San Francisco History
 

Chambliss' Diary


Chapter XX.

ON Saturday the 9th of June, 1888,--exactly sixty-two days from the date of our departure from San Francisco,--we passed in through the Golden Gate and steamed on up the bay to Folson Street pier.

I do not remember having ever heard of a voyage of such a great distance so entirely free from storms. From the day of our departure until our return, during which time we steamed more than 14,500 miles, almost equal to the total distance from New York to Yokohama, via the Suez Canal, we experienced what the poets might have termed "heavenly weather." For days and days at a time during this long cruise the sea was actually as smooth as a mirror; the only disturbance on the surface of the water being the ripples caused by the ship, as she plowed her way along at the rate of 325 miles a day.

Upon our arrival at the wharf all the passengers assembled up forward of the pilot house to bid Captain Hayward and his officers farewell. They closed this lively ceremony by singing "Auld Lang Syne," in which all hands joined, and kept it up until they got out on the dock, where, as they emerged one by one from the gangway, they were quickly gobbled up by the hotel runners and hack fiends, and driven off uptown.

The Mariposa was scheduled to remain in port about three weeks. The prospects of sleeping on board alongside of the wharf, and breathing sewer gas until sailing day, did not suit me; and besides this, I did not like the idea of taking my meals at the Oceanic Steamship Co.'s contract hash house, just outside the dock gate, for twenty-one consecutive days.

Nature endowed me with a digestion that will stand salt horse, hard tack, black coffee, cracker hash, dried apples, "soup-and-bully," baked sailor beans, and all other nautical luxuries, from one end of the year to the other, but she forgot to supply me with the necessary gastronomic equipments to digest the menu of a city front boarding house, such as the café where the Spreckels' feed the employees on their steamers. So I went uptown to look around for a respectable boarding house where I could rent a room on the European plan, and take my meals wherever I pleased. Not knowing the lay of the land as well as I do now, I decided to look in the advertising columns of a morning paper. With this object in view, I purchased a copy of the Bronicle and read:

"Hotel Veller Blister, the only strictly first-class family boarding house in the city. Elegantly furnished apartments for bachelors.

"Special inducements to ladies whose husbands are absent a good deal of the time. Patronized by high society, and all the leading retired business men and army and many officers. Guests allowed to receive their friends at any time, day or night. Guests introduced into high society on reception days without any extra charge. The very best brands of liquid refreshments kept on hand constantly. No questions asked.

"For further particulars call or address the proprietress, Mme. Spolnie de Parvenu Vahlding, charter memeber of the Pacific Coast Scandal Association, corner of Taylor and Rosin Streets.

"Take o'Farrell Street cars; get off at corner Jones and Rosin Streets, and walk back one block."

I did not care to answer the above, so I purchased a copy of the Squall and discovered the following:

"Hotel Pleasure-and-fun, positively the only leading house in town. Private families accommodated and accumulated in any style desired.

"Marriage certificates not required.

"All kinds of amusements right in the house, including weekly dances led by Mr. Greenroad, from whom society notices in the Post, World, Wave, and Chronicle may be had very cheap. Only one block from the famous Fruit-picker Poker Club; also convenient to the leading side entrances, dives, opium joints, and massage parlors.

"For special rates, see her highness, Mme. Spend-me-money-for-fun-dleton, sole owner" (until sold out by the sheriff).

I glanced over a few more of the Squall's extraordinary ads., such as "Hotel Mira-hole," "The Fuss House," "Hotel de Massage," "Hotel de Maud Nelson, 404 Stockton Street," and other first class society and family resorts for restless spirits, and finally I decided to place the following ad. in the Examiner:

"Wanted, by strange young man, room in private family. Address 124 Fuss House."

I then went to the Fuss House and turned in to await developments. Anything in the way of a hotel as far up town as Montgomery Street was better than sleeping on board ship at low tide--so I thought at the time. After battling with the Fuss House fleas and bedbugs until six o'clock the next morning, when a bellboy banged at my door and told me that a gentleman wanted to see me, I changed my mind. What on earth could a gentleman want of me at 6 A.M., and when I had not yet been able to persuade the ravenous fleas to let me sleep a wink? Was the ship on fire, or what?

