Men : Women in Early San Francisco

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Historical Essay

by Caroline Danielson


Mrs. Lillie Langtry as "Miss Hardcastle" in She Stoops to Conquer, c. 1875

Photo: Private Collection, San Francisco, CA

"When the city assumed the ways of older cities, when it was blessed by the coming of wives, mothers, sisters, and little ones, and social relations were established..." (Barry and Patten 1873, 50-1)

Just How Many Women Lived in San Francisco in the 1850s?

Men greatly outnumbered women in the first decade of San Francisco. Even in 1870, more than a decade past this early period, there were 2 women for every 3 men living in San Francisco. On January 26, 1847, the pueblo of Yerba Buena was officially named San Francisco. The total population at the time was nearly 500 people. Of these, there were 321 men and 138 women (Soule, Gihon, and Nisbet 1855). By the end of 1849, there were an estimated 20,000 inhabitants of San Francisco, an equal number in transit from incoming ships to the gold fields, and nearly 30,000 migrating by land to visit or settle in the city. Of the 40,000 immigrants who arrived by ship in 1849, only 700 were women. The sex ratio became even more skewed against women as San Francisco's population exploded.

A history of an early charitable society run by women, the San Francisco Ladies' Protection and Relief Society (founded 1853), reports that in that year the city had about 50,000 inhabitants. Of these, about 8,000 were women and 300 children. Given the small number of children, and the fact that most of the male inhabitants were between the ages of 20 and 40 (years in which it would be expected that they would be marrying and having children), it seems clear that many of these 8,000 women were not wives and mothers, nor were many of them children. There were, in addition, limited occupations open to women at the time. In 1870, the first year women were included in the statistics of industrial employees in San Francisco, only five manufacturers hired women (Barnhart 1986). The obvious answer to the question, "What were the women doing?" is prostitution.

No official numbers of prostitutes exist from this period. The evidence of their numbers comes from narrative accounts written by the early inhabitants. None of these accounts are by prostitutes, however, and even police records don't yield much. Anti-vice laws were not seriously enforced. Ordinance No. 546, "To Suppress Houses of Ill-Fame Within the City Limits," was put on the books in 1854. There were 14 arrests for common prostitution in 1859, however, and fewer in the following four years. Fires following the 1906 earthquake also destroyed daily municipal records, leaving only yearly summaries. This leaves a sizable gap in our record of the most typical occupation of San Franciscan women of the period (Barnhart 1986).

Here's one description of prostitution from a French visitor's journal written in 1851: "Many ships have reached San Francisco during the past three or four months, and the number of women in town has greatly increased, but a woman is still sought after and earns a lot of money. Nearly all the saloons and gambling-houses employ French women. They lean on the bars, taking and laughing with the men, or sit at the card tables and attract players... To sit with you near the bar or at a card table, a girl charges one ounce ($16) an evening. She has to do nothing save honor the table with her presence. ...For anything more you have to pay a fabulous amount. Nearly all these women at home were street-walkers of the cheapest sort. But out here, for only a few minutes, they ask a hundred times as much as they were used to getting in Paris. A whole night costs from $200 to $400" (De Russailh in Lewis 1962, 127-8). He's clearly disgruntled at this state of affairs. In the early years, however, when carrying a barrel across town brought high wages, prostitutes could also command good wages. Labor of all kinds was in short supply. In fact, women could earn an apparently high wage as servants, but the high cost of living eroded the actual value of the wage (Barnhart 1986). Women's sex labor was highly-paid because labor was in general highly-paid at the time. That it was highly-paid women's labor (or at least perceived to be such) was not unique to San Francisco. The causes of labor shortages in San Francisco were, however, gender-specific: men came to seek their fortunes and tended to go off to the gold fields, then women followed as the city took shape.

Apparently French prostitutes commanded the highest prices; the French journal-writer was partly correct. There were also a number of Australian, Chinese, Mexican, and German prostitutes who pursued their livelihood alongside Americans. All of these foreign women (with the notable exception of the French) were occasionally the objects of xenophobic attacks from the increasingly nationalistic Americans. Mexican and Chinese women were more often the target of racist attacks and were less likely to be able to make a decent living. Here's a typical attack: "The women of all these various races [Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese, negroes] were nearly all of the vilest character, and openly practised the most shameful commerce" (Soule, Gihon, and Nisbet 1855, 412).

The double story of the sex ratio of early San Francisco, then, is that there were few women in comparison to the number of men and that many of these women were prostitutes. One historian suggests that San Francisco, having in 1849 nearly instantly become a city of multi-nations and bachelors looking for their fortunes, no one set of mores held sway, and men held prostitutes in more respect than elsewhere. In the first year or two of the city's existence, the names men used to indicate a prostitute were euphemistic: 'ladies in full bloom', or the 'fair but frail.' By 1853, however, more derogatory terms like prostitute, Cyprian, harlot, and even whore had passed into common usage (Barnhart 1986). Josiah Royce, who was born in California in the middle of the nineteenth century but was sent back east to Harvard for his education and career, captures this respect despite being critical of it: "There were some women in the city in 1849, but they were not exactly respectable persons, yet they were the sole leaders of society. They too gave it even in later years a certain grace and gaiety that makes one speak of them, with a curious sort of reverence, very frequently in the course of the Annals" (Royce 1948, 312).

