San Francisco History

When The Old Town went A-Marketing

by Walter J. Thompson

A time there was in this city when every household had two valued articles among its lares and penates—two precious samples of the basket-maker’s handicraft. These were a clothes-basket, oval in shape and a size similar to that in which Falstaff once took refuge when Windsor wives were merry, and the other of smaller dimensions and cast in a variety of designs, substantial to make and with a handle born to cling to a human arm.

This latter was the friendly market basket, and in the affairs domestic of an old San Francisco family, it cut no inconsiderable figure. It was not kicked about like the coal scuttle nor was it put to such ignoble uses as its big wickerware brother, which held soiled and clean habiliments of wear alternately.

It had but one object in life, an object that gave it a dignity so severe that event the family cat—Back-porch Tommy or Hallway Kit—held it in reverence and awe. Nor was it less respected by the adolescents who would not hesitate to drag the walnut whatnot from the parlor to brace up the wall of the blanket pagoda in course of erection in the sand lot next door. Every home had a sand lot next to it in the brave days of old. Nobody seemed to own the lot; nobody cared who owned it. Until it was built upon it belonged to the town.

The market basket’s title told its mission. It was the utilitarian symbol of Market day—a day that was as significant in home happenings as was Steamer day in the young city’s commercial career. It was the diety [sic] of the days when San Franciscans were proud to carry their dinners on their arms before they tucked them away in their stomachs.

I doubt if any description would bring to the generation of today a comprehensive appreciation of what market day was to their forefathers. There is the spell of the old oaken bucket and the rapture of vacation days when you and I were young, Maggie, and all that sort of thing about the whole business—things that can only be felt and that give the merry ha ha to prosaic language.

From the start San Francisco was a market city. It has markets yet, but there is no comparison between them and the old altars from whence arose the incense to the god of gastronomy.

The market system was not a western idea. It was a monument erected here by the argonauts, as sacred to the memory of their old homes nearer the sunrise. In detail, in construction and in every way did the San Francisco markets resemble the old Fulton market of New York, the Second-street market of Philadelphia, and similar marts of trade in Boston and Baltimore, with a dash of the street stalls of New Orleans.

All the romance of Market day was centered about the first institution of its kind that was projected along pretentious lines—the old Washington market, that had three frontages, on Washington street, Sansome and Merchant. It was a market of which all San Franciscans were particularly proud for many years.

Built in 1854, of fireproof material, by H. F. Williams, a well-known master builder, it was heralded as one of the largest markets on the Pacific Coast and an ornament to the city.

But it is not upon those chiseled architectural lines one fain would linger. They are but as the husk of the corn. Stone blocks, however placed, do not a market make. It is the interior furnishings, the inside trimmings, the from floor to rafter decorations—all, there is the panorama.

A good, healthy retrospect of Washington market is as winsome as the memory of the best meal you ever ate in your life. I can recall nothing in literature that so near approaches an exploitation of its plentitude of riches as Washington Irving as description of old Bantus Van Tassel’s rancheria near Sleepy Hollow; those corpulent baths bulging with the treasures of the farm, those overpopulated barnyards and pastures, the overflowing pantries and congested cellars.

So did the stalls of Washington market side by side present a picture of prosperity of a kind that would make a political platform look like a panic-stricken ballroom. Huge sides of beef hung in solemn stateliness from its many-hooked racks—flocks of sheep minus their clothes hung in pink profusion between them.

Then, there were the pork stalls, with the indisputable evidence that King Hog and his entire court had been butchered to make a gastronomical San Francisco holiday, where festoons of plump sausages swung from hook to hook with all the abandon of a popcorn chain on a Christmas tree, and pear-shaped hams by the gross were draped about wrapped in shiny red and yellow shrouds, with the breastplate and weight number fixed thereon by the boss gladiator of the slaughterhouse.

Then, too, there were the rolls (not squares) of golden butter, piled in pyramidal form after the fashion of cannon balls at an arsenal, big firkins also, stripped to the buff and stolidly awaiting the sacrificial knife; bushels of eggs heaped up like cobblestones; cheeses of all ages and of mentions; fruit in such variety that it seemed as if the Hesperidian gardens had come to town to stay; the barrels of pickles, tubs of nuts—but there as a rough and tumble tout ensemble that’s enough. It’s just as well to leave off with those golden apples and those barrels and tubs with their contents. There be those yet living who recall with tingles of ecstasy how conveniently they were placed at turning points and corners and what a lure they were to childish fingers and how they stimulated the cultivation of nipping as a fine art. But, I say, enough.

