Friday, April 1, 2016


The term "anthropomorphism" was coined sometime in the nineteenth century, although artists have conveyed human characteristics to animals for centuries. The annals of anthropomorphic humor are riddled with the names of the great comic artists, as well as the lesser knowns. Here we find J.J. Grandville's reptilian caricatures, popular in France and the continent. In the early twentieth century, we have the genius of T.S. Sullivant and Heinrich Kley, whose comic hippos, and dancing elephants and alligators inspired Walt Disney; George Herriman's Krazy Kat; Walt Kelly's possum from the Okefenokee Swamp; Jean de Brunhoff's Babar the King; Munro Leaf's Ferdinand the Bull; Dr. Seuss and his pile of turtles, cats in hats, and that elephant!

A literary device first appearing in nineteenth century political pamphlets, news sheets, and comic almanacs, as well as magazines of humor and satire, anthropomorphic or humanized animals and objects are now part of the twenty-first century commonplace. The gradual movement away from the publication of moralizing children's books toward the shaping of books with more entertainment value is reflected in this exhibition.

Many people grew up enjoying the comics section of the newspaper, a significant literacy tool as well as popular entertainment. For San Francisco Bay Area readers, at least eight strips featuring humanized animals currently appear in our local newspapers. But remember our excitement as we dipped into the comics pages for our daily dose of Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts; King Aroo; the Get Fuzzy gang; Earl and Mooch, a couple of Mutts; Sherman's Lagoon; and cows creating outlandish disturbances in The Far Side?

In nursery rhymes, fairy tales and children's books, in political humor and in a wide assortment of international cartoons and comics, we recognize ourselves as we celebrate the mischievous antics of anthropomorphic animals. Join the fun with Animal House: Anthropomorphic Selections from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, an exhibition showcasing animals behaving like humans, and spotlighting comic artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Thursdays at Noon Films: Yackety Yak: Animals Talk Back

April 7: Wallace and Gromit double feature: A Grand Day Out and Curse of the Were-Rabbit

April 14: The Adventures of Milo and Otis

April 21: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

April 28: Ponyo

Koret Auditorium, Main Library, Lower Level

Nat Schmulowitz was a San Francisco attorney, civic leader, and humanitarian. Born in New York City on March 29, 1889, he moved to San Francisco with his family when he was nine years old. After graduating from Lowell High School in 1906, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1910, and went on to receive his law degree from Hastings Collection of the Law two years later.

Although he specialized in probate and corporate law, Nat Schmulowitz achieved a national reputation in 1921 with his successful defense of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in one of the most sensational murder trials of the 1920s. When Gavin McNab died in 1927, Mr. Schmulowitz became senior partner in the firm of McNab, Schmulowitz, Sommer & Wyman.

A confirmed bibliophile, Nat Schmulowitz was appointed to the San Francisco Library Commission for seven years; he served as president of that body in 1944. On April 1, 1947, he presented ninety-three jest books to the Library, including an edition of the Hundred Merry Tales, the first step toward the establishment of a research collection of wit and humor.

In his diligent search for humorous materials, Nat Schmulowitz combed bookshops around the world. He faithfully continued to add to the collection through donations, sometimes at the rate of one hundred books per month. The Library formally dedicated a room to house SCOWAH on November 30, 1950. The collection has grown to over 22,000 volumes, and includes periodicals and audio-visual materials, making it one of the most significant collections of its kind in a public library.

Nat's sister, Kay Schmulowitz, was a great friend of the Library who carried on the tradition established by Nat. She was his amanuensis, law office manager, and traveled the world with Nat, supporting his bibliophilic interests. After his death in 1966, she generously continued to donate books, periodicals, and funds for the enrichment of the collection, and in honor of her brother's memory. Kay died in 1984, and will be remembered as a happy sidekick to a remarkable legacy of wit, humor, and folklore.

Nat Schmulowitz emphasized that "Without humor we are doomed." It is with his motto in mind that the Book Arts & Special Collections Center has, for more than fifty years, presented the Annual Wit & Humor Exhibition, based on materials in the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor. A living tribute to Nat's generosity and lifelong interest in the San Francisco Public Library.

