Financial District, and may have noticed the building during lunchtime walks. Or perhaps I read about the Library in the SF Bay Guardian, which I devoured every week. 

What are its strengths in your opinion? Why are you still a member?

Everything about the Library drew me to it -- convenient location and long hours, physical beauty of the building itself, the absence of noise, existence of full services equivalent to those of the SFPL. It never occurred to me to let my membership lapse. And the Christmas parties are fabulous! 

Tell me what you love about the Write If You Dare group? It is one of our most popular writers activities.

Write If You Dare differs from the other writing groups at MIL in that all writers and all literary genres are welcome. The variety of writers and authors who attend the weekly event has been fascinating. 

You are a prolific writer and I consider you to be a mentor - what is the one piece of advice you have for new writers?

Read, read, read AND write, write, write would be my advice to new writers. 

I remember years ago talking to you on the phone - you had called the Reference Desk about one of your latest books. Tell me about them and why your latest one is special?

When I began writing, I did not think about getting into print. Eventually I found an audience as I developed my writing ability over the years. 

The manuscript for My Own Silence was a finalist in national competition, but it took years to get into print. The title comes from haiku I composed: What to discard / manufactured dreams / my own silence. 

Word Dancing is a collection of poems from out-of-print chapbooks, paired with newly written poems and my flash fiction. To make the collection more enticing, I added 21 of my collages. People noticed. 

Two Seasons started as a partnership with another writer. Creative differences short-circuited the project. I gathered my latest poems, including many composed in Write if You Dare meetings, and created a new book with a different publisher. Response has been positive. A Barnard professor surprised me with a glowing review. 

Deeply Notched Leaves is my most recent and my favorite because I was able to mark the journey I have experienced as a creative and a person of color. My poems range from justifiable anger to a 20-verse piece on forgiveness. The title is inspired by a verse from Thich Nhat Hanh: I have lost my smile / but don’t worry / the dandelion has it. Dandelions were my favorite flower as a child, we ate dandelion leaves, and those leaves are deeply notched.

Why are you drawn to poetry?

I have no idea really. Perhaps my impatience is a factor? Verse rather than a 600 page novel? Poetry and other forms of nonfiction seem to call to me. I sometimes say to people: think of my poems as very short stories. The lines between genres seem more fluid than ever these days.

Thank you so much for sharing your work with us and donating copies of your work to the Mechanics’ Institute. We are proud to have you as a member and thrilled that you are able to contribute your time and experience to our literary community.

 

Posted on Aug. 9, 2021 by Taryn Edwards

Member Spotlight: Chun Yu 俞淳

Librarian Taryn Edwards has managed the activities for writers at the Mechanics’ Institute for twelve years. One of the writers she works with, Chun Yu, has found the pandemic to be particularly fruitful for her creative endeavors.

Taryn Edwards: Chun, tell me how you found out about the Mechanics’ Institute.

Chun Yu: I first discovered MI by attending literature and culture events with fellow writer friends some years ago. Then in 2017, when I finally became a member, it became my place to write. 

Taryn Edwards: Prior to the pandemic I know you had a favorite spot on the 3rd floor! Tell me how MI has helped further your projects.

Chun Yu: Like many other members, I have my favorite spot in the library and many hours passed as I worked on various projects, from poetry to graphic novels. Not only does the library offer a sanctuary for my writing, but it has also offered important support for my career as a writer and my efforts in cultural connections and community building.

Taryn Edwards: I’m delighted to hear that – it is what MI is all about in my mind. 

Chun Yu: Yes! The MI Library has hosted multiple events for me during the past few years, including poetry readings with other poets, the presentation of my graphic novel in progress on Chinese immigration history and stories with the support of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s individual artist grant, and my Two Languages/One Community project with poet Michael Warr connecting Chinese and African American communities with poetry writing and storytelling. I have also found great writers’ groups to work with during the past few years. 

Taryn Edwards: The Mechanics’ Institute hosted you and Michael Warr for a very emotional event last September related to your Two Languages/One Community project. The video is here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMGcyRifXac What else has happened in regards to this project?

