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Mechanics' Institutes: Power to the People Since 1821!

by Robin Seeley

Scotland: Its Reach Has Often Exceeded its Grasp! For millennia, Scotland’s influence has extended far beyond its borders. In 122 A.D., the emperor in distant Rome built a wall in northern Britannia to keep the scrappy Scots from entering the empire. That massive barrier still stands, a bit the worse for wear. Could Hadrian’s Wall have inspired imperial ambitions today in someone seeking to build a huge wall to keep out Mexican immigrants?

Literacy for All: The Scottish Reformation’s Legacy
In 1559, the Scottish Reformation provoked yet another powerful ruler in Rome, the Pope! Its leader was John Knox, a dogmatic, dour disciple of John Calvin in Geneva. Knox and the Presbyterian Church rejected Catholicism with a vengeance. Their pet peeve was the Pope imposing his interpretation of the holy scriptures on the feisty flock in the Scottish lowlands. To counter this, Knox pushed two very radical agendas. The first was translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into English. The second was encouraging Scots of every stripe to learn to read, so they could interpret the word of God without an intermediary.

The amazing result of Knox’s campaign for literacy was that Scotland, the poorest country on earth, had the world’s highest literacy rate at the end of the 18th century!

Mechanics’ Institutes Take Off
The Scottish Reformation and its embrace of literacy for all had world-wide impact. The first Mechanics’ Institute opened in Edinburgh in 1821 to provide educational opportunities for working men. It included an adult school, library, and an exhibit featuring tools for men in the manufacturing and building trades. Within a few years, more Mechanics’ Institutes sprang up in other English-speaking countries, including England, Australia, and later Canada and the United States. By 1841, there were 300 Mechanics’ Institutes in Great Britain alone. Education became not just a path to better professions, but a way of life. To learn more about Scotland’s legacy of literacy, see Arthur Herman’s excellent book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. And for the record, Mr. Herman is a distinguished historian who, unlike me, does not have a drop of Scottish blood in his pedigree!
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Historic image of the current Mechanics' Institute building designed by Albert Pissis to replace the previous structure on the same site destroyed in 1906. Courtesy Mechanics' Institute Archives.

San Francisco Hops on Board
On December 11, 1854, a group of skilled machinists, carpenters, building supply dealers and manufacturers joined ranks to found the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco. Their goal was "the diffusion of knowledge at the least possible expense to the seeker." As Richard Reinhardt explains in his history, Four Books, 300 Dollars, and a Dream, their common bond was forged by faith in the future of San Francisco as an industrial center. They strongly opposed imported goods because they kept prices high and hampered the development of local industry. The initial plan to finance the undertaking by selling shares of stock didn’t pan out. After some fits and starts, they ended up charging a modest annual membership fee instead, to ensure affordable access for all.

Since its inception, the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute has provided the typical offerings of its genre: a library, chess club, and lecture hall. During the Gold Rush and Silver Strikes, it provided an important alternate meeting place for (primarily) men to socialize and shift their focus from drinking, gambling, and houses of ill repute! You know what they say about idle minds!

The Mechanics’ Institute Meets the Industrial Revolution
The Mechanics’ movement dovetailed nicely with the industrial revolution, which likewise began in the British Isles and then went viral. The influence of both phenomena is abundantly evident in the 31 mechanics’ fairs that the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute hosted beginning in 1857. The original purpose of the fairs was to stay afloat financially, generate interest in innovation and technology, and promote local industry. The fairs took place in imposing pavilions specially built at various venues in San Francisco (including the current site of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium). Those fairs paved the way for San Francisco to host the fairest of them all, the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915.

Andrew Hallidie’s Leading Role
Andrew Hallidie was a community leader and key contributor to the mechanics’ fairs. Although he was born in London, he was of Scottish descent. You could say he carried the torch of the Scottish Reformation quite admirably after immigrating to San Francisco, despite having been left to his own devices at the tender age of 16! Hallidie had very little formal education, but obviously learned very effectively through apprenticeships, books, and the school of hard knocks!

Hallidie became the guiding light of the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute for four decades! Most City Guides are probably familiar with the plaque in his honor at Hallidie Plaza, where the cable cars turn around, but don’t realize that he had his fingers in many other pies!