The collection is open to everyone with an interest in humor, from the merely curious to the researcher and scholar. The Marjorie G. and Carl W. Stern Book Arts & Special Collections Center is open seven days a week.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

It Came from the Photo Morgue! Happy St. Patrick's Day!


Ruth Belmont....Helen Miller....Grace Smith....Jerry Ferrairi

March 14, 1934

The San Francisco Public Library owns the photo morgue of the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin, a daily newspaper that covered the time period from the 1920s to 1965. Much of the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection comes from the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin Photo Morgue. However, the morgue also includes statewide, national, and international subjects and people that have not been digitized or cataloged. When researchers order scans from the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin Photo Morgue,selections are cataloged and added to the online database.

Looking for a historical photograph of San Francisco? Try our online database first. Not there? Come visit us at the Photo Desk of the San Francisco History Center, located on the sixth floor at the Main Library. The Photo Desk hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to noon, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. You may also request photographs from the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin Photo Morgue.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Guest Blogger: Abby Smith Rumsey - Memory is About the Future

Abby Smith Rumsey
The San Francisco History Center is pleased to present Abby Smith Rumsey, author of When We are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping the Future. She will discuss her book on Thursday, March 17, 2016, 6:00pm in the Latino/Hispanic Community Meeting Room at the Main Libary.

Abby Smith Rumsey is an historian, focusing on how ideas and information technologies shape perceptions of history, time, and of personal and cultural identity. She served as director of the Scholarly Communication Institute at the University of Virginia, and has advised universities and their research libraries on strategies to integrate digital information resources into existing collections and services.

In anticipation of her visit to the San Francisco Main Library, Abby Smith Rumsey has written a guest blog post for the San Francisco History Center's blog.


In the 1990s, those of us working in history centers, libraries, archives, and museums all knew digital technologies would profoundly affect the future of our institutions. But how? It was impossible to know. I was at the Library of Congress at the time. We were digitizing our collections onto CD-ROMs. Tech companies were selling gold CD-ROMS as the optimal preservation format, the one to last for the ages. Regrettably, the playback machines they require did not. This was before Mosaic, before the World Wide Web, before search engines, e-books, social media, wireless connectivity, Big Data, and smart phones. I don’t recall anyone at the time predicting they were in our future, any more than the inventors of the ENIAC believed that computers would one day be a phone, a camera, a music system, a book reader, and a calculator—and fit in a shirt pocket.

Digital storage from days of yore.
Libraries are often called memory institutions. But memories serve not the past, but the future. The real job of history centers and libraries is to look forward into the future to anticipate what information circulating today will be of value to people 50 or 100 years from now. That job was easier when we were using ink-on-paper technologies that can last for 100 years or more. Then historians and librarians had the luxury of assessing value over long periods of time. Kept at reasonably steady temperature and humidity, letters, journals, and photographs can rest easy in boxes in the proverbial attic a long time, long enough to pass the test of time that sorts the trivial or redundant from the significant and unique.

Today, webpages last an average of 100 days. Not only is the opportunity for assessing digital content’s value vanishingly small, but there is too much to sort through. Digital is the default mode of recording and getting access to everything, from videos (today’s home movies shared with the world), to blogs and Facebook updates (today’s diaries, journals, letters, and postcards to friends), to interactive maps, reference books, and so forth. Does that mean that history centers and libraries face obsolescence?

The answer is no. On the contrary, they are more valuable than ever. But that doesn’t mean that their transition to the digital age is simple, a matter merely of passive evolution, guaranteed to happen and guaranteed to have a happy ending.

Some of the digital collections of the San Francisco History Center.

