A Guide to San Francisco in 1937, When the Golden Gate Bridge Opened

By Alexis C. Madrigal

As the Golden Gate Bridge neared completion, a select group of people were invited to a "Last Rivet" ceremony on the actual floor of the bridge. Among them were three little girls dressed up to represent China, Canada, and Mexico. The trio held large bouquets and posed for a photo next to a man in a dark suit and hat, who glances out of the frame.

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For me, these people have become a visual representation for the historian's idea that we should think of the past as a foreign country. There's something familiar but strange about a "last rivet" ceremony that includes having little girls dress up in outfits from their homelands. I almost recognize the man's style, but its nuances -- like that boutineer -- elude me.

Looking at the photo, taken at a spot I've undoubtedly walked by, I realize that I do not understand the San Francisco of 1937. Not only do I not know the details of what motivated its people, I don't even know the basics, like where I'd go for a haircut or a drive or a suit.

And to be honest, despite the historian's axiom, few historical works ground us in the kinds of details we'd want to know about a foreign country. If you were headed to Madrid, you would almost certainly purchase a guidebook. And inside that guide book, you'd find a list of places to see, bars, shopping, hotels, etc. Yet when we visit the past, we're never given that map of everyday life.

Luckily, because of all the hoopla around the Golden Gate's opening, we have something strangely close to a guide book. It's the "Official Souvenir Program for the Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta," which began precisely 75 years ago today. Inside it, you find a bunch of high-fallutin' rhetoric about Progress and Commerce, but you also find more than 130 advertisements for various businesses that wanted to be included in what functioned as a visitor's guidebook.

The only problem is that the old guidebook as it was constituted didn't really have a good user interface. So, Philip Bump and I made you one. We (painstakingly) extracted the individual ads, transcribed their addresses, and then Philip coded them all onto a Google Map with icons (designed by Nicolas Mollet) to designate particular types of businesses.

When you click on an icon, the advertisement of the business that was located there will pop up. Most are simple, but many will really give you a flavor of the time and place and also where you could get a good tamale over there in Oakland. There's a full-screen version hosted here.


There are several things to look for on this map that may be of interest to you. First, I think it's fun to scan the map for microneighborhoods like the one up and down Polk St. Second, notice the regional nature of the map. This isn't just San Francisco establishments because the catalog was really for local or national tourists. There were even more outlying establishments but few offered addresses that we could locate. Third, my favorite thing may be the come on's that the bars offered. While O'Connors Taverns went with the simple tagline, "Cocktails Served to Suit You," other drinking establishments had bigger ideas. Cinnabar in Burlingame was the "The Brightest * on the Peninsula." The Rancho on Polk was "TOPS in Drinks and Sociability." And most intriguingly, Mona's on Columbus was "A Rendezvous for Discerning Bohemians."

One fascinating coda is that Mona's is actually quite a famous place in San Francisco's old-school queer community. First at 451 Union Street and then at 140 Columbus (as on our map), and finally at 440 Broadway, Mona's was a freethinking, freewheeling, mostly lesbian bar at a time when that sort of thing was not easy to find. A young bohemian named Mona Hood ran the place and provided a venue for crossdressing entertainers from about 4pm to 2am every night. Mona's is considered a key link in the chain of events that made San Francisco's the queer capital of America: it was a space where lesbians, and other people in the queer community, could live their lives out in the open. (For more on that story, check out San Francisco State University professor Nan Alamilla Boyd's Wide Open Town.")

Meanwhile 140 Columbus remains a meaningful space in its own right. After Mona's moved on, the cellar bar was reinvented as The Purple Onion, a performance space that has played host to performers like Woody Allen and Richard Pryor to poets like Maya Angelou.

That's just one of the many stories embedded on the map above. Go take a look for yourself;  the map's just the beginning of your trip back to San Francisco, 1937.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/a-guide-to-san-francisco-in-1937-when-the-golden-gate-bridge-opened/257722/