Jumping into my clothes, I ran downstairs and asked the sleepy clerk where the gentleman was.

"There he is," said the clerk, jerking his thumb in the direction of seven or eight dilapidated old hod-carriers and other tough-looking citizens whom the porter had formed in line just outside the door.

"Gentlemen," said I, "there must be some mistake."

"Naw, it aint no mistake," answered all my visitors in chorus, calling my attention to a morning paper, a copy of which each one held up.

"Is ye the bloke what put that ad in the The 'xam'ner?' asked all my ceremonious callers. While this was going on, several more "gentlemen" called, and demanded to see the "mug thot wants ter rint a room and board." Soon I was besieged by at least twenty of the toughest-looking Baldwin Hotel block voters that you ever saw. Each householder claimed that his house was the best private house in town, and each one said that he had a musical family. One big duffer who had been on a drunk all night, caught me by the arm and bellowed into my ear something which sounded like, "Say, cul, jest ye come along wid me, and see my house in Natoma Street; it's ther best house South-o'-Market, see?" So saying he gave me a pull by the sleeve which nearly tore the coat off me.

Just what would have happened to me in the course of this interview, had it continued any longer, I am not quite sure, for just about this time Mr. See-less, the proprietor, rushed to my assistance with several clerks and bell boys and the porter, and fired all of my visitors out of the house.

"Young man," said Mr. See-less good-naturedly, "don't you know better than to put an advertisement like that in a reputable paper in San Francisco? You see all the honest laborers read the Examiner, because it 'kicks' against organized political knavery, such as the Huntington, Rainey, Burns, Buckley, Platt, Crocker, Chronical, Post, Wave, World, Dennis Kearney, Dr. O'donnell, S.P.R.R. combination of ballot-box stuffers, who are in favor of exterminating everyone who talks about an opposition railroad, or thinks about senators and congressmen chosen according to the wishes of the people, or, in fact, anyone who tries to be honest. Those poor devils whom we had to throw out just now, were once well-to-do-citizens; now just look at them; what are they? They have been reduced to the condition of beggars by the domination of organized political capital. They are now making a last effort to rent out the best rooms in their humble homes in order to get a few dollars to buy bread for their starving families. If something is not done soon, Heaven only knows what will become of their daught--"

"Here's a note, mister," said a timid voice, interrupting our conversation, "it's from my mamma."

I will give the contents of this letter, as an illustration of several dozen more of the same date and tenor:

No.--MISSION STREET,

SUNDAY, June 10, 1888.

DEAR SIR:

I can let you have a nice sunny room, with or without board, at your own price. My husband has been out of work for two months and is sick. I must raise enough money this week to pay our water bill or the Spring Valley Company will shut off our supply and sell us out. We have only two rooms, but we will give up the front room and sleep in the kitchen if you decide to accept.

We will do our best to please you, for we must raise a little money. Cars pass the door. Take Mission Street horse cars and get off at Sixth Street.   Very respectfully yours,

P.S.--No small children about the house.   MRS. SMITH.

Just about this time the letter carrier came in with the local mail, and the clerk, after sorting it out, handed me no less than seventeen letters. Those letters had all been taken to the post office before eight o'clock, in order to be in time for the local Sunday morning delivery, which is the only Sunday delivery made by carriers. I was obliged to tell the little boy who brought the note from Mission Street, that I could not take the room on account of the inconvenience of the locality.

I had heard of South-of-Market before, and, while I am far from being prejudiced against the inhabitants of that part of San Francisco on account of the line which some so-called polite social organizations of fruit-pickers have drawn from the ferry landings to the summit of the Twin Peaks, via Market Street and the proposed extension of the cable car line to the ocean, I must acknowledge that I could not afford to run the risk of being mistaken for a "ballot stuffer."*

[*Note: South-of-Market proper takes in all that section from Market and Tenth Streets, south and west to the Bay, including Tar Flat, which is still unexplored. The Examiner will explore it later.]