Chun Yu: My poem "The Map 地圖” - one that I read during that event in September has been published by San Francisco's legendary Arion Press in English and Chinese as its spring broadside. The publication is dedicated to the Graduating Class of 2021, their families, and their teachers who have persevered through the greatest global pandemic in 100 years. It’s the first time Arion Press has published Chinese content.

Taryn Edwards: That’s so wonderful and MI is thrilled to cosponsor the event celebrating its publication. 

Chun Yu: Yes, members of the Mechanics’ Institute are welcome to attend the free event at the Arion Press’ location in the Presidio. In addition to my poetry reading, I will be in conversation there with my collaborator Michael Warr about the importance of cross-cultural exchange and story-telling, especially in our time of great challenges.  It’s a continuation of our solidarity event series (Two Languages/One Community project) to unite all people against anti-Asian violence and hatred.  

Taryn Edwards: Wonderful – more details about the June 27 event are available on MI’s website here

We are proud to have you as a member of the Mechanics’ Institute and thank you for your efforts to stop violence and discrimination and promote a peaceful and joyful creative exchange.

Chun Yu: Thank you! The Mechanics' Institute is a real gem of San Francisco which actually glows with a mysterious warm light whenever it comes to my mind. I look forward to visiting and working there again in person! Hope to see you on Sunday, June 27.

Note: The Library has expanded its hours to members. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, members are welcome to visit between 12-4 pm. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, members may visit between 2-6 pm. Appointments are not necessary. 

 

Posted on Jun. 24, 2021 by Taryn Edwards

MI's YouTube Channel

Did you know that Mechanics’ Institute has recorded more than 50 events from 2020-21, including "Your Story Well Told," "No Poetry, No Peace," "You, Recharged," and many others on MI's YouTube channel? You'll find scores of panel discussions, poetry readings, history lectures, authors presenting new books, and conversations about the writing craft from local experts:

Most of these videos are from recent programs, but there are a few gems from times past, such as "The Birth of the Mechanics' Institute of San Francisco, 1851-1856," the "Mechanics' Institute Chess Club Tour," and other great events you may have missed. All MI videos are free and available to watch at your leisure.

You can also subscribe to MI's YouTube channel to receive alerts for the latest MI program videos. Just create an account and log into YouTube. If you need help getting started, call our reference librarians at 415-393-0102 with any questions. 

 

Posted on Jun. 10, 2021 by Taryn Edwards

Behold John Sime: MI Acquires a Portrait of an Early BOT President

Until recently, an image of John Sime, a former Mechanics' Institute's (MI) Board of Trustee President has eluded me. For several years, I have been corresponding with John Sime's biographer, Barry Brown, hoping to find a photograph of one of MI's earliest founders, who served as Board President from 1857-58. Since Brown is known as an expert on one of Mr. Sime’s endeavors "the California Powder Works." I hoped he might provide helpful information. 

What I learned was that separately, but on parallel research journeys, Brown and I had both scoured local archives for a picture of John Sime to no avail. Finally, about three years ago Brown found Mr. Sime in the DeYoung museum’s collection --  a portrait enlarged from a photograph that had been donated by Mr. Sime’s son. In September, 2020, during the thick of the pandemic, Brown wrote to tell me that the DeYoung Museum was looking for a new guardian for this portrait. 

After several emails with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the portrait was made a gift to MI. To my delight, Mr. Sime’s visage has returned to the community he helped conceive and build. He will reside in MI's Archives until we can reopen safely and determine an appropriate means to display his portrait.  

Why was John Sime important to MI?

Imagine, if you will, a late afternoon on Thursday May 21, 1857, when three men stepped through the threshold of the former Metropolitan Market on Market at Second Street. The men -- William McKibben, Henry Fairfax Williams, and John Sime -- were all members of the Mechanics’ Institute’s (MI) Board of Trustees and formed the committee tasked with finding an appropriate venue for MI’s first industrial exhibition slated to take place that September. 

