Just plain cool

Just received an email from an old contact — and though I’ve not been actively updating Sparkletack, this project is just too fantastic not to mention.

I’ve pillaged the San Francisco History Center’s online photo archive myself many, many times … and often dreamed of a resource exactly like this one.

OldSF.org in Dan’s own words:

“A long time ago you blogged about a map I made of photographs from the Cushman collection.

After much work and many rocky starts, I’ve put together the next incarnation of this: OldSF.org.

It’s a map of the San Francisco Public Library’s Historical Photograph Collection, which contains 40,000 digitized images from San Francisco’s past. We’ve located about 13,000 of them on a map and built an interactive site to help you explore the photographs. It’s a bit like historypin, but it’s focused exclusively on San Francisco and has far more images of SF than historypin does.

There are countless finds in the collection, but here are a few that we enjoyed:

Also worth mentioning: while this is not an SFPL project, it is done with their blessing.

Hope all is well. And many thanks for Sparkletack. Listening to your podcast when I first moved up to the city really sparked my interest in SF History.”

You’re welcome, Dan — and thank YOU!

This is awesome.

SepiaTown is a brand new website integrating mapping technology with crowd-sourced historical photos to create a virtually strollable San Francisco.

They’ve collected over 150 images of San Francisco thus far, mostly clustered around California, Montgomery, and Market Streets … but it’s easy to see how the entire city could be reconstructed.

Reconstructed with your help. Whether you have a boxful of old photos in the closet, or run a professional photo archive, you are respectfully encouraged to load ’em up!

Here’s the skinny on SepiaTown from its own sepia-toned lips:

“SepiaTown lets you search, view and upload historical images by location, in order to see what once stood where you now stand.

As the SepiaTown collection comes to encompass thousands of locations throughout the globe it will allow people to interact with history and geography in a new and exciting way; to tour the landscapes, cityscapes and events of history with a scope and breadth never before possible.

Whether you’re a large institution like a museum or library, or an individual with a cool collection of old snapshots, uploading is simple. We display low res versions of your images which, if you choose, are accompanied by a link to your site.

There is no charge to upload and display images via SepiaTown and we make no claim of copyright on any uploaded material. All images legally owned by you remains yours.”

It’s not the only website of its kind, but it might be the nicest — not only is the interface beautifully clean and easy to navigate, but uploading images is a snap.

They hope to survive via advertising and donations. My donation is this very post — and I wish them luck.

I’ve been meaning to post about these amazing T-shirts forever. Because they’re — I kid you not — unbearably cool.

It’s an idea so good that I’ve been kicking myself constantly (though ever so gently) for not having thought of it first!

What we have here is a series of San Francisco historical T-shirts, each one inspired by a historical neighborhood icon or institution. Locally made, totally cool … and they’re beautifully designed, too.

Just a couple of examples, some more gangster than others:

  • Devil’s Acre — From the most nefarious district of North Beach’s already infamous Barbary Coast
  • Beertown Brawlers — inspired by the 1870s–90s-era saloon-saturated stretch of Fulton Street, north of Golden Gate Park
  • Dog Patch — From the extinct east-side working-class neighborhood below Irish Hill
  • Carville FalconsCarville you remember, right? One of those cars was the headquarters of the Falcons — an all-girl cycling club.
  • Hunter’s Point Butchers — a little confusing, since Butchertown was a neighborhood distinct from Hunter’s Point, but what the hell … even though it’s currently out of print, this one’s totally my favourite.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Take a peek… and flash some vintage neighborhood pride. Tell ’em Sparkletack sent you!

Ork Posters has created something guaranteed to delight typophiles (that’s me) and San Francisco neighborhood geeks (check) alike.

It’s a typographic neighborhood map of Our Fair City.


Oh sure, they do it for a bunch of their other favourite cities too. But this is so cool that I forgive them for that.

Screen-printed. Multiple color options. Totally cool.

On the other hand, partial (dis)credit for using “San Fran” in the URL. They’ll be hearing from Emperor Norton about that …

“Thank you for making such an awesome show. It’s really helped me out with this art project I’ve been working on.