The hotel people volunteered some very valuable information on how a young unmarried man should live in San Francisco. Among other things they told me that I would not be satisfied with private family board, unless I had a very obliging temper; because families who take in boarders invariably want to know all about one's private affairs, and they insist on having their boarder sit in the family pew at church. They added that they thought I would be better satisfied if I boarded at the Fuss House; but I still had a very distinct recollection of the hungry fleas in that establishment, and I refused to accept their opinions.

Returning aboard the Mariposa that night, I remained there several days before venturing uptown again.

Sewer gas and Spreckles' East Street hash house were preferable to hotel fleas and South-of-Market "room-to-let" fiends.

When I went uptown again, I called at the Fuss House and asked for my mail. I did not go in at the main entrance on Montgomery Street, but sought the "private" entrance on Bush Street. This "private entrance," so I learned afterward, is used not infrequently by newly "married" couples, who slip in and register as Mr. Smith and wife from Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sacramento, San José, and other interior towns, and leave the following morning before breakfast; the "husband" going to his office somewhere downtown, and the "wife" returning to her home, or establishment, or some other woman's husband's establishment uptown. Hence the sign "Ladies' Entrance" on the side door.

But the Fuss House is not by any means the only hotel in San Francisco where two persons can go in and register as "Mr. and Mrs.--," and get all the accommodations that they want without being required to tell how long they have been married, or why they are traveling with nothing in the shape of baggage except, perhaps, a little hand satchel with nothing in it but a comb.

The line in the modern hotel advertisements which says, "Guests entertained on either the American or European plan," means a good deal more to the average man about town than it does to the uninitiated. What those two plans,--American and European,--do not include in the way of permanent and transient hotel accommodations, amounts to very little that there is any money in. And yet there are many families of highly respectable people, whose private associations are above reproach,--as far as the world knows,--who prefer hotel and boarding house life to the home comforts which they are well able to have. Those people give all kinds of excuses for their presence in hotels. Some say they "can't get the kind of servants that they want," some complain of "burglars and footpads and peddlers and book agents and fake society reporters and other public pest," while there are others who declare that they are "sick and tired of housekeeping and are stopping at the hotel just to get a little rest."

Now these excuses all sound very well, and sometimes they call for some sympathy, but not often. The trouble with a great many wealthy families who board out in this fashion is simply this: They are too confounded lazy to keep house. There are others, however, who have high social aspirations, and, having no social standing and knowing no one who has any, they go to the fashionable hotels in order to get into "society."

There are only two classes of boarders who really have legitimate excuses for living in hotels: the army and navy class, which includes steamship captains and officers; and the professional and business men who move frequently. Many of these have no homes of their own, and they shift about from place to place so often and so suddenly at times, that they hardly have time to pack their trunks.

What I was looking for, when I advertised for a room in a private family, was a nice, respectable place, where I could stay between voyages, and leave my little belongings during my absence.

When I went to the office of the Fuss House, on the occasion above mentioned, the clerk handed me about an ordinary waste basketful of letters and cards of people who had answered the advertisement. After reading a few dozen of those epistles, and calling at several of the numbers given, including a house in Bond Street, and a few massage parlors up in the neighborhood of Mason and Ellis Streets, I was about to give it up as a bad job, when, on returning to the hotel for some lunch, I received a nice-looking note which attracted my attention. Just what there was about this particular note that caused me to read it over twice, and put it in my pocket before going to lunch, I did not stop to consider at the time. Subsequent developments caused me to refer to it again and paste it in my diary for future reference. It differed very little from several other notes from the same town, and, although I had never for one instant thought of going to "the other side of the bay" for a room, I decided to answer this note in person.

Here is the note:

EAST OAKLAND, June 14, 1888.

TO MR.--, 124 FUSS HOUSE:

Having seen your advertisement in the Examiner, should be pleased to have you call and see nice room which will probably suit you.

920 Sixth Ave., Clinton Station.

There was no name signed to the note, but the hand-writing was sufficient to convince me that the writer possessed more than ordinary culture.


Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.

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