There is no doubt that local and regional libraries will be richer in content than ever because the Internet allows distributed, networked collecting. The new model of the library in the digital age is one of deeper networks of cooperation with other libraries, to cope with the scale of digital information being produced. Best of all, the new-model digital library will rely on ever deeper networks of community members, individuals and groups, to identify and collect digital materials important to them. These collectors can then be networked through the library to other communities. SFPL can collaborate with local organizations, such as the Internet Archive, and also the Digital Public Library of America with national and international reach. All it takes is community participation. The greater the community participation, the greater the access to truly diverse cultures now and into the future.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Happy 100th Birthday, Mayor Joseph L. Alioto!

"North Beach Boy Makes Good"
March 20, 1937. SFPL
The San Francisco History Center presents an exhibit honoring former mayor Joseph L. Alioto.

Joseph Lawrence Alioto was born on February 12, 1916 in San Francisco's North Beach district. His father was a Sicilian immigrant and owned a fish processing company. His mother was a San Francisco native. Joe attended Sacred Heart High School, St. Mary's College in Moraga, and Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C.

In 1967, Alioto staged a 56-day campaign and was easily elected San Francisco's 36th mayor, becoming the City's third Democratic chief executive officer in 60 years. Described as articulate and sophisticated, with a great rapport, the popular and colorful mayor served two terms (from 1968 to 1976) during a time of political and social unrest.

Joseph Alioto campaigning for mayor. [n.d.] SFPL
Mayor Alioto is credited with creating jobs and transforming the skyline with the construction of the Transamerica Pyramid and the Embarcadero Center. The entire city was developed; the India Basin industrial park and Diamond Heights neighborhood were born. The mayor revealed plans for Yerba Buena Center and the waterfront, and envisioned Market Street as a fashionable thoroughfare transformed with brick sidewalks and trees. He dedicated BART in 1972, but turned down the governor's idea of extending the Embarcadero Freeway. He also helped preserve the Crystal Springs watershed open space area south of San Francisco and arranged for public access to Crissy Field.

Along with these accomplishments, Angela Alioto said her father would be remembered as a coalition builder. His minority appointments included the first African American deputy mayor and first Latino, first Asian American, and second African American to the Board of Supervisors.

After leaving City Hall in 1976, Alioto returned to his anti-trust law practice. He died two weeks short of his 82nd birthday in 1998, in his beloved city of San Francisco.

Mayor Joseph Alioto walking with wife Angelina (R) and daughter Angela. [1967] SFPL

The exhibit will be on view in the San Francisco History Center on the 6th Floor of the Main Library until Monday, February 22, 2016.

The Joseph L. Alioto mayoral papers are available for research at the San Francisco History Center.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Jitneys!, or The Sharing Economy of 1915

These days a regular person can use their personal car to make a few bucks (maybe even enough to live in San Francisco) by shuttling passengers around the city using Uber, Lyft or Sidecar. In turn, their passengers don't have to wait around for a taxi that might never come or get on a crowded bus that's standing room only. It's all part of the new "sharing economy." It may seem like a radical new idea, but San Francisco has seen this all before.

From Electric Railway Journal v.65, no.7

In late-1914, owners of small cars in Los Angeles began competing with the city's electric railway and a brand new bus system by taking passengers around the city. Passengers paid 5¢ - or a "jitney" - for a ride. Thus the cars, and eventually buses, became known as "jitneys".

The jitney craze soon took over other cities and San Francisco was no exception. By January 1915 there were already 1,000 jitneys operating in The City. By the time the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was in full-swing, there were 2,000 jitneys on the roads shuttling people to and from the fair. The jitney seemed like it would be a perfect match for San Francisco. Charlie Chaplin set his film "A Jitney Elopement" in San Francisco, highlighting Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway near the end of the movie. And the song "Father Is Driving A Jitney Bus" was published by Buell Music Co. of San Francisco.

