File this under cheap and geeky thrills: full-size photocopies of old San Francisco maps for pocket change!

I got a hot tip about this from a friend of mine several years ago, but with my usual alacrity, didn’t follow it up until this week! Kevin works in the public housing industry, and often has occasion to visit San Francisco’s Department of Public Works — specifically the Bureau of Street Use & Mapping. Your average citizen would not stumble into room 460 of 875 Stevenson Street by accident, but if said citizen did so, he or she would find flourescent lighting, helpful employees, and a couple of large black and white maps affixed to the wall opposite the front counter. (note: address has changed – see below)

windows into the past

The maps in question were created in 1869 and 1929, respectively — I call ’em the “Samuel Clemens” and “Dashiell Hammett” maps, for the time periods that these two distinguished (if temporary) San Franciscans haunted these environs.

The 1869 version shows a pre-earthquake downtown, the cluster of old cemeteries out past Lone Mountain, and the undeveloped “San Miguel Rancho” dominating the mountainous center of the city. There’s no Embarcadero yet, Rincon Hill is still intact, and much of the shoreline has yet to take the shape we’re so familiar with today. The 1929 map has more contemporary look, showing the development of Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, and also the Mission Street Railroad. Both maps indicate the pre-fill outline of the city, and that alone makes them worth hanging on your wall.

I find myself constantly jumping up and peering at these things, comparing whatever research factoid I’ve just discovered to the lines engraved on the paper before me — I could stare at these things for hours, and see something new every time. They’re un-retouched photocopies, but considering the fact that the originals hover in a price-bracket that’s a little out of reach, they do the job beautifully. And the price? Chicken feed for such vivid windows into the past.

New Address updated 9.15.13

Mapping Department
San Francisco Department of Public Works
1155 Market St (between 7th and 8th)
3rd floor

Most maps are $5 unless printed extra large.