San Francisco History

Rat-catchers of San Francisco

Rat-catchers of San Francisco.

It has been truly said that one-half of the inhabitants of all large cities know not how the other half live.  This fact will apply to San Francisco as forcibly as to any other.  Our population is a heterogeneous one, composed of the representatives of every nation on the habitable globe, -- men of every trade, profession, and calling among us known to the civilized world, -- and all striving with unabated energy and enterprise to forereach his neighbor in the search after wealth.  But of all resorts to which human ingenuity is applied whereby to make an honest livelihood, that of the rat-catchers seems to be the most singular.

There exists among us a numerous class of persons whose only vocation consists in catching rats and preparing their skins for exportation.  This business is mostly confined to a few Frenchmen, who have in their employ a number of Chinamen well skilled in the art.  Night after night they spread death and destruction among the innumerable swarms of these pests that infest our thoroughfares.  While the greater portion of our population are asleep, “John Chinaman,” like the chiffoniers or ragpickers (another distinct class of persons we have in our midst), is wide awake and pursuing his calling.  He is what might be called a professional “ratter,” and is as well versed as a Scotch terrier in the most approved method of discovering and of taking them.

The wharves along the water front of the city are nightly frequented by them;  but in most cases they seek the isolated places in the out-skirts of the city, where the rats fatten on the garbage thrown from the slaughter-houses, to set their traps.  These traps are square boxes, about two feet long, and of the same width, and some eighteen inches deep, the top and bottom constructed of wood and the sides wire net.  Each one has several openings on the sides, with the wire inverted, so that when a rat enters it is almost impossible for him to make his escape by the way he came in.  Each Chinaman is provided with two of these traps.  When about starting out he baits them, and then selects a suitable place to set them.  After having done this he retires a short distance to watch his game.  If the bait takes well he does not wait long before the traps are full.  If game is not so plenty he moves on to some other locality, and repeats the same operation.

In this manner, he proceeds until he has made a good “haul,” when he retraces his steps homewards, and deposits his traps in a receptacle provided for the purpose.  This place usually consists of a large dry-goods box, with apertures here and there covered with wire.  The rats are placed in it, and in the day-time are suffocated by means of charcoal.  Each Chinaman, with any kind of good luck, very often succeeds in taking from one to two hundred rats a night.  These are sold to the parties who employ them at so much per dozen, who derive considerable profit from the business.  The skins are dried and tied up in small packages of fifty each, ready for exportation.  They are sent to Paris, and there manufactured into what are called kid gloves, and returned to us as “Alexandre’s best,” which may be seen displayed in the windows of our fancy dry-goods stores.

Our Chinese residents readily adapt themselves to any kind of industry, however disagreeable, that promises a reward for their labor.  The catching of rats cannot be so revolting to them as might be expected, as it is said the animal, when cooked and served up in Celestial style, forms an important item in their cuisine. – San Francisco Herald.

SourceThe Living Age, Volume 52, Issue 668, March 14, 1857, page 670-671; New York, NY (reprinted from the San Francisco Herald); available at American Memory.


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