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Hiding in plain sight - the French of San Francisco

Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Sanfranman59 / rotated, resized and cropped
“City of Paris” stained glass rotunda at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. Image source: http://bit.ly/1QQ8Jke";s:



San Francisco is steeped in history. It’s easy to find its Italian history, its Spanish and Chinese history, and even to some extent its Native American history. But the city’s French heritage is less celebrated.

Two French organizations —the French Mutual Benevolent Society and the Alliance Francaise are currently hosting an exhibit highlighting San Francisco’s Frenchness, titled “A Corner of France in America.”

San Francisco’s legendary sourdough bread started in 1852 as French bread, says Dr. Claudine Chalmers, curator of the exhibit. That’s the year the Boudin Bakeryopened on Grant Street.

There was certainly a market for French products at that time; more French people came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush than any other group, except maybe Germans. Chalmers says around 30,000 Frenchmen arrived in San Francisco between 1849 and 1856 -- some on their own, others through organized expeditions.

About 90 companies were formed to help the French get to California. Ships were acquired and outfitted with supplies. Some even provided uniforms. This was all financed by Parisian investors “who really believed that these workers would go to California, find gold -- and come back to share the profits,” says Chalmers, shaking her head before adding, “Of course, all 90 [immigration] companies failed. They went bankrupt one after the other.”

A way for those travelers to go bankrupt once they arrived in early San Francisco was by spending too much time and money in the city’s many gambling saloons. Chalmers notes that these Barbary Coast establishments were primarily operated by French immigrants who became skilled at card games on their long journeys. The owner of one of these saloons became the first president of the French Mutual Benevolent Society, which founded the French Hospital in 1851.

The fact that a saloonkeeper became “the most respected member of the French Mutual Benevolent Society is an indication of just how upside down California society was,” Chalmers says with a chuckle, implying that the French social order would never allow this to happen.

But the social order of France itself was under attack, bringing to mind current headlines.

Chalmers reminds us that in 1848, “there was a series of riots and revolutions in France. The King of France was deposed … This was after bloody fights in the streets of Paris. There were cannons aimed at Frenchmen, by Frenchmen.”


And at this same time, outlandish stories were circulating of people in California just bending over and picking up gold nuggets, without even having to use a pick or shovel.


“When they heard that,” she says, “these Frenchmen, who had no more profession, no more direction, no more home sometimes -- it was not even a choice. They decided to leave.”

Bythe mid-to-late 1850s, the Bay Areawas teeming with French gamblers, French treasure hunters, and French liberals (who had been sent here by Emperor Napoleon III, who was happy to have them gone). All were yearning for goods from the Old Country. That attracted another French group: entrepreneurs.

“Some brought bricks, some brought cognac, some brought the equipment for a cafe. Some brought chocolate,” she says.

And some brought French high fashion. If the newly rich couldn’t come to the city of Paris to spend their wealth, Paris could come to them … in the form of a ship named just that: “The City of Paris.”

Warehouses had yet to be built in this frontier town, so goods were sold right off the ship. The proprietors sailed back to France for more, and opened a store on land upon their return. They named their business theCity of Paris as well.  A remnant of that first store can still be seen in Union Square.

“If you go inside Neiman Marcus now and you look up,” Chalmers says, “you will see that beautiful glasswork, which is the symbol of one of the first French luxury stores in San Francisco.”

French luxury goods are still highly regarded, of course. And so is French cuisine. One of the best places to find that in early San Francisco was a restaurant named after another uniquely French creation: The Poodle Dog.

Chalmers reminds us that “thepoodle was, in those days, as special as an elephant; in the 1870s or '80s, it was a miracle to see a poodle. So customers would tell each other, when they talked about going to lunch, ‘Let's go see the poodle.’ And The Poodle Dog just took off - was worshipped throughout the decades.  

French influences aren’t just in the past, of course.There are two French schools here currently. The Palace of the Legion of Honorart museum was modeled after The French Pavilion of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The design of the present City Hall owes much to Les Invalides in Paris. Even the news kiosks and public toilets in and around Civic Center and Union Square mirror French design.

And why shouldn’t it?  Remember: San Francisco a century ago was known as The Paris of the Pacific.

“A Corner of France in America” can be found at the Alliance Française de San Francisco and is part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition Centennial.  The exhibit has been extended to the end of 2015.

Crosscurrents San Francisco