To pay the bills, Hallidie ran a very successful business as the leading manufacturer of "wire rope," aka cable, in California. His engineering acumen is evident in his role as father of the cable car in 1873. But many of his most memorable achievements promoted literacy and learning. He was a founding regent of the University of California in 1868 and served in that capacity for 32 years, masterminding the Mechanical Arts program and managing the money. He was also a key proponent of the Rogers Free Library Act, which gave municipalities taxing power to fund public libraries and reading rooms. And he spent 14 proactive years as president of the Mechanics’ Institute. Hallidie also deserves considerable credit for the San Francisco Art Institute, formerly Art Association, San Francisco’s first public library, the Lick Observatory, and what we now call Lick-Wilmerding High School, to name the institutions that remain today.

An Architectural Tribute to Hallidie Around the Corner at 130 Sutter
The importance of Hallidie’s service to the University of California is memorialized in glass and steel at 130 Sutter Street, right around the corner from 57 Post, where the current Mechanics’ Institute building has stood since 1910.
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The spiral staircase takes you from the lobby up to the chess room on the fourth floor.

The university commissioned the Hallidie building after the death of its pivotal regent in 1900. This rightly-famous structure is featured in our "Rising Steel" architecture tour as one of the first buildings with a "glass curtain" exterior wall. The transparent glass panels facing the street keep out water and wind, let in lots of natural light, and show off the steel skeleton within. The building’s cutting-edge design makes it the perfect tribute for the titan of technology. And of course, the blue and gold trim on Hallidie’s namesake flaunts the university colors.

The building doubles as a reminder of how the Mechanics’ Institute and the university were intertwined through Hallidie's service. The U.C.’s original charter in 1868 provided that the president of the Mechanics’ Institute have a permanent seat on its governing board. Although Hallidie was the first and foremost to perform that double duty, the institutional relationship continued until 1974!

A Tale of Two Andrews
Another immigrant of Scottish descent, Andrew Carnegie, carried the same big stick, oops, I mean, torch! He promoted literacy from coast to coast. The steel baron donated millions to build 2,509 public and university libraries between 1883 and 1929. In addition to their passion for education, both Hallidie and Carnegie shared the name of Scotland’s patron saint as well. St. Andrew’s blue and white cross, the Saltire, even adorns the national flag.

The Chess Room
Motherly pride mandates an account of the oldest continuously-operating chess room in the United States. Your author has spent countless hours on the fourth floor of the Mechanics’ Institute while her son competed there in chess tournaments. One of the most memorable was a "simul," as they call it, when former world champion Boris Spassky played twenty-five people at once, including my son! See photo to confirm that I'm not making this up (and to appreciate how the chess room still looks as it did in 1910; even the chairs are the same!).

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In the photo above, my son, Phil Jouriles, plays former world chess champion, Boris Spassky, at the Mechanics' Institute Chess Room in 2006. It captures the moment when Phil's previous move had caused Spassky to grab a water bottle and sit down for the first time in the tournament! Phil gave him a good game and felt no shame in losing to this gracious grandmaster. Robin Seeley photo.

The Mechanics’ Institute Is Still Going Strong!
Today, an annual membership at the Mechanics' Institute costs only $95. I signed up the day after taking a free tour sponsored by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and have already gotten more than my money’s worth. They offer lectures, book groups, movie nights, chess tournaments, special events, access to their extensive lending library, and a pleasant, congenial environment. The icing on the cake is their historic building designed by famous local architect, Albert Pissis (Flood Building, Sherith Israel, Hibernia Bank, the Emporium). Members include people from all walks of life seeking to enrich their lives through education.

Power to the People, in Deed!
What drove Carnegie and Hallidie to devote so much time, money, and effort to providing learning opportunities for the masses? These philanthropists knew that knowledge is power, and the best way to even the odds for the common man was education! That noble impulse was embedded in the stone and steel of the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute at 57 Post Street. If you look closely, you can still see it!

Free Tours: The Mechanics’ Institute offers free tours every Wednesday at noon. Meet at the door to the third floor library to learn more about this remarkable organization and its beautiful building.

Acknowledgement: Special thanks go to Taryn Edwards, the librarian at the Mechanics’ Institute who guided my tour there and generously shared photographs as well as her research on Andrew Hallidie. To learn even more, check out Taryn’s talks on YouTube: "Before the PPIE" - and "The Unveiling of Andrew Smith Hallidie" -

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