How often do you come across a book that addresses a strong personal interest but that you have never heard of? This is understandable for a broad subject matter like World War II or the Lincoln presidency, but what about a book of historic postcards of San Francisco from 1900-1940? It’s not as if such books appear every day, or even every few years. I acknowledge this to explain why Glenn Koch’s magnificent, “San Francisco Golden Age Postcards,”
which was published in 2001, is only now being reviewed in our pages. Neither I nor other local history buffs I spoke with were familiar with the book, but after I showed it to them, the consistent reaction was “I have to immediately order a copy.” The reason is that Koch’s postcards are simply beautiful. And in the case of Chinatown, the Uptown Tenderloin, Playland at the Beach and many other areas, Koch has photos of sites rarely seen. In an era when mail delivery to residences was twice daily, and businesses got four such deliveries, the postcard was truly in its golden age. Thanks to postcards, images of wonderful buildings, restaurants, and cultural facilities from that era have been preserved for posterity.
Glenn Koch amassed an astonishing collection of San Francisco postcards while living in Pennsylvania. That he came to love a city where he had visited but never lived (he later moved here) comes through in his book, particularly in the care taken to display postcards showing key events -- such as the 1906 earthquake and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition -- and long gone but wonderful structures that would otherwise be forgotten, like the Poodle Dog Hotel and restaurant in the Uptown Tenderloin.
San Francisco was a fun town in those post-quake days. Bars, restaurants, dancing and live music were widely available, and the tone was decidedly upscale. The postcards reflect an era when restaurants commonly had live bands, and the Cliff House and Playland made Ocean Beach a top attraction.
I don’t know if Koch is an expert in collage, but one gets that impression from how beautifully and creatively he displays his postcards. This is a book when, after you have carefully poured over each page, you will want to start again from the beginning so you can renew the fun.
1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition
While the 1906 quake is known to all, San Francisco’s hosting of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition also had a dramatic if little recognized impact on today’s San Francisco. San Francisco saw the event as its opportunity to show the world that, far from being a dusty Gold Rush town, it was actually a place of sophisticated hotels, dining and pleasure. Seizing this opportunity, however, required the construction of the necessary facilities, particularly what are now the city’s leading supply of historic single room occupancy hotels (SRO’s).
After all, you couldn’t urge people to come across the country for an event and then give them nowhere nice to stay or eat. Thus did the 1915 spark San Francisco’s first golden age, with many of the new buildings still in use today.
Koch’s book includes postcards showing neighborhoods usually overlooked in the available history of San Francisco. He’s got great images of Hayes Valley, Twin Peaks, the Fillmore, Forest Hill, St. Francis Wood, the Western Addition, and many others, and postcards of schools in Noe Valley, the Mission and elsewhere.
He even has a card from 1930 that shows Julius Castle and the man who named it.
His early postcards of the waterfront make us yearn to turn back the clock before it became a mass marketing area, and he shows Chinatown in its post-1906 pristine state.
Of course, many will buy this book solely for its hotel and building postcards. The beauty of these structures is striking, and though many still survive, they are often dwarfed by highrises or obscured by adjacent buildings. The great advantage of the postcard is that it allows us to view the building in isolation -- and this brings out its strengths as never before.
Some of the city’s most impressive structures, such as the former Continental Building & Loan Association, were torn down and replaced with other majestic buildings, in this case the Golden Gate Theater. Without postcards, this history would largely remain unknown, so that Koch provides a history lesson and a stirring visual experience.
San Francisco Golden Age Postcards was published by Windgate Press, and is available either from the publisher
or from your favorite on-line retailer or bookstore. I noticed that a reviewer from the San Francisco Historical Society describes Koch’s book as “fabulous,” which clearly captures my own view and explains why I am eager to bring it to the attention of Beyond Chron readers.