All in all, Washington market was sufficient to make the modern housewife’s fountain of felicity—the delicatessen depot—look like a symposium of starvelings.

It was the Mecca to which San Franciscans made their pilgrimages, market basket on arm and surrounded by the family output even down to the toddlers. Mecca! Pshaw, in comparison. Mecca was nor more than a fly on the face of a town clock. Mecca had but one Casba. Mecca had but one well of Zem-Zem. But Washington market, with its seventy stalls and their wealth of appurtenances, had Casbas by the score and wells of Zem-Zem galore, and for fervor of devotion and zeal of purpose I would back at long odds its pilgrims against any band of Islamites that ever hiked across the Arabian desert.

No taint commercialism was about their fervor of devotion and zeal of purpose. They did not place market basket on arm and assemble the family in marching order and sally forth to secure bargains staked out on counters like town lots with cut-rate bills of sale-tacked thereon. There was then no 99 cent basis of arbitration between seller and customer. Be it known that in those days there was a three-ply quarantine on copper cents; nickels were persona-non-grata in the marts of trade, little silver half dimes were tolerated only in making change if customers were small enough to insist upon them, and even dimes were given the glassy stare that is thrown upon bad actors along the highway of life.

The real reason behind the market day popularity was the fact that every man and woman in San Francisco was homesick. In their eyes was the hard new El Dorado glitter that was born of the gold rush; in their movements was the eagerness, amounting almost to a passion, to encumber themselves with as much as the yellow metal as it was possible to grab. But in their hearts was a statue of Niobe with a pathetic yearning on its features and with arms outstretched in the direction of some far-off Eastern shrine where on the altar of expectancy fragments of life and family ties were fanned by the wings of hope. Were they not simply sojourners in the land of Egypt, with the call of their distant Canaan ever ringing in their ears?

With them marketing was a delectable recreation and Saturday night was looked forward to eagerly by every San Francisco pater familias. It was not in the shopping in which they reveled, although many personally conducted their buying under the watchful eye and advising voice of “Ma.” It was soon disposed of. No haggling was there over prices. It was simply quality and quantity. How much of a good thing would do for the family. Before the marketing was over the basket was heavy and the pocket lighter, but in what ratio of percentage was not a subject for thought even.

Bright shone the lights over the cliff dwellers of Russian and Telegraph hills, the flatters of North Beach and the aristocrats of Rincon Hill. Then was the gold dust flush driven from each face and vanished to the sand dunes or any other old place that was out of sight and the Niobe in each heart was given an airing.

Then was it that old townies met, or if not old townies, fellow natives of the same state, or of the same section—or, well, “you’re from the East, or South, any how, ain’t you?”—which was enough.

How pater familias did wag his whiskers; how mater familias did join the Dorcas Club sessions and discourse about recipes for “scrapple” and other old-home dishes; how filius familias did frolic in hide and seek with the pickle barrels or play “I spy” in the Hesperidian gardens, emerging therefrom laden with loot.

Watch that three-corned contest over there between a Philadelphian, a Gothamite and a Bostonese. Watch loquacity emerge from the conflict of phrase and fable waving its banners over impudent assertiveness and smug bumptiousness, wallowing in the mire of defeat. The New York man started it by vaunting the praises of Fulton market, whereas the Quaker City man bounded on the firing line with an assertion that old Second-street market had the Fulton outfit backed up against Hell Gate.

“It was the cannon’s opening roar.”

Fusillades followed with deafening effect and telling precision.

Had they never heard of the Camptown hucksters, those autocrats of marketdom before whose militancy the boldest enemy would quail and whose presence alone safeguarded the city on the Delaware forever from invasion by any foreign foe.

And street characters! Had they never heard of the old hominy man who daily yelled his way uptown clear from the navy yard before they moved the whole works over the League island and left the poor man without a starting place! Had they never heard the old woman who sold “Pepper hot, smoking hot,” on the coldest winter days right in the shadow of Independence Hall? Had they never heard of the clam minstrel who warbled “Clams, clams! Four for a penny, five is too many, twenty-four for a fi-penny bit and fifty for a leve-e-e?”