The small number of women in the city was noted in other ways as well. Women stood out as oddities in public places. The Annals reports, "We remember the day, when a woman walking along the streets of San Francisco was more of a sight than an elephant or giraffe would be today" (Barry and Patten 1873, 138-9). Various members of "respectable society" felt the privation. A woman who was an early inhabitant reported, "The only really private house was one belonging to a young New Yorker, who had shipped it from home. ... The bride for whose reception this house was intended arrived just before me, but lived only a few weeks.... At a party given to welcome her the whole force of San Francisco society came out, the ladies sixteen in number" (Fremont in Lewis 1962, 101).

In a reconstruction of the time written by a journalist in 1917, the number of women at a society event measured its success. There had been "fancy-dress balls at the Bella Union, balls given by the California Guards, and the like. The Oriental Hotel, frequented by the army and navy set, had given a series of subscription dances. But the largest number of ladies at any of these affairs was twenty-five!" After the St. Francis managed to attract sixty women to a series of soires, the "Monumental Engine Company, Big Six ... gave a grand ball, exquisite beyond compare in the decorations, the music, the ices and pastry. As for ladies, the St. Francis with its record of sixty was thrown utterly into the shade by the record of the Monumental, of FIVE HUNDRED ladies!"

Just where the five hundred came from is, even to this day, shrouded in mystery. A stringent rule, it seems, had been made that no gentleman could enter the ballroom without a lady. All California was ransacked. Some maintain that the ladies were brought, by pony express, from as far east as St. Joseph, Missouri (Jacobson 1941, 168-70). Polite society, it seemed, would go to myth-inspiring lengths to attract the right sort of woman to social events.

Women were taken, at least rhetorically, to be civilizing forces. One account of the period made the following plea: "In the midst of abundance of every kind women are very scarce; the domestic circle does not exist; domestic pleasures are wanting, and household duties are unfulfilled ... we will try to advocate the cause of poor and forlorn bachelors, and persuade some respectable heads of families that have to settle in life, to come to California and build up the society, which, without women, is like an edifice build on sand." But there were less idealistic reasons to want more women around. This same man also complained, "the greatest privations that a bachelor in this country is exposed to, consist in not being able to furnish himself with clean linen when he desires because there aren't enough washerwomen or wives around to do it" (Wierzbicki 1849, 80-1). A historian of the period reports what happened in regards to this mundane concern. Apparently by 1851, running a laundry was no longer a very lucrative business, and water shortages occurred repeatedly. By 1855, Chinese inhabitants had a virtual monopoly on laundries (Barnhart 1986). The Annals underscores the perceived baseness of the task: "The Chinese and the free negroes, of whom there was now [in 1851] a goodly sprinkling, were 'the hewers of wood and the drawers of water' of the place; and performed washing and women's business, and such menial offices as American white males would scorn to do for any remuneration" (Soule, Gihon, and Nisbet 1855, 369). So as is typically the case, women were both idealized and despised for being women. The skewed sex ratio in San Francisco only brought to the surface such dynamics, dynamics that were less overt, or which came to a head later, in other cities.


Barnhart, Jacqueline Baker. 1986. The Fair but Frail: Prostitution in San Francisco, 1849-1900. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Barry, Theodore Augustus and B. A. Patten. 1873. Men and Memories of San Francisco in the Spring of ’50. San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft and Company.

Beans, Rowena. 1953. Inasmuch; the one-hundred year history of the San Francisco ladies protection and relief society, 1853-1953. Edited by Carol Green Wilson. San Francisco: James J. Gillick and Co.

De Russailh, Albert Benard. 1931. Last Adventure: San Francisco in 1851. Translated by Clarkson Crane. San Francisco: The Westgate Press.

Fremont, Jessie Benton. 1878. A Year of American Travel. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Hirata, Lucie Cheng. 1979. Free, Indentured, Enslaved: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century America. Signs. 5: 3-29.

Jacobson, Pauline. 1941. City of the Golden Fifties. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lewis, Oscar. 1962. This Was San Francisco. New York: David McKay Company, Inc.

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Magdalen Asylum of San Francisco. 1870. Report and petition of the Managers of the Magdalen Asylum of San Francisco. Sacramento: D.W. Gelwicks, State Printer.

Royce, Josiah. 1948. California from the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Royce, Sarah Eleanor. 1932. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. Introduction by Katherine Royce. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ryan, Mary. 1990. Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

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Soule, Frank, John H. Gihon, and James Nisbet. 1855. The Annals of San Francisco: Containing a Summary of the History of ...California and a Complete History of Its Great City. New York: D. Appleton & Company.

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