The lyrics:
O'Grady 'phoned to me
In great perplexity
That the times are getting harder ev'ry day
And said with moans and sighs
That he must economize,
Cut out the booze and throw his pipe away;
Now I want it understood,
That with me the times are good,
And the same is true with all the family,
If this should cause surprise
Just let me put you wise
And tell how Fortune came to smile on me:
Father is driving a Jitney bus from the station to the park,
And soon I know he'll be a millionaire,
The stove in the kitchen has been ignored,
Dear mother is renting a "Can't Afford" [*]
For a half a dime she'll take you anywhere;
Sister has left the department store to become a Jitney Queen,
Her little car is winning great renown;
O, the bank account is getting fat,
For Pa and Ma and sister Hat,
Since the Jitney bus has come to bless our town.
When Father whizzes by
You'll hear the people cry
"O, Mister Maxwell let us ride with you!"
They come from far and near
The Jitney bust to cheer
To trolley-car they bid a fond adieu;
Now it only cost five cents,
To ride from hence to thence,
So the merry little Jitneys roll along,
Then come an take a ride
With your sweetheart by your side
Strike up the band and sing the Jitney Song:
(repeat chorus)
[* a "Can't Afford" seems to be referencing another automotive song: "You Can't Afford to Marry if You Can't Afford a Ford."]

But by 1916, jitneys were coming under attack by the streetcar lines as well as the city's lawmakers. The Jitney Bus Ordinance, passed in August 1916, limited the number of jitney drivers in San Francisco to 700 and forbade jitneys on Market Street from Fremont to 6th Street between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Outraged, the Jitney Operators' Union tried to fight the new law with an amendment on the November 1916 ballot, reminding voters "What the Jit Has Done For San Francisco" with quips such as "The jitneys have cut down strap-hanging" and "[Jitneys] Have made the automobile a servant of the plain people instead of a toy of the rich." But they couldn't save the jitneys. In January 1917, the Guardian Casualty and Guarantee Company declared that it would no longer insure jitneys for the Jitney Operators' Union. With the loss of insurance and the Market Street traffic ordinances, jitney drivership began to drop. In August of 1916, jitney licenses were down to 868, and in January of 1917, only 542 drivers were listed.

A few jitneys carried on in San Francisco through the years. The price was no longer a nickle, but the jitney was still deemed "the poor man's taxi." In 1968, most jitneys were on Mission Street and charged 20 cents to 22nd Street and 30 cents to the county line. Since 1997, there has been only one jitney operating in San Francisco. It takes passengers between Market and 4th Streets and Caltrain.

For more about jitneys, the San Francisco History Center on the 6th Floor of the Main Library has these items to study:

  • Vertical files - SF. JITNEYS
  • Subject cards - SF. JITNEYS
  • San Francisco Examiner newspaper clippings - JITNEYS
  • San Francisco sheet music - "Father Is Driving  A Jitney Bus"
  • Periodicals - The Jitney News

And from the Magazine and Newspaper department on the 5th Floor of the Main Library ask to see the Electric Railway Journal for the article "The Jitney-Bus Competition". Vol. 65, No. 7 (February 13, 1915.) [*This item is in storage and may require 24-hour notice.]

Friday, February 12, 2016

It Came from the (Photo) Morgue! Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln!

February 2, 1924
New York... George Billings, who plays the role of "Abraham Lincoln" in the dramatic photoplay of the Great Emacipator's life, is shown here as the leader of Dan Gregory's Orchestra. Songs of the present day were played in comparison with the songs that were popular in the days of '61.

Don't forget, the Main and all branches of the San Francisco Public Library will be closed on Monday, February 15, 2016 for Presidents' Day.

The San Francisco Public Library owns the photo morgue of the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin, a daily newspaper that covered the time period from the 1920s to 1965. Much of the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection comes from the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin Photo Morgue. However, the morgue also includes statewide, national, and international subjects and people that have not been digitized or cataloged. When researchers order scans from the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin Photo Morgue,selections are cataloged and added to the online database.

Looking for a historical photograph of San Francisco? Try our online database first. Not there? Come visit us at the Photo Desk of the San Francisco History Center, located on the sixth floor at the Main Library. The Photo Desk hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to noon, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. You may also request photographs from the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin Photo Morgue.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Guest Bloggers Leah Virsik and Sarah Heady: Small Press Collaborators

Tatted Insertion (2014)

It started two summers ago, in the sweltering attic of a Nebraskan farmhouse. Poet Sarah Heady was rooting through boxes of yellowed and brittle Comfort magazines from the 1910s and 1920s, transfixed by articles on cooking, crafting, and perfecting the female self.

