May 13, 2020

In the Library: Uncovering History Series, A Dance Hall Girl, Part 2

Our new blog series “In the Library: Uncovering History” will give you a glimpse into the world of the CHS researcher. Each week we will post a piece from a different writer about their experience—what they were seeking and, in particular, what they discovered. Without them, and without the thousands of manuscripts, photographs, maps, books, periodicals, and ephemera that make up the CHS collection, how many California histories would remain hidden, out of sight, and perhaps out of mind? First up is Tom O’Donnell three-part series for CHS on the hidden voices of San Francisco’s working women in the early 1900s.

Collections, , , , ,

In the Library: Uncovering History Series, A Dance Hall Girl, Part 2


Tom O’Donnell’s three-part series for CHS on the hidden voices of San Francisco’s working women in the early 1900s is based on the weeks of research he did at the CHS library – delving into boxes containing the League of Women Voters records and the papers of former mayor, James Rolph Jr. The James Rolph papers alone comprise over 100 boxes of manuscript material spanning the years 1904–1934. His tenure as mayor of San Francisco (1912–1931) included many major events and issues that impacted the city, such as the continued rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, World War I, the 1918 influenza epidemic, and business and labor relations. Also documented in his papers and those of the League of Women Voters are the many voices involved in the “cleanup” of the Barbary Coast in the first several decades of the twentieth century. It was amongst these that Tom found the “Dance Hall Girl” letters that helped him tell the story of some of those hidden histories.

A Dance Hall Girl, Part 2

Yesterday, we shared the thoughts of an anonymous working woman who sent a letter to Mayor James Rolph in 1913, asking him to intercede on behalf of Barbary Coast dance hall workers whose jobs were threatened by a recent order of the city’s Police Commission. As I noted, we have relatively few sources from San Francisco’s working women in the early twentieth century, which makes each one valuable for historians.

The mayor was not the only recipient of such a letter in response to the ordinance. Another anonymous “Dance Hall Girl” also wrote a scathing letter to the clubwomen of the San Francisco Center.[1] This letter, however, was not petitioning the politically-powerful for help; she was taking the time to excoriate the Center for their advocacy of the order and their inadequate attempts to help the displaced workers.

The efforts to help those displaced dance hall workers illustrated the difficulties in “reforming” the lives of San Francisco’s working women. After announcing the new restrictions on selling liquor in the dance halls, Theodore Roche, President of the Police Commission, suggested to the “clubwomen in San Francisco who have aided in the fight against the Barbary coast” that they assist the “hundreds of women…who will lose their means of livelihood.”[2] Both the clubwomen and dance hall workers resisted Roche’s call. Clubwoman Mrs. George B. Sperry of the New Era League thought it would be difficult to find suitable employment “for women who are accustomed to working two or three hours…and getting $30 a week or more.” Other clubwomen believed finding work would not be difficult as there was a “great demand for women workers at the present time.” “There are so few women to clean for you,” one complained, “We have to employ Japanese in self-defense.”[3]

It was these sentiments in particular that riled up the anonymous letter writer. “Possibly you have failed to realize,” she began, “that the majority of these girls are young, fair looking, well educated, well-groomed and,” confirming Sperry’s assessment, “have been in the habit of making more money than the average business man’s income.” And if to confirm the latter’s complaint, dismissed the help offered by noting that the type of work “suggested by the majority of the clubwomen…is not any better than that offered an emigrant.”

She echoed Rolph’s petitioner concerning the burden they faced supporting a network of relatives and in the assertion that the women who worked in the Barbary Coast were moral and “their ideas right.” The quick glimpse into the circumstances and anger of this working woman is worth the full read:

Letter from “Dance Hall Girl” to the clubwomen of the San Francisco Center. Read the full transcript here.

Read Part 1 and Part 3 of this series.

Source: Unidentified author to San Francisco Center, September 24, 1913, League of Women Voters Records, 1911-1979, “Public Dance Halls,” California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library.

[1] The San Francisco Center of the California Civic League was founded by the College Equal Suffrage League immediately after suffrage was granted to the state’s women in 1911. In 1920, feminist Carrie Chapman Catt encouraged the California Civic League to merge with the recently formed League of Women Voters and in 1921 they adopted the name California Civic League of Women Voters. Their name was later changed in 1925 to the California League of Women Voters, and to the League of Women Voters of California in 1946.

[2] “Dance Hall girls cases. Report of Mary L. Sweeney [hand-written],” December 1, 1913, League of Women Voters Records, folder “Public Dance Halls,” California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library; “Women Deny Obligation to ‘Coast’,” Call, September 23, 1913.

[3] “Women Deny Obligation to ‘Coast’.” Miss Mary Fairbrother, president of the Women’s Political League and Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society did have some justification for her claim that the commissioners, not the clubwomen, were responsible for providing further aid. She reminded Roche that her organization recently presented a proposal to the state legislature to fund a refuge home to provide occupational training to women “should they desire to reform” but it was vetoed by Governor Hiram Johnson. “This thing of men sitting up and saying what women shall do,” she retorted, “is played out.”