I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below will lead you to an independent book seller. Read on…

An email from a Tennessee book publisher plopped into my inbox a few weeks ago, trying to whip up interest in a coffee table book about historical Paris. I found this mildly interesting, but was about to write it off as spam when my eye fell on the last paragraph. Almost a throwaway, it mentioned Rebecca Schall’s previous book, “Historic Photos of San Francisco”. I perked right up, and then read the following:

“We’d love to send you a complimentary copy for possible review consideration”.

Yes, please!

As noted above, my policy in doing book reviews is that if it sucks, my review will consist of pointed disregard.

Was that ever NOT the case here. I (literally) jumped up and down as I flipped through the pages of this 200+ page treasure chest. This book is fantastic — nothing but fun!

It’s organized into several sections, each introduced with carefully composed scene-setting text, but I must confess — I have yet to read a word of it. Ahem — allow me to direct your attention once again to the title: “Historic Photos of San Francisco”. That’s it — photos. Barrels full. Rare photos and old favourites, culled from archives all around the Bay Area. I’m telling you, this book is loaded.

Historical photos!

I’m going to open the volume at random, and just drop a few of these gems on you:

page 9: For my money this is the best shot of San Francisco’s old shoreline, now long-buried underneath the Financial District. You’re seeing the northwest corner of today’s Broadway and (the then aptly-named) Front Streets, with Telegraph Hill in the background. (1865)

page 18: The San Francisco Police Department’s notorious Chinatown Squad, formed to combat opium dens, gambling halls, brothels, etc. Note the sledgehammers! (1895)

page 21: Elegantly dressed family on Bush Street, no doubt enroute to one of San Francisco’s myriad downtown theatres. (1877)

page 153: The cable car turnaround at Powell and Market — years before the City turned Powell into a cul-de-sac. (1945)

And there’s so much more. A shot of a captured Japanese midget submarine being “exorcised” by a Chinese priest. Electric streetcars plowing through flooded streets. Wreckage from the 1906 Great Fire and Earthquake. An aerial shot of Ocean Beach, featuring windmills and a sparsely settled Sunset District. The opening of the Lefty O’Doul drawbridge. Rocky Marciano boxing at Kezar Stadium.

There are lots of high-profile historical events represented here, but the street scenes are my favourites — the accidental capturing-in-amber of average Joe and Josephine San Francisco just going about their business.

Whatever your pleasure, it’s probably here in glorious and crisply detailed black and white — each photo dated, documented, and nicely put into context. There are other books in the category of “cool shots of the old city”, but if you’re looking for instant transportation to every decade of San Francisco’s history, give this one a look.

Meet the author

If you enjoy it as much as I did, drop by Rebecca Schall’s book signing. Though born in San Francisco, she now lives in Paris, so it’s a rare-ish event. It’s at a place I normally don’t set foot in, a chain store in the more touristed part of town — but what the heck: June 14th, 3pm at the Fisherman’s Wharf Barnes & Noble.

Tell her Sparkletack sent you.

Click here to order from an independent online bookstore.