In some ways, it appeared that nothing much had changed over the past hundred years: 21st century ladies’ magazines still prescribe how one can be alluring yet maternal, youthful yet responsible. But you’d be hard pressed to find one that speaks in the coded language of lace-making instructions:

[...]4 ds., join to last p. in first ring, 3 ds., p., 2 ds., p., 2 ds., p., 3 ds., p., 4 ds., draw, third ring like second[...]

--or one that espouses the pseudoscience of breast enlargement through calisthenics:

Stand erect, heels together, feet apart. Raise arms until on a level with the shoulders, elbows stiff, hands on a line with the chin. Now, without bending elbows, throw arms vigorously back, keeping still on a line with the shoulder, apparently trying to make the hands meet the back of the shoulders. Repeat ten or fifteen times. This adds to the size of the bust.


Tatted Insertion (2014), interior

As Sarah later found out, Comfort was published in Augusta, Maine between 1888 and 1942 and aimed at rural housewives across America; its tagline was “The Key to Happiness and Success in Over a Million Farm Homes.” At that moment on the dusty attic floor, however, she just snapped some photos of the magazines’ most intriguing bits, knowing she would later mine them for poetic material.

That fall, in Truong Tran’s MFA poetry workshop at San Francisco State University, Sarah attempted to use the found language from Comfort for a prompt that dictated the following constraints:

1) tell a lie
2) contradict yourself
3) include numbers
4) at least 11 words per line
5) everything has to be inorganic (nothing "natural")

The resulting poem, “Tatted Insertion,” begins with an original contradiction and proceeds to braid together those two sets of female-oriented instructions: how to increase the bust and how to make lace with a particular technique called tatting, in which thread is repeatedly knotted using a shuttle or a needle:

This is not how to make lace: stand erect, heels together,

tie the ends of two colors with ecru, make clover leaf

by 4 doubles (4 ds.), picot (p.), 3 ds., p., 2 ds., slump over,

feet apart, raise arms until on a level with the shoulders,

p., 2 ds., p., 3 ds., p., 4 ds., draw, begin second ring, close up,

elbows stiff, hands on a line with the chin. Now, without bending

elbows, 4 ds., join to last p. in first ring, 3 ds., p., 2 ds., p., 2 ds.,

throw arms vigorously back, keeping still on a line with the shoulder [...]


Final forms specified by the tatting instructions.

Each year, San Francisco State’s College of Liberal and Creative Arts invites one MFA poet and one MFA printmaker to collaborate on the production of a letterpress-printed broadside or small book of original writing and images. Now entering its fourth year, the interdisciplinary project is facilitated by the Department of Creative Writing and the Department of Art with the goal of providing a model for successful and vibrant intermedia collaboration. Graduate students gain valuable experience in designing and producing an original letterpress publication, presenting the work to other graduate and undergraduate students, and exhibiting the work at the Artery gallery in SF State’s Fine Arts building.

It was in this way, in the spring of 2014, that Sarah met artist Leah Virsik and the real magic happened. Mario Laplante, professor in printmaking, served as the project’s faculty advisor, providing creative and logistical guidance. A major aspect of the project is teaching emerging artists how to approach the collaborative process itself. In order to shore up the matchmaking that had already taken place, Mario suggested that Leah and Sarah spend some time creatively bonding and getting to know each other’s working style.

Based on their shared interest in time-based constraints and found materials, Leah and Sarah decided to create a series of timed collage experiments. Each had five minutes to “respond” to the other’s work before relinquishing it for further alteration. This was a practice in letting go of one’s individual creative output and trusting that the sum of a collaboration is greater than its parts. The collaging process, which unfolded over the course of the semester, did in fact facilitate a rich creative relationship rooted in trust.