And as for volunteer firemen! Had they never heard of how the Moyamensings ran the Monumentals’ big machine plump down and dumped it into the Delaware river, by gad, sir?

Is it any wonder that the New Yorker shivered in his trench as the fusillade swept by, carrying with it the shattered remnants of Fulton market, dismembered Bowery boys and torn-to-taters Dead Rabbits of the old Sixth ward that had been standing by awaiting their turn to appear on the scene.

Cannot one pity the Boston man his smug, bumptiousness, dispersed in the smoke of battle and be stricken with the sickening realization that Boston common had not much of an edge on the sand lot on the upper stretch of Market street, that old South Church was little better than a Mission adobe, and that after all the doings of a certain tea party in the cause of freedom had been mangled and remangled to a tiresome extent in successive sections of school text books.

The picture of Washington market would be incomplete without a touch of tribute to the stallmen who were wonderful agents in its life and activity. They were old townies, too, and each had his following among the patrons of the place. How they could swap gossip of other days and people as they hewed and sawed at rumps and ribs or slashed butter and cheese or imprisoned eggs, fruit and other things to eat in paper bags and wrappers. How they slathered the silver change about the counter, apparently without counting it, and as though it was their delight to give away the contents of the big till that slid in and out under the counter, unhampered with trap wires and warning bells.

They were a merry crew. Business cares and worries stalked afar from their wigwams. Trade was brisk during market hours and profits were handsome. Why should they not be merry? And, especially, those butchers. They were the kingpins of the market. Big jovial boys, who could sling a meat pole as dexterously as any old whaleman could his harpoon, or swing a cleaver or operate a saw with bewitching grace of movement.

There were “Jake” Wray, a patriarch of the profession; “Dick” O’Neill, John Wilson (before he invested in a million yards of circus canvas), Johnnie Robel, who was always called “Dick”, “Mutton Sam” and scores of others.

What repartee was tossed from stall to stall during the quiet hours of the day, when they were cutting up counter meat. It was a place where the slangerino of the times was slammed about.

Hearken to the butter and cheese stall bantering telling a long-robed butcher to pull down his vest, knowing full well, droll dog, that it could not be done owing to the aforesaid long robe. Hearken to the butcher, a demon of waggishness himself, telling the b. and c. stall that it had bu(c)tter cheese it before a peeler appeared. Note the ready retort of the b. and c. stall to “wipe off your chin,” another impossibility with the bewhiskered butcher.

What an uproar there was when “Jimmy the Shouter” appeared with the aroma of the freshly painted scenery of the Metropolitan Theater up on Montgomery street about him. Jimmy was a prime favorite, with a tendency to slipping passes now and then. Jimmy had a reputation. Hadn’t he groomed the horse on which Adah Isaacs Mencken galloped across the Metropolitan stage in “Mazeppa”? Didn’t Billy Birch of the San Francisco Minstrels always try his jokes on Jimmy before he tried them on the public? Could not Jimmy stand in the wings and prompt Ned Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth, so well did he know Shakespeare?

It was Jimmy who took a rise out of old Brooks, the man who sold ground horseradish at a little stall of his own, when the bantering was strong about Brooks “setting ‘em” up for the crowd. With dramatic pose and in deep-toned voice did Jimmy exclaim.

“In the words of the immortal Shakespeare I say, ‘Such Brooks are welcome that overflow such liquor,’” and he threw so much pathos into his voice that Brooks capitulated and butchers’ row was deserted for the next ten minutes.

When peninsula scenery was shifted in April 1906, the master property man raised his hand and warned the Fire King off on another course when he approached the famous old market block. It was but singed by the heat.

Perhaps the property man had in respectful memory those merry butcher lads, not only in their merry moods, but when, six foot high and six abreast, they marched with dignified martial tread, stern-faced and in long-robes of immaculate white, and with polished cleavers glinting in the sunlight, in the lines of the Fourth of July parades on the cobbled roadway off Broadway, along Stockton street, and down Washington.

One shudders to think what would have happened to the dare devil knight who would then have yelled to them, “Pull down your vest!”

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 25 June 1916. 50.

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