I’m in an art show at the San Francisco Arts Commission and the theme is “Trace Elements”, or uh, Hidden Histories of San Francisco, so I’m making an illustrated map of San Francisco with bits of its hidden history. I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at with this thing if it wasn’t for your podcast.”

How cool is that?!

Very. I replied to this email from San Francisco artist Deth P. Sun immediately, demanding (okay, “enthusiastically requesting”) to see the work as soon as it was done.

A few weeks later, he emailed me a photo … and it’s awesome.

It’s a eccentric, surreal treasure map, a visual guide to San Francisco that’s packed with hidden cemeteries, lost neighborhoods, forgotten heroes … I mean, this is what the city is all about — stories, spooks and secrets:

Deth P. Sun - San Francisco Secret Histories map Deth P. Sun, “Secret Histories of San Francisco” — click the map for a larger image


Deth P. Sun - San Francisco Secret Histories map detail Deth P. Sun, “Secret Histories of San Francisco” — detail


Deth drew from a lot of great sources, of course, not just Sparkletack — sfcemeteries.com, outsidelands.com … in fact, he’s put together a Google map of stories and sources — a kind of legend to the map — that’s almost as cool as the painting.

The “Trace Elements” group show will be up until July 3rd, 2009, at the SFAC Gallery at 401 Van Ness — check it out!

It’s Emperor Norton Day

Emperor Norton bicycle

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago today, the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico crumpled in front of Old St. Mary’s Church on the edge of Chinatown, and died on the way to the hospital.

Thirty thousand citizens attended his funeral, and the San Francisco Chronicle commemorated the man in style befitting a fallen Royal:

“On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life”

Though Norton is said to have found the bicycle a mode of transport not sufficiently dignified for a personage of such eminence, in honour of Emperor Norton’s Official Day of Remembrance, I humbly present this charming photo of the man I firmly believe to be the City’s one true Patron Saint.

The ubiquitous and erudite Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhood Project takes Brian Hackney of CBS Channel 5 on a televised history tour of his beloved Sunset stomping grounds.

Just in case you’ve been missing out, the Western Neighborhood Project (outsidelands.org) is a wonderful organization, a non-profit passionately dedicated to uncovering and preserving the legacies of San Francisco’s Richmond, Sunset, West of Twin Peaks, and Lake Merced districts.

Woody’s the founder of this group, and — from the early days of eternal sand dunes to the Doggy Diner head — what he doesn’t know about the Sunset is scarcely worth knowing.

The show is great fun, packed with juicy stuff — and if for nothing else, the rare inside peek at one of Carville’s famous cable car houses makes it worth a look.

thanks for the tip to: Project D

A couple days after I passed on this alert to the amazing Charles Cushman photo collection, another reader immediately saw further possibilities for this carefully filed and annotated archive of our city.

He’s created a Google map, digitally mapping over 200 of the enormous collection’s slides to their places of origin.

This looks like it must have been a TON of work, but as Dan wrote, “Richard — this wasn’t so much effort as it looks. Google maps has a geocoder which takes street intersections and turns them into GPS coordinates. I wrote a script to download the Cushman archive pages, look up the street addresses in the geocoder, and add them to the map.”

Right — it’s easy if you know how! And I suspect that slightly more energy went into this project than Dan is letting on.

Though just a bit over 10% of the 1791 images in the San Francisco portion of the archive were readily identifiable, it’s more than enough to pull you back into a visceral, three-dimensional experience of our city in the era of Kodachrome.

Just click on a blue marker for the photo, date, and whatever Cushman noted on the slide. Enjoy …


A reader alerted me to an amazing post that just popped up over at Laughing Squid.

See the two photos below? The first comes from a collection of vintage color snapshots of San Francisco — it’s the intersection of South Van Ness and Army, captured by Charles Cushman back in 1953.

The second one was snapped by Todd Lappin just yesterday — and at first glance, not much has changed in the last fifty years but the trees on the Bernal Hill and the price of gas!