And as it turned out, Sarah and Leah’s creative interests and practices were more aligned than they could have predicted. Sarah’s process of taking found texts and stitching them together into something new closely paralleled Leah’s own visual practice of cutting up found clothing, rendering it nonfunctional, and transforming it into something altogether different. As a fiber artist, Leah was already interested in tatting and would later make the connection between the step-by-step patterns inherent in both tatting and bookbinding.

Like tatting itself, coptic accordion binding is a repetitive procedure with thread.
These serendipitous crossovers enabled an exploratory design process for the artist’s book Tatted Insertion. Leah realized that a tight relationship between image and word would generate the most satisfying reading experience. With help from local and far-flung tatting experts, she followed the poem’s step-by-step instructions and created lace pieces which she then ran through the press in a process called pressure printing. The book deciphers the code of the tatting pattern by translating the 3D process into a 2D representation: the instructional text is mirrored by the physical process unfolding (or, more accurately, coming together) before the reader’s eyes.
Final tatted forms as plates for pressure printing, with resulting print.

At two by six inches, the finished book fits into the palm of one’s hand, creating an intimate reading experience. Sarah and Leah chose a horizontal coptic accordion binding and isolated each line of the poem on its own page to suggest the ordered nature of an instruction set. In between, illustrated pages without text encourage the reader to pause and slow down.


Pages without text add breathing room to the poem and showcase the tatting process.

Following her collaboration with Sarah, Leah was encouraged to think more about her own creative process, the heart of which entails taking scissors to secondhand clothing. As a constraint, she forces herself to use the entire garment, thereby accepting every part of the whole. In the intimate process of cutting, a type of exposure occurs: clothing that once concealed now reveals its own structure, component parts, flaws, and hidden truths. Her work has expanded to become more participatory--for example, an installation that prompts the viewer to walk through pathways lined with denim strips. She has also uncovered a deep enjoyment of writing and an interest in language itself.  Continuing to work with these metaphors of interiority and exteriority, she feels installation is analogous to the experience of immersing oneself in a book.

One outcome of Sarah’s work on Tatted Insertion is that it helped shape her next major project, a full-length book of poems entitled (what else?) Comfort. Like Tatted Insertion, Comfort draws on found language from the eponymous magazine, but goes further to braid various poetic forms into a single long poem that investigates the meaning of settlement and self for women on the prairie. The book has a feeling of spaciousness that reflects the wide open landscape of the Great Plains, an approach cultivated by working with negative space in Tatted Insertion.

Both artists are deeply grateful for the opportunity to collaborate because the bookmaking process gave them so much more than a finished piece. They continue to share the frustrations and joys of their respective media and find that poetry and visual art have more in common than one might suppose; collaborating with an artist outside of one’s discipline can illuminate the creative process that binds all artists together and deepen one’s understanding of one’s own work.

Even under the “time-based constraint” of life’s busyness, Leah and Sarah still manage to carve out tiny pockets of time to bounce ideas off one another and share inspiration. A sustained collaborative relationship is a deeply satisfying and fortifying ingredient in an artist’s practice, no matter the medium. And sometimes, as with an aesthetic constraint, the richest results arrive in the smallest containers.

Faculty advisor Mario Laplante with Leah Virsik, Sarah Heady, and the finished books.

Tatted Insertion is the second publication to come out of the cross-departmental collaboration at San Francisco State. It was recently added to the Grabhorn Collection in the Book Arts & Special Collections Center at the San Francisco Public Library where you can ask to see the actual item. In 2013, poet Carolyn Ho and artist Nif Hodgson collaborated on Crane which is also in the Grabhorn Collection. 2015’s offering is a book called Found Objects by poet Patricia Creedy and artist Bronwyn Dexter.

You can learn more about Leah Virsik and Sarah Heady at their respective websites. More images of Tatted Insertion are here, and their collage series entitled The Enduring Questions is here.


The staff of the Book Arts & Special Collections Center welcomes donations to its collection and congratulates Leah, Sarah, and Mario on their collaboration.