The Market was one of three locations under consideration. Opened in late 1854, it had thrived as an emporium with 53 stalls selling “meats, poultry, game, fish, vegetables, and fruits."The Market's brilliant gas lighting and convenient hours made it a favorite with restaurateurs and hoteliers, as well as residential households. For reasons unknown, the Market had recently been sold, and the space was rebranded as a Horse Market and Sale Stable.

“The stalls will have to come out,” Mr.Sime, then President of the Mechanics’ Institute, commented to his companions as they walked through the building, manure sticking to their boots. The proprietor, only lukewarm about renting the space at all, followed close at heel and was quick to add indignantly “those stalls will have to be replaced once the affair is over." 

While the gas lighting was a plus, the stench of horses, large rental fee, and additional costs associated with making the space suitable were significant drawbacks as far as the committee was concerned. Mr. Lick’s attorney, Hall McAllister had alluded that the lot could be let cheaply once the circus had packed up. Mr. Williams was certain they could get a better price at one of the other venues. 

The fledgling MI, in operation for a little more than two years, had suffered financial setbacks since the murder of outspoken journalist James King of William in May of 1856. The resulting civil unrest - hundreds of armed men walking the streets, public hangings, and secret trials - had put a damper on residents' enthusiasm for city living. This resulted in MI experiencing financial issues. Getting members to pay their quarterly dues and for the stock they had purchased was a challenge. (in MI's early days, it operated as a joint stock company, and dues were levied quarterly.) MI's Board of Trustees was hopeful that the upcoming industrial exhibition would not only jumpstart the city’s flagging economy by highlighting San Francisco’s home-grown industry, but also serve as a fundraiser for MI’s continued operation.  

The three men left the Market without closing the deal and met a few weeks later on the evening of June 5 for the monthly meeting of the Board of Trustees. During this meeting, Mr. Sime expounded passionately about the upcoming fair, “I fear that through the lukewarmness and indifference of our members the fair will fail…which would be ruinous to the Institute and disgraceful to the membership!” He urged his fellow trustees to take “energetic action” because the fair was “essential to the future prosperity of the Institute.”      

As it turns out, Mr. Sime’s wishes came true. The lot at Post and Montgomery (where the Crocker Galleria and former Wells Fargo now reside) was rented for $1 a month from James Lick and a magnificent, 18,000-square foot building was framed by mid-July. The Mechanics’ Institute’s first industrial exhibition opened on September 7, and it was a resounding success. Its profits allowed MI to fund its lecture series, buy materials for its library, and make a sizable donation to the city’s two orphanages. Under Mr. Sime's leadership and encouragement, all of the labor for this endeavor was done by MI’s Board of Trustees and MI members.

Ultimately MI would host 31 industrial exhibitions between the years of 1857 and1899. These fairs were successful as a fundraising vehicle for MI and, perhaps more importantly, were critical to the development of industry in California. Many products and technologies that we know and love today debuted at these fairs, thanks in large part to MI President John Sime's energetic leadership.

A Bit More About John Sime

This little vignette is one of the few in the historical record that provides clues to John Sime’s personality. One of MI’s founders, Mr.Sime served as MI's President in 1857 and 1858. He was described by one source as being “five feet ten inches tall, stout, and of a very powerful frame who purportedly, in his younger years, could hold a smaller man off the floor with one arm." Mr. Sime indeed seems to have been a force to be reckoned with – his actions recorded in MI’s board minutes and in the private papers of his contemporaries, show that he was pugnacious and firm in his convictions.

Born about 1816 in either New Brunswick or New York (the historical record is unclear), Mr. Sime labored in his youth as a ship carpenter and a brick mason. He was employed in a Chilean flour mill when news of California’s gold reached him. Shortly thereafter he found himself in San Francisco. In the mid-1850s, he served briefly as a California Assemblyman and was a formidable advocate for the rights of the working class. His political record includes a bill that would allow mechanics to put a lien on property owned by people who had not paid for the contracted labor and publicly disputing the special license laws that unfairly targeted the artisans, craftsmen, and laborers of the City and County of San Francisco.