San Francisco, South Van Ness and Army 1953 San Francisco, South Van Ness and Army 2008

And if you thought that was cool, here’s another small sample of the treasures over at the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection. Charles Cushman was an amazingly prolific amateur photographer (and Indiana University alum), who upon his death bequeathed 14,500 Kodachrome color slides to his alma mater. Hundreds of these shots were of San Francisco in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — and the University has kindly placed the whole batch online.

san francisco cable car san francisco golden gate bridge san francisco fisherman's wharf san francisco russian hill

There’s tons of stuff there — Chinatown, Golden Gate Park, Pacific Heights — and I’d upload even more, but I haven’t yet made it through the whole site myself! That’s what I’m planning to do the second this post goes online.

Todd writes — and he’s not wrong — “Do not click this link unless you have at least an hour to burn.

You’ve been warned.

original post: Todd Lappin @ Laughing Squid
thanks for the tip: Arnold Sandoval

Rice-A-Roni - the San Francisco Treat

1940s San Francisco. A young Canadian immigrant and her Italian pasta family husband move into the spare room of an old Armenian woman.

The result of this temporary arrangement? The boxed rice and pasta side dish which — for good or ill — would come to be as strongly associated with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge:

“Rice-A-Roni – the San Francisco Treat”

If you’re of a certain age, just reading that phrase will plant the jingle in your head for the rest of the day. Oops.

Since this is a culinary story, it seems fitting that the Kitchen Sisters, intrepid explorers of the nation’s Hidden Kitchens, should be the ones to tell it. They’ve put together a wonderful short feature which aired earlier this week on Morning Edition.

If you missed the clip, you can hear the audio, absorb an entertaining history and enjoy photos of the entire cast of characters at the NPR website: “Birth of Rice-a-Roni: the Armenian-Italian Treat”.

The (appropriately) condensed version:

Here are the bones of this typically San Francisco story of convergence, with quotes borrowed from the Kitchen Sisters’ story.

In the early ’40s Lois DeDomenico moved from Edmonton to San Francisco. It wasn’t long before she met and fell for Tom DeDomenico, employed with his brothers at the family pasta works — and the two quickly got hitched. Housing was tight in the post-war city, though, so Lois answered a classified ad for a spare room posted by one Mrs. Pailadzo Captanian.

“Mrs. Captanian, I had a liking for her right away. So we moved in. Tommy would work until about 7 o’clock at the pasta factory and I was alone a lot,” Lois said. “I was only 18 and I was pregnant. And I had kitchen privileges. Well, I really wasn’t much of a cook. And here was this Armenian lady, probably about 70 years [old], making yogurt on the back of the stove, all day, every day. I didn’t even know what the word ‘yogurt’ meant.”

The older woman, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, took the young Canadian under her wing and taught her to cook. Among the recipes included in this cross-cultural transmission was her specialty, a simple, traditional side dish of pasta and rice called Armenian pilaf.

Mmmm, pilaf! Of course, pilaf is no mystery to our modern and ever-so-cosmopolitan palates now, but in that pre-rice era, it must have seemed to Lois like an exotic taste of the Orient.

It was certainly a hit with the DeDomenicos, and even Tom contributed with pasta brought home from the Golden Grains factory. Lois learned well at Mrs. Captanian’s side, and continued to prepare the dish long after the couple had moved into their own home.

As the story goes, Tom’s brother Vince frowned down at his pilaf one night at a family dinner and spoke the fateful 1950’s phrase, “this would be GREAT in a box!”

And so it came to pass. Following four years of experimentation in the pasta factory’s test kitchens, “Rice-A-Roni – the San Francisco Treat” took its place on supermarket shelves right next to the Jell-O, Miracle Whip, and Velveeta cheese product. It was the ’50s, after all, and now — thanks to the Armenian diaspora, to an Italian immigrant family cranking out pasta, to a Canadian girl who couldn’t cook — San Francisco’s contribution to the age of convenience was official.

Try it yourself

Well, though I’ve never been a fan of the stuff (is that heresy?), I am intrigued by Mrs. Captanian’s original recipe (scroll down to the bottom of the page). If you feel moved to try it too, head into the kitchen and let me know how your experiments turn out.

