History repeats itself: A trip through the archives reveals a very similar San Francisco 100 years ago

As a new year begins, it might feel like San Francisco is going through a uniquely baffling time.

As a new year begins, it might feel like San Francisco is going through a uniquely baffling time.

History argues otherwise. A look back in the archives of The Examiner, the oldest newspaper in The City, shows headlines remarkably reminiscent of today from 100 years ago, 125 years ago and even 150 years ago.

First and foremost, the pandemic we hoped was finally going away has boomeranged back on us. With consternation, San Franciscans are putting masks back on — and taking events back off the calendar. That same thing happened a century ago.

And today, other tumultuous events won’t wait for The City to fully recover. As a new strain of a virus sweeps through town, City Hall and the school board are filled with political squabbling. We’ve been there, too. See San Francisco in 1896.

And ringing in ‘22, when we would love to plunge carefree into a new year we could take by storm, we feel hamstrung, unable to really move forward. That already happened in ‘22 — 1922.

“An observer from Mars would read, listen and ask himself, “Are they going backward or forward?” Those words were atop The Examiner’s front page on Jan. 1, 1922, by Hearst columnist Arthur Brisbane.

Let’s face it: We’re just not that special. San Franciscans have been here before, and emerged better. Here’s what we didn’t learn then: Pandemics don’t end neatly, or on our time table. Deep-seeded problems don’t vanish, even when a mayor declares she is going to be “less tolerant of all the bullsh*t that has destroyed our city.”

Politicians have talked tough before, problems have ebbed and flowed, and nothing — not pandemics or earthquakes or droughts or the supposed exodus of citizens — has “destroyed our city.” We’re tougher than we think. We’re just dramatic.

Yet San Francisco, a Gold Rush town that loves to ride its highs and panic during its lows, has secretly been playing the long game the whole time.

“A look back at 100 years of San Francisco history will reveal The City always had its share of concerns and controversies,” San Francisco historian Catherine Accardi told The Examiner. Accardi explores how the same challenges have confronted The City in different eras in her book, “San Francisco Through Time.”

For example, homelessness took hold in The City in the 1860s, she notes, when the area now called South of Market attracted unemployed, underemployed and migratory workers from nearby farms, railroads or gold mines. “In 1872, an observer noted the increasing concentration of vagrants in the area he called ‘blanket men,’” Accardi said.

And COVID-19, the biggest challenge of our time, had a clear predecessor in the Spanish Flu, another global pandemic, which reached a terrible apex in 1918, killing more than 2,000 in The City. Then, to great relief, the deadly flu seemed to abate.

An early shutdown and mask enforcement seemed to have paid off, over all, a century ago. San Francisco had fared better than many other regions. The masks came off.

That was premature. Thousands more San Franciscans were hit by subsequent waves. And — see if this sounds familiar — no one wanted to put their masks back on and cancel parties. It was maddening, and saddening.

Luckily, The City had Fay King, a 29-year-old genius flapper who drew cartoons and wrote columns for The Examiner. King, a queen of San Francisco letters and nightlife throughout a pandemic, showed us what to do: Make fun of ourselves while taking the virus seriously. In a series of “Flu Stories” comic strips and stories, King teased women who didn’t want to mask up because of makeup, and fancy bros who wanted to toss their masks and show off their hip facial hair.

She also lowered the boom. “If you are a REAL SAN FRANCISCAN — PROVE IT, by wearing a mask,” she wrote on the front page of The Examiner on Oct. 21, 1918.

Patience, self-deprecating humor and responsibility. They don’t always come easily to a city founded on high ideals, personal freedoms and unbridled progress.

It’s 2022. Maybe it’s time.

Examiner cartoonist and columnist Fay King lampooned the culture of mask-wearing during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 in a series of “Flu Stories.” The 29-year-old wrote that masks were “just as becoming as a thousand other freak fashions we have fallen for.” She was also very serious on the importance of wearing masks. (Examiner Archives)

Examiner columnist and cartoonist Fay King lampooned the culture of mask-wearing during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 in a series of “Flu Stories.” The 29-year-old wrote masks were “just as becoming as a thousand other freak fashions we have fallen for.” She was also very serious on the importance of wearing masks. EXAMINER ARCHIVES

On Christmas Eve of 1918, San Francisco threw its social life in reverse, as the Spanish Flu circled back. A city weary of masking up and shutting down did not get to party for the holidays, as it longed to do. The Examiner wrote that the Flood family “will not give the big party next Thursday, as their son James is recuperating from the flu.” (Examiner Archives)

On Christmas Eve of 1918, San Francisco threw its social life in reverse, as the Spanish Flu circled back. A city weary of masking up and shutting down did not get to party for the holidays, as it longed to do. The Examiner wrote that the Flood family “will not give the big party next Thursday, as their son James is recuperating from the flu.” EXAMINER ARCHIVES