Sometime in 1856 or 1857, Mr. Sime opened a bank which became engaged in the speculation of mining stocks, particularly those related to the silver of the Comstock Lode. This endeavor ultimately led to the bank’s destruction, and, reportedly, contributed to Mr. Sime’s untimely death in 1871 -- as it was said, his body and constitution were broken. To his credit, Mr. Sime purportedly “lived to pay his every obligation," with interest as well. He also was involved with the California Powder Works – the “first and most influential explosives manufacturer in the Western United States."

Sources include:

Daily Placer Times and Transcript, December 11, 1854.

San Francisco Bulletin, June 3, 1857.

Minutes of the Mechanics’ Institute Board of Trustees, June 5, 1857.

Henry F. Williams’ Diary, Box 3, Bancroft Library.

Minutes of the Mechanics’ Institute Board of Trustees, June 5, 1857.

Schuck, Oscar, History of the bench and bar of California, 1901.

Armstrong, Le Roy, Financial California: an historical review of the beginnings and progress of banking in the state, 1916.

Brown, Barry, California Powder Works Minute Books, introduction.

 

Posted on Feb. 8, 2021 by Taryn Edwards

Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco: Resources, Video and Links

In September 2020, MI hosted John Lumea of the Emperor Norton Trust for the talk Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco: Empire Day Notes on SF's Monarch of the Marginalized. This talk was MI’s kickoff event to the annual history festival in the City, San Francisco History Days, but also an observation of the precise day when Joshua Abraham Norton (a failed Gold Rush era rice merchant who had suffered a mental breakdown) declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

Norton was what we’d call “a heavy user” of the Institute’s services, enjoying both the Library’s resources and the delights of the Chess Room from roughly 1857 till his death in 1880. An astute social observer, the Emperor considered himself a leader in the City’s socio-political whirl. He was a regular at a lot of places where decisions were made as shown in this interactive map. The Mechanics' Institute was one of the Emperor’s regular afternoon haunts: a place where he wrote many of his Proclamations — on Institute stationery — where he kept up with all the local papers (including the Pacific Appeal and the Elevator), and where he is reputed to have played a mean game of chess.

If you missed the event, the link to the video is ready. During the event, John Lumea and I both referenced certain essays, books and primary source documents relevant to the subject matter.  I hope you enjoy them and if you have any questions, please contact me: Taryn Edwards, [email protected]

About Emperor Norton

The Emperor Norton Trust is a trove of information about all known (and suspected) aspects of Joshua Norton’s life. John specifically wanted to alert you to these articles:

Emperor Norton’s Early Engagement With an African-American Editor Reveals the Essence of the Emperor’s Mission — And Foreshadows a Key Relationship

The First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California; The Mirror of the Times; Philip Bell; Emperor Norton's engagement with Bell in the pages of the Mirror, August 1860; Bell and Peter Anderson as partners in converting the Mirror to The Pacific Appeal; the "break-up" of Anderson and Bell; Bell's diminishing view of the Emperor

Emperor Norton at a Pro-Civil Rights Lecture, March 1868

Freedom's Defenders and their March 1868 lecture at Platt's Music Hall, with General Oscar Hugh La Grange as the keynoter and Emperor Norton in the audience; San Francisco Examiner's withering coverage of the event.

Emperor Norton on the Front Row of the Fight for Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment Removing Race as a Barrier to Voting

Peter Anderson's November 1869 lecture on the 15th Amendment at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, with Emperor Norton in the front row; San Francisco Examiner's coverage

THE LONGEST PROCLAMATION? Emperor Norton at the Lyceum for Self-Culture

Emperor Norton's regular attendance at meetings of the Lyceum, where black equality was a topic of discussion; Image and text of the Emperor's 430-word Proclamation of 1 August 1874, publish in Common Sense a "Journal of Live Ideas" that was associated with the Lyceum.

Notes on His Majesty's Printers

Includes information about The Pacific Appeal and Cuddy & Hughes, the printer of both the Appeal and Emperor Norton's promissory notes — plus photos c.1865–1874 showing the building, at 511 Sansome Street (southwest corner of Sansome and today's Mark Twain Street) that housed both the paper and the printer.