My mother called a few days ago, opening the conversation with a breathless “I think I’ve found something that might interest you!”

She was right.

Her sister had recently gone through some papers belonging to my late grandfather Elmer Plett, a sober, hard-working dairy farmer who spent the majority of his adult life in the central valley town of Turlock.

Among piles of receipts and newspaper clippings my aunt discovered a mysterious item bearing the handwritten label “San Francisco picture, 1949”. Sure enough, nestled between protective cardboard sheets was a large, glossy, black and white aerial photograph of San Francisco.

The shot is spectacular, taken on an unusually clear winter day. The angle is unusual too, looking almost precisely north towards Mount Shasta — and according to the story of how the photo came to be taken (see below), that view of the distant volcano is what prompted the photographer to take to the air.

What we’re interested in, though, is the city in the foreground — captured in all its hat-wearing, freeway-building, pre-jet-age post-war glory. Take a look:

San Francisco Chronicle aerial photo 1949

click image to view at full size

Beautiful, no?

But my question, of course, is what on earth prompted Grandpa hold on to such a thing? What was his interest in San Francisco? Prior to 1949 he’d made the journey to the big city only once — and that was to visit the ’39 World’s Fair on Treasure Island.

Had he sent away for this photo ten years later to commemorate that event, to summon the memories of crossing the brand new Bay Bridge with Grandma in the old Model A, to recall the Technicolor excitement of witnessing the entire world condensed onto a couple of pancake-flat acres floating in the middle of the Bay?

I’ll never know. Mom has no idea, and neither do her siblings … and dammit, it’s too late to ask Grandpa. So although the possible explanations are limitless, that’s the one I’m choosing. Arbitrary, perhaps — but satisfying.

For your edification — and because Grandpa would have thought that this whole thing was totally cool — I’ve re-typed the sheet of paper (printed by the Chronicle) explaining the photograph. Enjoy …

From 12,000 Feet Up

On a clear day in January, 1949, Chronicle photographer Barney Peterson climbed into a small airplane and circled skyward over the San Francisco Peninsula. At 12,000 feet, his camera lens reached out 250 miles to catch this remarkable shot of snow-covered Mount Shasta (alt. 14, 162). The peak can be seen in the extreme background just a little to the right of center.

Just to the left of Shasta are China Mountain, Cory Peak and Scott Peak, averaging over 8500 feet. To the left of this group is Russian Peak, 8183 feet.

In the foreground may be seen the Spring Valley Lakes and the peninsula communities of Burlingame, Millbrae, San Bruno and South San Francisco. At the extreme right foreground is the San Francisco Municipal Airport. To the left of the airport, in the open space between Millbrae and South San Francisco, is a section of the new Bayshore freeway.

The San Bruno hills are just beyond South San Francisco and to their extreme right is Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Above Hunters Point may be seen a section of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. Above the Bay Bridge in the photograph are Point Richmond and Point San Pablo.

On the extreme left side of the picture is San Francisco’s famous beach, Seal Rock, the Cliff House, the Golden Gate and the Golden Gate Bridge (left center). Short of the Golden Gate Bridge may be seen the street patterns of the Richmond and Sunset districts, divided by Golden Gate Park.

Just north of North Beach sits Alcatraz and beyond Alcatraz is Angel Island. The thin peninsula behind Angel Island is the Tiburon-Belvedere peninsula forming the east shore of Richardson Bay.

The clarity of this photograph was made possible by rare arctic winds which swept the skies of their usual haze. Photographer Peterson used a 5"x7" aerial camera equipped with a 15" Wollensak telephoto lens. The exposure was 1/225 second at an aperture of F/8, using a minus blue filter and Super XX Aero Graphic film.

— Photo Copyright, 1949, by the Chronicle Publishing Company


It’s the archetypal car chase, often cited as the most thrilling in movie history. And though legions of movie analysts will tell you that the car is the star, we all know perfectly well that San Francisco’s voluptuous topography is what turned this notorious scene into legend.

