San Mateo County Courthouse and Museum of History

I visited San Mateo Museum of History on Saturday, and was impressed by how much it has to offer.

The museum’s diverse collection includes musical instruments, clothing, interactive displays, and a biotech and technology innovation exhibit, just to name a few. And I was very excited – even delighted? – to find some unusual turn-of-the-century artifacts.

With so much going on, there is some risk of creating a disconnected feeling, but the museum does a great job of pulling everything together to tell San Mateo County’s story.

Artist conception of the San Mateo County courthouse

1904 artist’s conception of the San Mateo County courthouse

The museum is housed in San Mateo County’s old courthouse.

Construction on the courthouse began in 1904. The large dome made of stained glass that would cover the courthouse was the most distinctive feature, but the building would be magnificent, regardless. However, residents of San Mateo County felt a deep connection to the courthouse than went beyond simply appreciating its beauty.

The San Francisco Call’s breathless description of the May 1904 groundbreaking ceremony provides a tiny window into their thoughts. It’s also a great illustration of how much times have changed. The paper reported that City officials declared a holiday, and the morning began with a parade, followed by a formal ceremony to lay the cornerstone. After several speeches and prayers, the residents enjoyed a barbecue “unrivaled in the history of the city”, while children sang patriotic songs. Later, the Redwood City Choral Society performed songs, such as “Laying the Cornerstone”, which I’m guessing was written for the occasion. Then, before departing to prepare for a celebratory ball that evening, the county residents sang “Auld Lang Syne” together.

Inside the 1904 dome

Inside the 1904 dome

Despite its jubilant beginning, the courthouse survived less than two years. It was severely damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Two days after the disaster, a terse item appeared in the San Francisco Call: “San Mateo. New Court House, in ruins except dome.“

Somehow, the stained glass dome had survived.

The dome rests, intact, on the ruins of the courthouse

April 1906: The  dome rests undamaged on the ruins of the courthouse

As soon as possible, county officials began making plans to rebuild the courthouse. The new courthouse was built in the Classical style, and featured the dome that had survived the earthquake. With the region still reeling, there was minimal fanfare when the new courthouse opened on July 4, 1910. In 1998, the court officially moved to a new location and the building became home to the San Mateo Museum of History.



These bicycles were recommended for people who rode on unpaved roads.

The museum has lots of beautiful light fixtures. These pictures don’t convey how massive and heavy this chandelier is.

Massive chandelier

Massive chandelier


There were several traditional costumes on display from South America, Ireland, and China.  Some immigrants in San Mateo County continued to wear traditional clothing. This is a man’s outfit, circa 1910:

Chinese traditional clothing

Chinese traditional clothing

The museum has a beautifully preserved slot machine, named The Owl. It was built in 1897 by Mills Novelty Company. Apparently, the Owl was so successful that the company decided to adopt an owl as their official trademark.

The Owl

The Owl

Last but not least, one item stood out as the most memorable artifact in the museum. Upon arriving in the U.S., many Chinese men cut their hair, which was traditionally worn long, as an unofficial rite of passage. The owner of this hair cut it off to assimilate into U.S. culture, yet his hair managed to survive and build a new life without him.

A long ponytail was traditional for many Chinese males. Some men, upon moving to the US, cut their hair in a symbolic gesture. This ponytail is just as the owner left it

San Mateo Museum of History is definitely worth a visit. You can find information about their hours, admission fees, and more on their website,

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