And here are some books about the black experience (with the exception of Negro Trail Blazers, all are available at MI’s library):

Seminal works include:

Rudolph Lapp's Blacks in Gold Rush California which should be available at all local libraries. It is overall a wonderful survey, but I can't completely trust all his arguments due to an inaccuracy involving the Mechanics' Institute. But aside from that, read it!

Another important work that is available online for free is Delilah Beasley's The Negro Trail Blazers of California. Beasley published this book in 1919 so it is perhaps the closest source to Norton's time and surely some of the people she discusses were still alive when she was writing it.

Other great books: 

Pioneer urbanites : a social and cultural history of Black San Francisco by Douglas Henry Daniels

Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California published by the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. 

Another one is In Search of the Racial Frontier by Quintard Taylor

Robert J. Chandler's San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown (2014).

And the brand new Archy Lee's Struggle for Freedom by Brian McGinty (2020).

Primary sources:

As far as primary sources that you can access right now, the California Digital Newspaper Collection has in full text the papers Pacific Appeal and the Elevator. 

Mifflin Gibbs, a Gold Rush era businessman and intellectual mover and shaker, wrote a wonderful autobiography that mentions his life in San Francisco called Shadows and Light - See chapters 3-6.

John mentioned the first State Convention of the Colored Citizens of California. The proceedings for that meeting is available here: https://archive.org/details/proceedings00cali but there were four between 1855-1865 and possibly a fifth according to this resource, the Colored Conventions Project, which aims to provide primary source material from conventions that took place NATIONWIDE. The proceedings for all 4 California events are available here.

When life gets back to normal and libraries and museums open up please check out:

The San Francisco Public Library – History Center

The Oakland Public Library's African American Museum and Library

The Society of California Pioneers 

And contact the California Historical Society to learn when their library resources will be available.

Meanwhile, San Francisco History Days has a couple events that are relevant to this topic (I am sure there are more!):

On Saturday, September 26 check out:

1:00pm - : Revealing San Francisco's Hidden 19th-Century Black History: A Tour of California Historical Society Artifacts with the Institute for Historical Study by Susan D. Anderson, an amazing local scholar and current History Curator and Program Manager for the California African American Museum. Recent essays by her can be found here: https://californiahistoricalsociety.org/blog/author/dsfgafsdg/

3:00pm - I am offering my talk Libraries of the Barbary Coast in which I mention the Athenaeum, the library and learning center founded by the black community of San Francisco in 1853.

Posted on Sep. 23, 2020 by Taryn Edwards

Rare Artifact Coming Soon to MI

In the small hours of the morning on March 15, 1924 something started to smolder within the salesroom of the A. Lietz Manufacturing Company at 61 Post Street. Perhaps it was an employee’s abandoned cigarette or something more combustible. But within minutes the plate glass windows shattered, sending tinkling glass out onto the sidewalk. The explosion sent “the menace of the fire roaring into the street.” Immediately, a three-alarm sounded and “all available downtown fire apparatus” were brought to the scene.

The firefighters undoubtedly, with the memory of the 1906 conflagration on their minds, worked desperately for two hours to prevent the spread of the blaze to the adjoining restaurant, the million-dollar library of the Mechanics’ Institute upstairs and the rest of the block. By the time the flames were extinguished, the library was safe. It, and a portion of Gus’ Fashion restaurant (at 65 Post Street), sustained only slight damage by smoke. The interior of 61 Post was not so lucky; the costly technical surveying and nautical instruments – the transits, telescopes, and theodolites - so artfully displayed in the Lietz shop were a total loss. The “damage was estimated at more than $25,000.”

Until recently I had not heard of the A. Lietz Manufacturing Company nor its catastrophic fire. However this June, I received an interesting query that brought this history to light. MI Member Adrian VerHagen, a Chief Land Surveyor for the City’s Public Works, wrote to ask if the Institute would be interested in receiving and displaying on “long term loan” a piece of 100+ year old survey equipment that was purchased by the City from A. Lietz Manufacturing Company, the Institute’s former tenant.