Here are a triplet of stories from 1896 that might seem familiar today. (They are not collated, they appeared in The Examiner in this cluster.) Mayor Adolph Sutro, a towering historical figure in The City, was at war with the Board of Supervisors, whom he denounced as “wretches.” The school board, lawyers, contractors and a land owner were calling in attorneys to straighten out a new project. And a terrifying out break of cholera was sweeping China with San Franciscan officials warned to “watch for cholera germs that might be brought across the Pacific.” (Examiner Archives)

Here are a triplet of stories from 1896 that might seem familiar today. (They are not collated; they appeared in The Examiner in this cluster.) Mayor Adolph Sutro, a towering historical figure in The City, was at war with the Board of Supervisors, whom he denounced as “wretches.” The school board, lawyers, contractors and a land owner were calling in attorneys to straighten out a new project. And a terrifying outbreak of cholera was sweeping China with San Franciscan officials warned to “watch for cholera germs that might be brought across the Pacific.” EXAMINER ARCHIVES

On New Year’s Eve on 1921, San Francisco was filling its streets with celebrants for the first time in years, due to World War I and the Spanish flu. Police were watching for “roughness, rowdyism and hoodlumism.” But they were not picking up people’s still-prohibited alcoholic drinks. “Persons with their own liquor in cafes and hotels will not be held accountable.” That’s akin to the legalization of weed a century later. (Examiner Archives)

On New Year’s Eve on 1921, San Francisco was filling its streets with celebrants for the first time in years, due to World War I and the Spanish flu. Police were watching for “roughness, rowdyism and hoodlumism.” But they were not picking up people’s still-prohibited alcoholic drinks. “Persons with their own liquor in cafes and hotels will not be held accountable.” That’s akin to the legalization of weed a century later. EXAMINER ARCHIVES

Fay King was a five-foot giant of San Francisco newspapering. A pioneer in autobiographical comics, she depicted her adventures in The City at the dawn of the 1920s as flappers and dandies began to shape the Jazz Age. She married and divorced a boxing world champion, wrote with bravado and was devoted to her beloved canaries. In other words, a true San Franciscan. (Examiner Archives)

Fay King was a 5-foot giant of San Francisco newspapering. A pioneer in autobiographical comics, she depicted her adventures in The City at the dawn of the 1920s as flappers and dandies began to shape the Jazz Age. She married and divorced a boxing world champion, wrote with bravado and was devoted to her beloved canaries. In other words, a true San Franciscan. EXAMINER ARCHIVES

The front page of The Examiner on New Year’s Day 1922 features a campy shot of a portly cop directing a young 1922 to his place in the line of history. The paper cheered parties in the streets the night before. “Market Street, the city’s Valley of Pleasure on New Year’s Eve, was congested with merrymakers.” But columnist Arthur Brisbane also despaired for a world that seemed to be “drifting on the stream of time.” (Examiner Archives)

The front page of The Examiner on New Year’s Day 1922 features a campy shot of a portly cop and a young boy wearing a sash labeled 1922. The paper cheered parties in the streets the night before. “Market Street, the city’s Valley of Pleasure on New Year’s Eve, was congested with merrymakers.” But columnist Arthur Brisbane also despaired for a world that seemed to be “drifting on the stream of time.” EXAMINER ARCHIVES

In January of 1919, San Francisco began – again – making mask-wearing mandatory, by law. Just two months earlier The City cheered as a siren sounded announcing the end of the Spanish Flu pandemic. That was premature, cases rose, and masks were once again required. But some didn’t like that, and an Anti-Mask League of several thousand – including a member of the Board of Supervisors – gathered for a protest. After heated political debates, San Francisco lifted the mask requirement on Feb. 1, 1919, on the recommendation of the Board of Health. (Examiner Archives)

In January of 1919, San Francisco began — again — making mask-wearing mandatory, by law. Just two months earlier The City cheered as a siren sounded announcing the end of the Spanish Flu pandemic. That was premature, cases rose, and masks were once again required. But some didn’t like that, and an Anti-Mask League of several thousand — including a member of the Board of Supervisors — gathered for a protest. After heated political debates, San Francisco lifted the mask requirement on Feb. 1, 1919, on the recommendation of the Board of Health. EXAMINER ARCHIVES

As a new year dawned 125 years ago, San Francisco had a new electric railroad and a new Cliff House, both built by Mayor Adolph Sutro. The pages of The Examiner were broadly dedicated to yellow journalism supporting a war with Spain at the direction of publisher William Randolph Hearst. But there was also local news, such as reporting on construction of the largest structure in The City: A new ferry depot, which would open in 1898. (Examiner Archives)

As a new year dawned 125 years ago, San Francisco had a new electric railroad and a new Cliff House, both built by Mayor Adolph Sutro. The pages of The Examiner were broadly dedicated to yellow journalism supporting a war with Spain at the direction of publisher William Randolph Hearst. But there was also local news, such as reporting on construction of the largest structure in The City: A new ferry depot, which would open in 1898. EXAMINER ARCHIVES

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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