Culture and Moral Order at the Turn of the 20th Century

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny

Night view of the Midway Theatre, Barbary Coast --RS1171 MWA-01 Midway 585 Pacific Avenue ca 1910 wnp5.50384.jpg

Night view of the Midway Theater at 585 Pacific Avenue in the Barbary Coast, c. 1910.

Photo:, wnp5.50384

Economist David Wells, puzzled by what he called the “sociological sequences” accompanying industrial capitalism, took up his pen during the late 1880s to analyze the impact of the new economic forces on the distribution of wealth and the well-being of society. Violent clashes between labor and capital seemed to grow as rapidly as the nationwide railroad network. Frightening episodes of urban crime seemed to multiply as quickly as the streetcars that fostered city growth. Armies of unemployed men tramped threateningly throughout the country, and men, women, and children living in miserable poverty filled the almshouses and the older, more congested districts of the cities. San Franciscan Henry George decided in 1879 that “social difficulties . . . are, in some way or another, engendered by progress itself” and argued that the Single Tax provided the only solution. Ten years later, thousands of Americans joined the “Nationalist” movement after reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and after agreeing that abolition of corporate property and nationalization of industry would be necessary preludes to social harmony and individual security.(1)

Bellamy’s proposals, like George’s Single Tax, attracted ardent supporters, but David Wells came closer to the typical attitude of the country’s political and social leaders when he recommended careful, incremental, cultural reform as an antidote to crisis. Social disorder, he argued, would be temporary and should be regarded as an inevitable manifestation of evolutionary stress, but social activists could intervene to humanize the process. Society, he concluded, has “become a vastly more complicated machine than ever before—so complicated, in fact, that in order to make it work smoothly, all possible obstructions need to be foreseen and removed from its mechanism.”(2)

Development of San Francisco’s cultural policies after World War I raised numerous questions about power and influence. The ways in which informal accommodation and electoral politics resolved these questions demonstrated the distance between the cultural reform movements of the late nineteenth century and those of the 1920s. Working-class militancy posed threats to San Francisco’s social and economic order with relative frequency during the period from 1865 to 1906. But after the waterfront strike of 1901 and the earthquake and fire of 1906, successful challenges to existing patterns of economic power became increasingly limited by a growing consensus grounded on culture and the moral order. Kindergartens and schools nurtured social cohesion and cultural conformity. Urban planning and civic design stimulated cultural nationalism and local pride. Institutionalization of the city’s museums, symphony, and opera as treasures of all the people encouraged personal identification with the city’s stature as a “world class city.” Patrick McCarthy, mayor from 1910 to 1912 and a symbol of respectability for the city’s stable working-class population, generally supported such public cultural reforms, as well as the parallel ethnic cultural institutions that provided a vehicle for the private aspirations of striving families. At the same time, McCarthy—like Mayor Rolph (1912–1931)—paid deference to his constituents’ ethnic loyalties and defended San Francisco’s ethnic and cultural diversity as a civic resource rather than as a dangerous threat. The patriotism and Americanization fervor of World War I provided a boost to a cultural process long under way. By the early 1920s, San Francisco possessed a mainstream culture that tolerated literary bohemianism but frowned on political radicalism, lived in peace alongside unconventional lifestyles but drew the line at militant dissent.


1. Bryce, American Commonwealth, 2:425, 428, 430 — 43 1; Christopher A. Buckley, “The Reminiscences of Christopher A. Buckley,” Bulletin, Jan. 24, 1919, p. 13.
2. Bryce, American Commonwealth, 2:143; William A. Bullough, The Blind Boss and His City: Christopher Augustine Buckley and Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Berkeley, 1979), pp. 58 — 60; Erik Falk Petersen, “The Struggle for the Australian Ballot in California,” California Historical Quarterly 51 (Fall 1972): 227—243.

San-Francisco-1865-1932 cover.jpg

Excerpted from San Francisco 1865-1932, Chapter 5 “Culture and Moral Order”

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