Of course, my interest was piqued. Over the next several weeks we corresponded further. Due to a recent move, Public Works, eager to find homes for its retired equipment, had been reaching out to local museums, libraries, and historical organizations. Mr. VerHagen, a member since 2015, thought the Mechanics’ Institute would be a natural home for the “Precise” Surveyor’s Level (serial #977).

Founded in 1882 in San Francisco, by German immigrant Adolf Lietz, the A. Lietz Manufacturing Company, operated a showroom on the ground floor of the Mechanics’ Institute building from approximately 1916-1936 in the space now occupied by Indochino. Mr. Lietz occasionally exhibited his surveying instruments at the Mechanics’ Institute’s industrial fairs in the 19th century. But perhaps, due to stiff competition from established companies like John Roach and Thomas Tennant, he didn’t win any notable awards. 

The 1906 earthquake and fire however wiped that slate clean and Lietz, joined by his son Adolf Lietz Jr. started over. They enlarged their factory at 648 Commercial Street (now Empire Park – a patch of beauty in the heart of the Financial District, the site of MI’s imperial member, Emperor Norton's last home) and expanded operations. By 1924, the company was a leader in surveying, drafting, and nautical equipment, especially their patented sounding machines that found custom with the United States Navy. Lietz & Company continued to occupy 61 Post Street until 1936 when they moved to a larger space further down Post Street.

I met Mr. VerHagen on Mission Street near his office several Wednesdays ago to pick up the piece. An earnest man with a warm smile, I recognized him instantly - it turns out, we had met some five years ago on one of the evening tours. He was so smitten with MI’s “quirky narrow spaces and its grand spiral staircase” that he joined right away. On the sidewalk, and through our masks, he showed me the workings of the level and explained how it was used. A Surveyor’s Level, such as #977, is a telescope that is fitted with a spirit level and mounted on a tripod. It is used by surveyors to measure the height of distant points in relation to a benchmark (a point for which the height above sea level is known). A practice that is still in use today although with more modern technology. 

Surveyor Level #977 is indeed a thing of beauty, crafted of patinaed brass with expertly wrought fittings. Its wooden storage box, lined in velvet is a treasure as well. According to Lietz’ product catalogs, the instrument was manufactured around 1904. Though not actually purchased on site, #977 was surely brought to 61 Post on a regular basis during its career to be calibrated for accuracy and without a doubt was “instrumental in helping the City rebuild after the 1906 disaster.”

Back in the early to mid-20th century, the Mechanics' Institute was a center for the city’s population of architectural, civil, electrical, or mechanical engineers and their related and supporting professions. For decades, the clubrooms of the American Society of Civil Engineers were headquartered on our 9th floor and today, architects continue to be on our register of tenants. To ensure an interesting display, Mr. VerHagen has loaned the Mechanics' Institute his personal copy of the 1919 Lietz catalogue to show along-side the level. The catalog pictures the Lietz storefront on the ground floor of the Mechanics’ building, looking pretty much the same as it does now.  Many thanks are due to Mr. VerHagen. I appreciate his efforts to illuminate and make tangible this piece of MI’s story and bring #977 back to Post Street. 

Archivist Diane Lai plans to house the level in the display case within McNamara classroom A on the 3rd floor. Though it is uncertain when the Institute will be able to reopen, it all depends on the course of the pandemic, I hope you will find reason to swing by and gaze at A. Lietz Manufacturing Company’s Surveyor’s Level #977. It’s a small piece of San Francisco and Mechanics’ Institute’s industrial history but it surely helped build the city we so enjoy today.  

 

1.  Post-Street Fire Menaces Library, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1924.

Posted on Sep. 1, 2020 by Taryn Edwards

Dramatic Writers' Challenge

Hello writers! Have you been writing your way through these turbulent times? MI member Paul Heller of Same Boat Theatre Collective (SBTC) is soliciting short plays and theatrical pieces for EarthQuake: Moving the Earth with Our Voices, a global Zoom festival of performances to further the cause of environmental justice. SBTC is accepting scripts that raise awareness of how specific environmental issues affect the lives and communities of the underrepresented and underprivileged. The festival intends to produce work that gives an opportunity for a diversity of voices to be heard, with an emphasis on underrepresented and underprivileged artists. SBTC will cast and direct the virtual performances.

