San Francisco Glamour

In my recent foray into the federal archives, I began to notice that the reference info on many of the most interesting photos indicated they came from San Francisco. Many of these San Francisco images were tagged “glamour photographs”: an irresistible combination!

I’m excited to share my findings here, but first I need to issue a warning that you may need to adjust your ideas around what glamour is. In some cases, what qualified as glamorous and exciting in 1900, may not be enough to land you in the next issue of Vogue in 2019. Also, Victorian San Francisco was a little less sensitive to language, as evidenced by some of the photograph titles.

Now, let’s take a look at these glamorous San Francisco residents! First, we’ll look at the telephone photographs. Continually changing technology is a feature of our modern existence, and an iPhone 4 is practically an antique. It may be difficult to understand what could motivate someone to pull out their Sunday best and have a formal, professional photograph made as they pose with a telephone.

But if we put it in context, it’s more comprehensible. In 1900, the telephone represented a huge leap in technology. The last major comparable invention was the telegraph, which had come out in the 1840s. The idea that you could press your ear against an odd-looking gadget and listen to the voice of someone who was miles away must have seemed close to magic.

Young woman with telephone, circa 1909


At the telephone, 1907


Good News 1909.


Then, there are the flower girls. These very feminine young ladies were not about to stop with a flower or two. Or even a bouquet or two. These ladies brought the whole garden with them. Think of them as the original Flowerbombs.

Woman, “Flora,” posing in studio, three-quarter length, standing, facing right, holding flowers by E.J. McCullagh, circa 1900


Lillies, 1902. The pearls for her hair are an interesting touch!


Many people were interested in athleticism. You’ll notice most of the photos in this post feature women, but we do have some male representation in this category. The Strongman was postcard-worthy in 1901, but we live in an age of steroids and Monday Night Raw. I’m not sure this fellow would fare against Triple H or John Cena.

Miss Swim, 1904. It seems like it would be hazardous to go into the water wearing this. Just the sheer weight of the clothing would be enough to sink you.


Strongman, 1901.


Next, we turn to the modern woman. The important thing here is to note the variety of what a woman can be: anything! A gun-totin’ moonshiner’s daughter, a football fan… the possibilities were endless!

On the question of all the upkeep women do, my initial thought was that there would be less work. Women weren’t having their eyebrows threaded or wearing Spanx or getting Botox injections back then. But I was wrong on that one. As you’ll see, the lack of modern conveniences only caused women to have to work that much harder.

The moonshiner’s daughter, 1901. I’m guessing this was a costume that was meant to be humorous, and you.wouldn’t have bumped into this gal in San Francisco, even in 1901. I can’t imagine how she would be received in Haight Ashbury, circa 2019, but this might actually fly in the Tenderloin.


Football girl, 1906



Woman draped in sheer fabric, standing, full-length, facing left, holding up her hair over heating vessel, 1908. This picture and the next were in all likelihood meant to American, more straight-laced version of French postcards. I’d like to know more about the heating vessel and if this was a common way for women to dry their hair.


Woman wearing corset, brushing her hair, 1899. I’ve read that corsets caused all kinds of health issues for women. In attempting to achieve an hour-glass figure, they frequently resorted to crushing their internal organs with corsets. Of all the photos, this is the only one that made me cringe. Can you imagine how uncomfortable she must have been?


Finally, there are the vamps.

In the Harem, 1900. This was at the beginning of an era that romanticized eastern cultures, which eventually came to its peak in the 1920s.

Woman in belly-dancing costume smoking and holding package of cigarettes, 1900. Another example of the fascination with all things eastern. In 1900, the cigarettes and clothing would have been considered to be far too much for polite society.


Lastly, I just want to remind everyone in the Bay Area to please join me at Burlingame Library on December 10 at 7 p.m. I’ll be there to talk about my book, The Poisoned Glass, and I hope to see you there, too!

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