A description of the Mission's geographic boundaries in the Mission Promotion Association Constitution and By-laws, 1909, courtesy of the California Historical Society.

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.

Mission Skating Pavilion ad card, 1885, courtesy of the California Historical Society.

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.

J.J. Barrow

J.J. Barrow began reporting for Mission Local in 2010. She once rode the 49 Van Ness-Mission for six hours straight while the rest of the city tuned in to the World Series — until revelry ended the...

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4 Comments

  1. The pictured geographical description of the Mission District’s boundaries, as conceived in 1909, piqued my curiosity. It’s my impression that the distinction between the Mission District and both Eureka Valley (the Castro) and Noe Valley, is relatively recent, and likely something promoted by realtors to delimit “nice” neighborhoods v. “not so nice.” The Planning Department also draws lines that seem strange, in that Mission High School and the actual Mission Dolores, according to them, are not in the Mission District. Old maps, actually not very old, label what most now call “Dolores Park” as “Mission Park.” SFPD’s Mission Station still covers the whole swath up to Twin Peaks, which I suspect is a more historic view. What does the book pictured have to say about the complete boundaries?

    1. That conflict over what is and is not the Mission is why I was interested in the page, too. The description only goes on a little bit longer than pictured.

      I think it is interesting that the community association, the Mission Promotion Association, took such care to define what area would benefit from their political efforts. Perhaps there was already debate about what and who would be excluded or included? I thought their boundaries were confusing to read without looking at a map, so I’m not sure how the rest of it differed from our contemporary ideas of the Mission. But it would be interesting to map!

  2. The “mysterious” Women’s Guide to Valencia Street is a neighborhood guide and map put together by feminist, lesbian and women-owned businesses that had formed a notable enclave on Valencia between 18th and 24th streets in the mid-1970s to late 1980s.

    At one point, Valencia Street was home to the city’s most popular lesbian dance bar (Amelia’s); a feminist-owned community café (Artemis Café); a feminist bookstore (Old Wives Tales); a women’s art gallery (Womancraft West); a women’s bathhouse (Osento — a natural spa, not a sex club); and numerous other establishments catering to women.

    The Women’s Building on 18th Street is the only remaining trace of this high-point of feminist and lesbian community organizing in the Mission. (The Lexington Club, the lesbian bar on 19th at Lexington didn’t open until the mid-1990s.)

    Ephemera from this era — including a poster for the 1984 First Annual Valencia Street Women’s Art Fair and a business card for Womancraft West — are currently on display in at the new GLBT History Museum at 4127 18th St. in the Castro. More information: http://www.glbthistory.org/museum.

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