A few details: submissions should be 10-20 minute scripts, monologues and other theatrical works (movement, puppetry, etc.) that can be performed live on Zoom and give thoughtful, engaging responses to one (or more) of the following questions:

1. What does being _____________ [an African American woman, e.g.] have to do with the environment?

2. “Urban wilderness.” How has human activity specifically affected the environment where you live?

3. Is misinformation a pandemic?

Further information is available at https://www.sameboattheater.org/

Go ahead, make Mechanics’ Institute proud and draft something to submit! Inquiries and submissions should be directed to [email protected] Submissions are due by September 20, 2020.

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay.

Posted on Aug. 19, 2020 by Taryn Edwards

Historical Partners and Members Long Gone

During this shelter-in-place, I’ve noticed that several deceased members of Mechanics’ Institute (MI) are busier than ever. A number of recent events and new research has shed more light on the several former members’ past activities.

Wednesday (4/29) was Adolph Sutro’s 190th birthday. Sutro was not a consistent MI member, likely because he was wealthy enough to have his own gigantic library. But he was a supporter and turned to MI when he was trying to find sponsors for the tunnel he hoped to build in the Comstock region of Nevada. In April 1867, a special committee of the Institute reported publicly that Sutro’s idea was “intelligent” and respectfully solicited Congress to “give liberal aid to the work.”

Every year, the Sutro branch of the California State Library has commemorated his birthday with cheeky photos of the man on social media. This year's celebration includes a fascinating blog post about the S.S. Adolph Sutro, a “liberty ship” that was built in Richmond, CA to aid the war effort in 1943.

Meanwhile, our fair Emperor has not been quiet. One of MI’s earliest members was Joshua Norton, a failed rice merchant who suffered a mental breakdown and one day declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States. Emperor Norton was a frequent MI user, enjoying both the library’s resources and the chess room. An astute social observer, Norton considered himself a leader in the City’s socio-political whirl. The Emperor was often found in places where important decisions were made, as shown in this interactive map.

In a recent article penned by MI member John Lumea of the Emperor Norton Trust, we learn that on July 13, 1875, the Emperor took the floor during a public forum held at the Mercantile Library (with whom MI merged in 1906) on the notion of “no party” political participation.

According to Lumea, Norton had “long cast a wary eye at political parties in general” and true to form, at the meeting, Norton was impassioned in his argument and declared “the Americans (involved in the current politics) [to be] in rank disrepute.” Norton was called to order when “his sentiments seemed to encourage a discrimination in the selection of “no party” candidates unfavorable to a number present who were Americans….”

In 1875 a public forum such as this was exactly the type of event MI would have hosted. Did it shy away from hosting this particular gathering because of its political nature? Or, was it because MI President Andrew Hallidie was soon to be nominated for Mayor by the newly forming Independent party? Can it be possible that Emperor Norton knew this information about Hallidie? Did he pick up a scrap of gossip at the Institute while playing a game of chess or sketching out the text of his next proclamation on Institute stationery? At the Mercantile’s meeting, was he advocating for the "independent party" as it was shaping up or merely suggesting that formal parties were irrelevant and inappropriate? Shades of today, am I right? And what about the reference to the Americans [in the political scene] being “in rank disrepute”?

We'll probably never know. However, It is delicious to wonder if our Emperor Norton, was a shadow supporter of Andrew Hallidie’s 1875 bid for Mayor – a failed effort by the way. Hallidie’s deep seated principles made him an effective leader but unsuited for politicking.

What I love about all these vignettes is how they illustrate a community in action. Comrades, adversaries, and those who are just plain weird helping each other, hashing out what it means to coexist, and how to make the future better. At the center of it all is the Mechanics’ Institute and places like it that encourage these connections. I don’t know about you, but I’m eager to get back to it! See you as soon as the shelter-in-place is lifted – we’ve got work to do!

Posted on May. 4, 2020 by Taryn Edwards