We want to give you a glimpse into the world of the CHS researcher.
Every year hundreds of people—students, academics, writers, filmmakers, genealogists, historians and others simply interested in history—come to the North Baker Research Library at the California Historical Society looking for answers to their questions. They know that somewhere in the CHS vaults there may be a letter or a photograph that contains the information they are seeking, or a clue that will lead them to a new or different path.
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. We collect history so that each generation can examine and learn from these valuable primary sources.
The collections are not accessible right now. Shelter in place requirements from Covid-19 has meant all staff are working from home and the library is temporarily closed. But there will be a time it reopens. And it will all still be there, ready for people to come and make their own discoveries.
In the meantime, we hope that you are inspired by the stories of researchers who dug deep into the CHS archives. They will be sharing their finds with you in a series of weekly posts.
We can’t wait to welcome you into the library sometime in the future to find answers to your own questions. Please enjoy our first post of this series, below.
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 One
The early twentieth century was an especially dynamic period of American history, commonly known as the Progressive Era, when middle-class women and men across the country agitated for social reforms–from demanding suffrage to health and sanitation regulations to anti-vice measures. Although many of the proposed reforms from this period came from a desire to improve the lives of poor Americans, many efforts were also based on the premise of controlling the lives of poor Americans. The exploration of the sources we are looking at this week come from my interest in the lives of working women. Unfortunately, the material historians have to work with to recreate and understand the lives of women who worked for wages are scarce. Most often, what exists in great abundance are documents written about them rather than by them. One of the objectives of my work is to reconstruct and understand the circumstances in which women did and did not exercise autonomy over their lives. By carefully questioning the archival material, we can begin to get a sense of how working women resisted reform “crusades” and the people behind them who attempted to impose “social control” measures.
In the fall of 1913, in very neat, if imperfect, prose an anonymous letter writer pleaded with the mayor of San Francisco to help save her job: “I was born and raised in San Francisco and I have worked on the Barbary Coast two years and I hope to get a home and leave the coast, but why not give us a chance we are not rats like the picture they had in the Examiner we all have to live.” The writer, who signed off as a “dance hall girl,” was protesting a proposal before the city’s Board of Police Commissioners to prohibit the sale of liquor in the district’s dance halls. These so-called dance hall girls, sometimes called “beer waitresses,” earned a commission on the drinks they served and, increasingly, for dancing with male patrons.
This order, which the Police Commission passed three days after our letter writer sent her request, promised to hit the Barbary Coast’s working women particularly hard. For many years, decades even, the city’s reforming class voiced complaints about the immoral nature of the city’s saloons, gambling halls, and brothels, many of which were concentrated in the (in)famous Barbary Coast. Observers typically blamed the women who worked in these “crime hatcheries” as the source of the problem. Twenty years earlier, for example, in one of the many waves of reform that crashed down upon the neighborhood over the years, the Citizens’ Anti-Dive League described the women who worked in dives and dance halls as “short-skirted harpies” that preyed upon young men with “insidious glances and suggestive remarks” alluring them to “drink and drink and drink again.” Following a year-long “crusade” stoked and chronicled by one of the city’s leading newspapers, the Board of Supervisors finally relented and issued an ordinance that denied a liquor license to “any place where females are suffered or provided to wait or attend in any manner on any person,” an order almost immediately ignored by all affected.
It was no coincidence that such efforts found renewed energy in 1913. Two years earlier, California became the sixth state to grant women the right to vote and just the year before, San Franciscans elected James Rolph Jr. as Mayor. Rolph’s views on vice initially offered more hope to the city’s reforming class. During the campaign, members of the Women’s Civic Decency club endorsed Rolph on the hope that he would make San Francisco “The Queen of the Pacific” and not “The Paris of America.” Bishop Edwin Holt Hughes told an assembly of the Commonwealth Club that Rolph’s election signaled “a sound moral atmosphere” for the city’s future.
It was another group of middle class women that finally forced the Police Commission into action against the Barbary Coast dance hall workers that fall. Not long after Rolph’s election, the San Francisco Center formed a Dance Hall Committee at the behest of residents from North Beach. The committee partnered with the Recreation League to formulate “Dance Hall legislation,” that would require a separation between establishments that served alcohol and those that permitted dancing. Following their persistent, public agitation, the Police Commission ordered, “no dancing shall be permitted in any café, restaurant or saloon where liquor is sold,” and prohibited “women patrons or women employes” in any saloon within the district bounded by Stockton street to the west, Clay to the south, and the bay to the north and east, which included the Barbary Coast and most of North Beach. The ordinance not only prohibited women from working in these establishments, it also made it illegal for women to even enter that section of town.
In the days preceding and immediately following the order, several “dance hall girls” wrote letters to the mayor–a clear indication of the awareness by some of these working women of the commission’s deliberations–asking him to intercede on their behalf. Protesting a common assertion by her detractors and one she had recently been reading in the Examiner, the author of this particular letter repeatedly denied she was “a bad woman.” In fact, the campaign to force women like her out of their jobs threatened to make them consider worse alternatives. Noting that she had “never worked in a house of ill fame,” she asked, “what will we do when the Barbary Coast is gone.” She had a home in the city and a young child to support. Indeed, “nearly every girl” who worked in the dance halls had children to support. And we know from the precious few letters that have survived from other dance hall workers, besides children these working women had parents, siblings, and even husbands that depended on their wages.
The writer hoped to live the type of life her middle class detractors promoted but for many thousands like her, she toiled in relative obscurity with little chance of upward social mobility and in this instance was even forced to fight with her fellow citizens to remain employed. Although never as long or as revealing as a historian would like (even her name is lost to us), letters such as this one give us a glimpse into the lives of people we do not often see close up.
Tom O’Donnell received his Ph. D in history from UC Davis in 2018 for his dissertation, “Resisting Reform: San Francisco Vice in the Progressive Era.” Read more here.
Source: Unidentified author to Mayor James Rolph Jr., September 20, 1913, James Rolph, Jr. Papers, MS 1818, box 56, folder 4, “Barbary Coast Clean-up, 1911-1915,” California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library.
 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.
 Handwritten notes “for an[nual] Report,” League of Women Voters Records, folder “Annual Reports, Public Dance Hall Committee, 1913, 1933-1947,” CHS.