What was San Francisco like in 1880? The Economy

This is the first in a multi-part series describing San Francisco in 1880. For those of you who have read either Maids of Misfortune or Uneasy Spirits, or my short stories, this will provide you with some deeper understanding of the city where my main characters, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, lived as children in the 1860s and returned to as adults in the 1870s. If you are not familiar with my Victorian San Francisco mystery series, I hope these historical pieces will pique your interest––although I promise my fiction is much livelier reading. All the material quoted below is from my thesis, “Like a Machine or an Animal: Working Women of the Far West in the Late Nineteenth Century,” University of California: San Diego dissertation, 1982 pp. 60-69.”  I must say, it is much more entertaining to convey historical information through fiction than heavily footnoted fact!

Part One: The San Francisco Economy

“In 1880 San Francisco, with a population of 233,959 residents, was the ninth largest city in the United States. Located at the end of the peninsula that separates the Bay of San Francisco from the Pacific Ocean, this city of hills, sand dunes, fogs, and mild temperatures had been only a small village called Yerba Buena less than forty years earlier.  This small village was one of the chief beneficiaries of the incredible influx of people into the region after the discovery of gold to the north in the winter of 1847-48.”

[For those of you who have read Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits––Annie Fuller, her parents, her Aunt and Uncle, and her housekeeper, Beatrice O’Rourke, were among those who traveled west and settled in San Francisco in those first years.]

“Commerce dominated San Francisco’s economic structure through out the nineteenth century. Its fine natural harbor and its location near both ocean shipping lanes and interior river routes stimulated much of the city’s early economic growth. The city served as the port of entry for the massive flow of people and goods into the region during the Gold Rush, and once agriculture developed in the interior in the 1860’s San Francisco also became the major port to handle goods shipped out of the region. The disruption in trade resulting from the Civil War further promoted the development of agriculture in the Far West, and San Francisco merchants worked hard in the 1850s and 1860s to ensure that all goods entering or leaving the region passed through their hands. By and large they were successful, and their control of the region’s trade remained firm until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. As late as 1875, San Francisco still handled at least ninety percent of all the goods leaving the state and a major share of the trade leaving the Northwest.”

“As a commercial port city, San Francisco first developed manufacturing that centered around supplying shipping needs and processing the raw materials that constituted the bulk of the city’s trade. By the late 1850s a few firms also began to manufacture a significant amount of the heavy equipment used in hydraulic mining.  In the 1860s…the Civil War and the completion of the transcontinental railroad fostered the development of a new kind of industry within San Francisco––the manufacturing of light consumer items for regional markets. The dislocation of Eastern trade during the Civil War not only aided the development of agricultural lands in the Far West but also encouraged San Francisco’s manufacturing sector by diverting capital investment from the cities of the East to the Far west and by forcing the latter region to look to San Francisco to supply its consumer needs.”

“The high shipping rates of the Central Pacific Railroad acted as a protective tariff for the city, and the railroad gave San Francisco easier access to raw materials and to regional markets for its manufactured goods. The construction of the railroad also attracted great numbers of Chinese and European immigrants who flocked to San Francisco once their job with the railroad ended. This new abundance of labor, in turn, drove down wages in the city and encouraged the creation of the first large-scale manufacturing establishments in the city. As a result, by 1880 San Francisco had a mature, broadly based manufacturing sector that completely dominated the Far West. San Francisco ranked ninth among cities in the nation in value of products…most important industries in 1880 were meat packing and processing, sugar refining, boot and shoe making, heavy metal and machine making, men’s clothing, and tobacco and cigar making. San Francisco’s continued vitality as a commercial center and its growing manufacturing capabilities also insured that the city acted as the financial capital of the region. The headquarters of almost all of the California banking institutions were located in San Francisco, and banks in other cities were often dependent on San Francisco capital.”

“Despite this relatively favorable working climate, San Francisco was not in any way protected from the economic cycles that affected the rest of the nation, nor were the laboring classes immune form exploitation by their employers. In fact, the high wages of the 1850s and 1860s and the popular myth that fortunes were easily made in the Far West promoted unrealistic expectations that were dealt a particularly harsh blow when hard times hit the city in the 1870s. With the completion of the railroad in 1869, the chronic labor shortage that had kept wages high vanished, and for the first time there was severe unemployment throughout the state. The national depression sparked by the Panic of 1873 reinforced the local downturn in business, and in 1875 the collapse of the Bank of California and the decline in the output of the Comstock Lode (in which much of the city’s capital had been invested) added to the city’s difficulties.”

“Even though a visitor to the city in 1880’…was much struck by the depressed air of the tradesmen,’ and a Norwegian pastor implored his countrymen living in the Midwest not to come to San Francisco expecting to find jobs easily, by 1880 San Francisco’s economy shared in the recovery that was sweeping the nation. The development of manufacturing in the city, which had in part been fostered by the very economic difficulties of the 1870s (because it lowered wages), meant that the city entered the new decade with an economy that was more diverse and stronger than ever.”

[It was the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent national depression that had played a key role in Annie Fuller’s late husband’s financial ruin back east and it is the improvement in San Francisco’s economy that Annie takes advantage of as the clairvoyant, Madam Sibyl, when she offers business advice to local businessmen like Mr. Matthew Voss in Maids of Misfortune.]

M. Louisa Locke
June 17, 2012

All text on this site is copyrighted by M. Louisa Locke 

5 Replies to “What was San Francisco like in 1880? The Economy”

  1. I enjoyed this post. I visited SF only once, many years ago, but my memory of the trip is still vivid. A beautiful and exciting city.

  2. This gives me a much better idea of the background for your fiction. I look forward to more of both.

  3. I found your book searching for stories of Victorian San Francisco. I wad fortunate enough to be able to buy a 100 year old Edwardian here in Downtown San Francisco about 5 years ago. Subsequently, my mother, who is into geneaology, found the census records of the people who lived in our 3 units back in 1920 and 1930. For instance, the people who lived in my unit (a normal two bedroom) in 1920 was a family of 7 people — mother, father and 5 children! I feel like this place is smallish with only two people in it now — I can’t imagine 7! Anyway, this history of my building and an overall love of the architecture, buildings and history of San Francisco I have found inspiring. I love that you’ve taken your research and made it in to fiction, which is easier to read than a dissertation — I know — I did mine in computer science and it was virtually never read. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for the good work and I look forward to reading your other works on San Francisco!
    Keri Carpenter

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