What we also know perfectly well is how the filmmakers played cut-and-paste with the city’s map — apparently borrowing a trick or two from Star Trek, as the two vehicles teleport from one neighborhood to another via the editing console. From Potrero Hill, to Russian Hill, back to Potrero Hill, back to Russian hill and the Marina, zapping over to Visitaçion Valley, and finishing up on the Bayshore roaring towards Brisbane — hello, movie magic!

A God’s-eye view

But this video takes things about ten steps further. It’s a side-by-side display that — through the techno-wizardry of geocoding — shows the schase scene’s logic-defying route from space. Now you can track Steve’s ’68 Mustang GT turn by screeching turn through every neighborhood in the city — just like a James Bond super-villain:

Click to view at full size

Not to give the filmmakers too much credit, but perhaps there’s a meta-narrative of San Francisco’s inherent instability at work here too: Intersecting layers of history, invention and reinvention, kinetic faultlines at edge of the world … it’s easy to see the echos of San Francisco’s many earthquakes in Bullitt’s physics-defying leaps.

Charlie Chaplin was probably the first to take movie liberties with San Francisco, a half-century before Bullitt editor Frank Keller pulled out the scissors — and now, almost a century later, the list is anything but short.

Afterthought: At one of the early Lollapalooza music festivals, this clip played on the Shoreline’s in-house monitors as a warmup for the headliner. What a mistake! The gut-shaking roar of that Mustang’s engine swamped the amphitheatre, and after nine hair-raising minutes of adrenaline-fueled, high-speed action, the audience was completely wrung out. Finished!

The headlining act (the Smashing Pumpkins) sounded weak, tinny, and insignificant in comparison — nothing but an afterthought.

props to the creator: Steve McQueen @ SEERO
thanks for the tip: RICK! @ Laughing Squid

A Jitney Elopement
A Jitney Elopement

File this — again — under “there’s ALWAYS a San Francisco connection”.

A reader recently alerted me to the fact that Charlie Chaplin, America’s favourite clown (and perhaps the most influential performer in motion picture history), shot one of his bazillion-odd silent movies on location in and around Golden Gate Park.

A Jitney Elopement” is classic slapstick, featuring a case of mistaken identity, a jitney (think “flivver“), a mustachioed scoundrel and — inevitably — madcap hilarity. This milestone 1915 production has been described as the first “Chaplinesque” Chaplin film, but is that what we’re here for?

Nope … we want to look past the action with San Francisco-tinted glasses and see our city in all its vivid … okay, in all its grainy black and white early-century glory. The first half of the film takes place indoors, but take a look at clip from the second reel, featuring the crucial final ten minutes:

0:0 minutes: We begin somewhere on location in Golden Gate Park; Charlie is about to rescue the Girl from the amorous clutches of the mustachioed Count.

4:53 minutes: The action slowly picks up — over a half century before Steve McQueen will set the standard — with a car chase: high speed Tin-Lizzy!

5:02 minutes: This may be the high point of the film, a rare sight indeed: Golden Gate Park’s fabulous Murphy Windmill, complete with turning vanes! This windmill, the second of the Park’s famous pair, was built in 1905, but the vanes fell off sometime in the ’40s. The magnificent tower is still there, though, slowly rotting away — still unrestored.

6:00 minutes: tearing north past Ocean Beach along the Great Highway, not yet paved (!).

7:46 minutes: In a cinematic maneuver San Franciscans will see countless times over the years to come (hello “Bullitt‘), time and geography are defied with a leap across town into the Mission District. Note the fence advertising “Joe Holle Bicycles” — this handy clue allows us to place the scene precisely at 2336 Folsom Street, right across the street from today’s John O’Connell High School of Technology.

8:30 minutes: A pair of paved roads lead up a hillside … anyone want to take a crack at identifying this spot? Sutro Heights? The Presidio?

9:16 minutes: A major intersection that could be in the Mission, the Richmond or the Sunset districts … anyone recognize the buildings in the background?

9:46 minutes: The car chase finally ends with a splash as Chaplin bumps the villains’ car off a pier and into the bay. Our copy of the film is a little blurry, but our best guess is that this is somewhere around Fort Mason.

But wait, there’s more!


