Retro Date Night: On the town in San Francisco…in 1915!

san francisco 1915 1 pd

Here is another entry in the “Retro Date Night” series! In this series of blog articles, I show you what it’s really like to go out on the town in San Francisco on a weekend night at various times in the past–what there is to do, what shows are playing, what it costs, and generally how it really was. So far we’ve gone to February 1937, October 1953, September 1968 and March 1980. In this particular installment we go back more than a century, to see what the city by the bay was like 101 years ago, in 1915. So get your boater hat and your high-button shoes ready, and let’s step out into the past. As with all the entries in this series, everything–the weather, the prices, addresses, the shows and performers playing, etc.–are all exactly accurate to the exact day.

Today is Friday, June 4, 1915. The weather in San Francisco is fair and warm, 72 degrees, with light winds to the northwest. The city looks very different than it will in 100 years’ time. There are no skyscrapers yet, no Golden Gate Bridge, no Candlestick Park, Coit Tower or any of the other landmarks that will eventually define the skyline. We’re only nine years out from the great earthquake and fire of 1906 that destroyed the city, but San Francisco is struggling back. Cable cars compete with horse-drawn carriages down Market Street and the row houses lining the steep streets are all new. Most lights are electric now and clearly the 20th century has arrived–which is not all good. The newspapers are full of the war in Europe. Just yesterday German and Austrian armies captured the city of Przemysl, in Western Galicia, from the Russians. The United States isn’t involved yet but tensions are high. Just last month the Germans torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania, killing 128 Americans, and today President Wilson is sending a message to Germany demanding they respect international law. Hopefully we won’t get involved in the terrible European war, but things look bleak.

This original (silent) film from 1915 shows the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the World’s Fair that was held in San Francisco that year.

The big thing to do in town right now is, without a doubt, the Exposition. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which opened in February, is a world’s fair ostensibly held to celebrate American ingenuity in completing the Panama Canal, but unofficially the point is to show the world that San Francisco has bounced back from the earthquake and fire. Right now a bunch of Norwegians are in town. Yesterday was “Viking Day” at the Exposition, and they arrived at the marina in a replica Viking ship. Tonight’s scheduled events include a vaudeville show, to be followed by a huge fireworks display, at the marina beginning at 7PM. Today is also the “Baby Show” and various other events for kids at a pavilion called Court of the Universe. Admission, at least for kids, is 15 cents. If we don’t want to see the Viking ship or the baby judging contest, there are plenty of international pavilions to visit as well as a traditional carnival midway with games and rides. I just hope they have beer there. Oh, if you see a lot of yellow, purple and white flags flying from Expo buildings, you should know that’s the peace flag. Today, June 4, is Women’s Peace Demonstration Day, and various groups of women are speaking out against the war in Europe.

As for food, while I’m sure there are restaurants at the Exposition, we could go to Fred Solari’s Grill, which is on Geary and Mason Streets. It advertises “Cuisine Famous the World Over,” but doesn’t get more specific than that. There’s a floor show at this place, live music which includes Marco & Fanchen Wolf, evidently a modern dance duo. They go on at 8PM. Or we can go to the Hotel Washington, Grant & Bush Street, where dinner (again unspecified) is 75 cents. The Portola Louvre Café, 13 Powell Street, does one better, advertising luncheon for 50 cents; maybe dinner is more expensive. Dinner is a dollar at the Café Rex, O’Farrell Street opposite the Orpheum Theater. Dessert and beverage are included.

jewel city sf 1915 pd

The “Jewel City,” advertised on this postcard, was one of the attractions of the Exposition of 1915. One of its objectives was to show that the city had recovered from the 1906 earthquake and fire.

For music and shows, we have a lot to choose from. As per the Norwegians in town for the Expo, the Norwegian Choral Union is giving a concert with 800 singers. It’s at the Civic Auditorium at 8:15. Box seats are $4. That’s extraordinarily expensive–the equivalent of $94 in today’s money! I love Norwegians, but that’s too much. We could instead go to the Columbia Playhouse, where renowned actress Maude Adams is appearing in Quality Street, a four-act comedy. Or we could go hear John Philip Sousa–yes, the real John Philip Sousa–and his band, along with singer Virginia Root, at the Festival Hall Exposition Grounds at 8:30. If oom-pah-pah isn’t to your liking, a play called The Suffragette is showing at the Empress Theater, Market Street between 5th and 6th. It’s billed as “A Timely Sermon for the Ladies.” With that sort of condescending title somehow I suspect the punch line is that women shouldn’t vote. Tickets are 30 cents.

Movies are starting to become big entertainment, though the silent pictures still have a long way to go. At the Pantages Theater–I couldn’t get an address–a film is showing called Motoring, which is billed as “Harry Tate’s Delightful Satire.” Then following this is a picture starring S. Miller Kent & Players, called The Cowboy and the Lady. I also believe this will be followed by a live vaudeville show. My guess is that somebody will appear in blackface. This is, unfortunately, quite a racist era.

This march by John Philip Sousa was actually recorded in 1915, and is played back on a period-appropriate Victrola.

If you can’t stomach any of this, we could stay at home, drink beer and listen to records, or cylinders, or whatever they are now. We can get a state-of-the-art Victor Victrola XVI for $200, in either mahogany or oak. (Don’t you love it when you get to pick the wood finish for your record player?) That’s awfully steep, though. $200 in 1915 is the equivalent of $4,700 today. I hope they have a layaway plan!

Well, that concludes our date night 101 years in the past. I can’t say I’m really taken by social life in the World War I era, but oh well, there are still several more time periods in the 20th century to visit. I’m not sure where we’re going in the next installment, but there will be dinner, drinks and a show or two, as usual. Until next time!

All images in this article are in the public domain. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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