When I arrive at the California Historical Society on Mission and Third streets, I expect to stand in the small, bright gallery at the front of the elegant blue building, where visitors peer into display cases containing the archive’s latest exhibition, a collection of San Francisco ephemera that museum staff will discuss tonight at 5:30 p.m.
Ephemera, the society explains, are “items created for a singular purpose, and not meant to last,” like catalogs and event programs.
Instead, when I ask if I may look for Mission District ephemera, I’m ushered into a windowless back room that is only frequented by researchers. Anyone can access the room, but they have to be looking for something. There I would be allowed to touch the prized documents most people see only behind glass.
The room has rules: No pens, phones or food. No photography without permission. There’s paperwork to sign. My bag must be checked, and I can either wear my coat or check it, but I can’t hang it on the back of my chair. So far, this feels like taking a standardized test.
I could use the Online Archive of California’s website to search the Historical Society’s collection, but a research aide suggests I use the good old-fashioned alphabetized card catalog to look for entries labeled “misc.” — the mark of ephemera. And she’s right; I find dozens of catalog entries, though the new search engine returned very few. The card catalog is just slower: Another rule requires that I fill out a request slip for each item I want to see. But after I fill out 10 slips with the same keyword, a staff member helpfully pulls every folder beginning with the word “Mission” for me: Mission District, Mission Cultural Center, Mission Dolores, Mission High School, Mission Street and so on.
Soon I am sitting at a long glass table with 15 folders filled with newspaper clippings, postcards and booklets.
At first I‘m disappointed by the number of items that don’t feel “old” to me. A map of Upper Market, a complimentary guide for sightseers at a trolley festival that encouraged attendees to visit Mission Dolores, is merely from the 1980s, judging from a camera shop ad featuring a Minolta X-700.
But “old” has its perils, too. An article in the North Mission News titled “Early Days: A Walking Tour of the Mission,” by Walter De Vecchi, reads like every kid’s nightmare history lesson — a walk with dad around the neighborhood wherein he tells you where every candy shop and funeral parlor used to be. “Up near 15th Street was the plumbing firm of Mr. Sands,” De Vecchi writes. “Just below Church on 15th Street was the Old People’s Dairy.”
The ephemera collection is really an archive of people’s mementos, research aide Eileen explains to me. The material isn’t new to the Society, but to finally organize and make use of its long-held mishmash of incidental items, in 2009 it obtained a “cataloging hidden special collections” grant of $247,738 with three other archival organizations: the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, the San Francisco Public Library and the Society of California Pioneers. Though it is now easier for researchers to access the organizations’ holdings, a downside remains: “It doesn’t have any context,” says Eileen, noting that many items are undated. “You figure it out by the age of the paper.”
Eileen reminds me to look through one folder at a time, “so I won’t have to fuss at you later.” A couple of quiet hours pass as I gently move through the delicate documents. Only two bearded and academic-looking men pass through the research room, separately, both regulars and both looking for far more specific items than I am, from the papers of insert-important-sounding-name-here.
Some of the items I examine do give themselves context even without dates or explanation. A list of Mission High School coursework on flaking parchment shows educational options in the subject of “Domestic Science,” i.e. “Laundering” and “Cooking for Invalids and Infants” — not far from three class-of-1872 graduation programs. A faded pink postcard reads, in cursive font, “Cemetery, site of present Dolores Park.” A ticket for the New Mission Theater dates back to when it was only six years old, in 1922. A turn-of-the-century Mission Bank booklet is bound by a single knotted blue string.
Another booklet, perhaps an early premonition of community groups like Dolores Park Works, proclaims that the Mission Promotion Association was established in 1909 “to unite, and keep united, the residents and taxpayers of the Mission District, for their material, social and moral advancement.” Only men could join, and dues were one dollar a month.
An accomplishment of the Mission Promotion Association? A coed picnic at El Campo Park, benefitting local charities and an orphanage. The organization’s main goals: better school houses, better roads and “to obtain an adequate sewer system, which shall properly drain the entire district.” Further down on the long list was “to abate all public nuisances in the district.” Thinking of the present, they were right not to be as hopeful about that one.
The Mission Dolores folder is a far more satisfying affair. Another ancient yet brightly-colored postcard shows a spooky hooded figure standing in front of the church. There is an “admit one” ticket to a mass celebrating the founding of San Francisco, stamped June 29, 1954.
The back of one 1976 church service schedule has an ad for the Comisky-Roche funeral home — with an ad for Bell Bazaar, “party supplies for all occasions,” directly below. But most interesting is that the schedule is written in both English and Spanish, a sign of a changing neighborhood.
I ask the Historical Society staff if I may take photos of three items in the collection. They spend several minutes wrestling with the rules and double-checking copyrights, and then happily grant me permission to photograph two of them — the Mission Promotion Association booklet and a Mission Skating Pavilion card from 1885. The roller skating pavilion was on Mission near 17th Street, and admission was only 25 cents.
The most difficult part of my Mission ephemera hunt, I find, is leaving the archive knowing I have only scratched the surface. The item I was not able to photograph, a mysterious “Women’s Guide to Valencia Street” on the side of a display case of GLBT ephemera, hints at worlds of material outside of a simple “Mission” search.
On February 3, the California Historical Society will host “An Evening with the Ephemera Collection” from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.