When last we encountered this goddess-behemoth, she was being blown up by the Navy at the end of the ’39 Pan-Pacific Exposition. The mythical goddess Pacifica — symbol of the Fair — had loomed over Treasure Island for the duration, a sternly imposing concrete figure of some 80 feet tall.

Though sculptor Ralph Stackpole had proposed that she be allowed to stay on as a sort of Statue of Liberty of the Pacific, the powers that be were unsympathetic — Pacifica was destroyed and hauled away with the rest of the rubble.

Now, almost 70 years later, the goddess is returning to San Francisco — albeit a bit reduced in scale. An 8-foot replica, reproduced in fiberglass from Stackpole’s original 3-foot working model, will be installed next week at the Community College of San Francisco (CCSF):

WHEN: Thursday, April 17th, 12:30-1:30 p.m.

WHERE: City College of San Francisco
Ocean Campus, 50 Phelan Avenue
in the garden next to the Diego Rivera Theater.

The Rivera connection

Connoisseurs of San Francisco art secrets will already know that the CCSF campus is the repository for one of the great surviving treasures of that fair, the mural “Pan American Unity” — a piece actually painted by Diego Rivera on Treasure Island as Fair patrons gawked.

Rivera’s original connection with San Francisco came from Stackpole, who traveled to Mexico to meet him in the ’20s and helped the lefty Mexican genius get his first mural commissions in the City. The Pacifica statue will be located in the “Olmec Head Plaza” — appropriately facing Rivera’s Treasure Island masterpiece.

The swimmer and the statue

Rivera mural

But here’s an odd angle; one of the figures immortalized by Rivera in that mural is responsible for bring Pacifica back — one Mr. Salvatore DeGuarda. Salvatore was working as a swimmer in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, happened to catch Diego’s eye, and now here he is — the one in the white swimming trunks.

After a long and colorful career, Mr. DeGuarda is now retired — but not very: after getting involved with Treasure Island’s fifty-year anniversary celebrations a couple of decades ago, he became obsessed with the re-creation of “Pacifica”:

“If it wasn’t for this statue, I would probably be dead by now. I have great memories, and I love sharing them with people. I want my legacy to be the re-creation of Pacifa on Treasure Island and the sharing of my stories.”

His donation of this relatively tiny version to CCSF is just a stop along the road — he’s already given a copy to the town of Pacifica (the statue’s namesake) — Salvatore won’t be satisfied until the full-scale 80-foot statue rises again above the Pacific.

For more about Salvatore DeGuarda’s non-profit group “Pacifica II Project”, visit www.pacificastatue.org.

Westinghouse San Francisco Steam Coffee Urn

I ran across an old and beautiful (not to mention HUGE) coffee urn in front of a Portland antique store today. Just like a magpie, shiny objects catch my eye — so I stopped to check it out.

It’s become a running joke that there’s always a San Francisco angle, and sure enough there was … and a sort of mystery as well: the metal label affixed to the side reads as follows:


My first thought: “Westinghouse had a factory in San Francisco?” But then I saw that the thing had been manufactured in Ohio.

So, it’s a “San Francisco Steam Coffee Urn” … that “Steam” instantly put me in mind of the local beer style; could there have been an analogous coffee style — “San Francisco steam coffee” — unique and well-known enough to warrant a national brand?


I can just picture it: Dashiell Hammett slouching at the counter in a cheap Eddy Street diner, scowling down at his reflection in a chipped mug full of black, acidic San Francisco steam? I can feel the chill of the fog, the warmth of that steaming mug of “San Francisco steam” … Oh yeah. That’s got to be it.

So how come I’ve never heard of it?

The owner of the shop wasn’t around, so its provenance is a mystery. It does occur to me that “SAN FRANCISCO” might just be a model name, and that “steam” simply refers to some generic brewing method, but how disappointing would that be? I’m sticking to my much more romatic interpretation, thank you very much. (And if anyone cares to burst my bubble, this blog sports a nifty “comments” function.)

If you’d like to nip up to the Pacific Northwest and take this relic home, it’s right here — and the price tag is $600.

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