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Literary Industries: Chasing a Vanishing West

by Kim Bancroft

Hubert Howe Bancroft is primarily remembered today as the originator of the world-renowned Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Voracious bibliophile, avid historian, and self-taught man of letters, Bancroft (or “H. H.” as he is familiarly known) followed an adventurous youth with a literary career that sought to chronicle and preserve the early history of California and the American West. In Literary Industries, edited from H. H.’s autobiography by his direct descendent Kim Bancroft, we encounter the dynamic personality who, with the aid of his assistants, achieved this impressive goal. Literary Industries will be published by Heyday in January 2014.

The following is an excerpt from Literary Industries: Chasing a Vanishing West

When I arrived in California John Bigler was governor. The capital had just been removed from Vallejo to Sacramento. In San Francisco the wars with squatters, Peter Smith titles, and water-lot frauds were attracting the chief attention. Portions of the streets were brilliantly lighted from the glare of gambling-saloons; elsewhere all was thick darkness. There was no system of street lights, and in the dark places about the docks, in the back streets, and round the suburbs, many dark deeds were committed. Crime, driven into holes and hiding-places by the Vigilance Committee of 1851, was beginning to show its face again. Agriculture was attracting more attention than at any time previous. Bull and bear fights at the Mission were in vogue. Gambling was somewhat on the decline—times were becoming too hard to risk a hundred dollars for an evening’s amusement—but it was the day of grand raffles, grand auction sales, grand quartz-mining schemes, and Biscaccianti concerts. Fire and flood held their alternate sway over the destinies of town and country, aiding other causes to accomplish business disruptions and failures.

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Hubert Howe Bancroft

It was the day of long annual sessions of the legislature, of fighting officials, and anti-Chinese meetings—though concerning this last named fermentation the question arises, When in California was it not? The most striking feature of the town at night to a stranger was the gambling-houses, the more aristocratic establishments being then situated on the plaza and Commercial Street, and the lower dens principally on Long wharf. The better class supported a fine orchestra of five or six wind instruments, while in others a solitary cracked piano or violin squeaked the invitation to enter. The building was usually a mere shell, while the interior was gorgeously decorated and illumined with chandeliers presenting a mass of glittering glass pendants. During week-days these places were usually quiet, but at night and on Sundays the jingling of coin and the clinking of glasses were mingled with the music of the orchestra in hellish harmony.

Round the table sat beautiful females in rustling silks and flaming diamonds, their beauty and magnificent attire contrasting strangely with the grizzly features, slouched hats, and woolen shirts of their victims. The license for a single table was fifty dollars per quarter. There were hundreds of saloons, so that the revenue to the city was large.

Two days and nights amid scenes like these in San Francisco were sufficient to drive away the little wit left by the strange experiences at Habana, on the Isthmus, and on board the steamers, and to properly prepare the boyish mind for the pandemonium of the miners. The two days were spent by me in wandering about the business parts of the town, wading muddy streets, and climbing sand-hills; the nights in going from one gaming-house to another, observing the crowds of people come and go, watching the artistic barkeepers in their white coats mixing fancy drinks and serving from gorgeously decorated and mirrored bars fiery potations of every kind, gazing in rapt bewilderment upon the fortune-turning table with its fatal fascinations, marking the piles of money increase and lessen, and the faces behind them broaden and lengthen, and listening to the music that mingled with the chinking of gold, the rattling of glasses, and the voices of rough, loud-laughing men. “There are indeed but very few,” says Addison, “who know how to be idle and innocent.” Two days and nights of this; then from Long wharf we boarded a steam-boat and went to Sacramento. Sacramento seemed to offer more attractions for the opening of a small shop than any other place. San Francisco was the larger field, but it seemed more than fully occupied, as has been the case in every city and town on the coast from the beginning.

Photos, courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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