Public Schools in 19th Century San Francisco

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny

continued from part one

Denman School NW corner Bush an Taylor c 1862 Thomas P Woodward collection courtesy Society of California Pioneers.jpg

Denman School at the northwest corner of Bush and Taylor Streets, c. 1862.

Photo: from the Thomas P. Woodward collection, courtesy of Society of California Pioneers

The ethic of social engineering prescribed by Wells found echoes throughout the nation by the 1890s and the first years of the century. Moral control legislation, including the use of schools to inculcate social morality and the use of urban planning to ensure civic loyalty, emerged as something of a panacea.(3) The superintendent of the New York City schools summed up what had become a national consensus when he told the National Education Association convention in 1890 that “the most important business of government ... is the development, intellectual, moral, and physical, of the individual. In these facts lies the raison d'etre of public education. The government that does not educate must either give place to a better government, or it will inevitably fall before a worse.” Twelve years later, in a popular manual for reformers published by Columbia University Press in 1902, Frank Rollins argued that because diverse ethnic groups had filled the cities and the population had become more heterogeneous, the need for the state to oversee the education of its citizens had never been more critical.

In cities so largely foreign in population (the city population by itself is quite un-American) American customs and institutions must be preserved for the sake of national unity; and American residents, especially of the poorer and middle classes, must be assured of conditions among which they may give their children respectable homes and a suitable education.(4)

Protestant reformers had no monopoly on patriotism during this period, for Irish and Italian Catholics and German Lutherans and German Jews demonstrated their devotion to the importance of correct moral guidance by establishing private schools that operated parallel to the public systems. Nonetheless, public schools did serve thousands of children in American cities, and in San Francisco they also possessed a potential for the assimilation of Chinese and Japanese children. Control over the administration and curriculum of public schools thus served as an important symbol of cultural power.(5)

Controversy between Protestants and Catholics over cultural policies played as important a role in San Francisco during the 1850s and 1860s as it did in other centers of immigration such as St. Louis, New York, and Boston. Like San Francisco’s business leadership, the school administration and school board were top-heavy with Yankees from New England. These men shared the belief of Massachusetts state superintendent Horace Mann that the state should enlist the schools to bring order to the society. John Swett, who played an active role in San Francisco cultural politics for two generations, exemplified their philosophy when he announced that “nothing can Americanize these chaotic elements and breathe into them the spirit of our institutions but the public schools.” The city’s first high school principal declared that “the formation of an upright, Christian character is the great business and success of life.” In 1852, the first superintendent of schools observed that “a large majority of the children have just now for the first time entered American schools. Many of them are of foreign parentage, and both parents and children are unacquainted with our manners and customs, as also with our institutions.” He warned readers of his report that policymakers would need “great wisdom to control the multifarious elements and to bring order out of so much confusion.”(6) But the two most popular superintendents, John C. Pelton (elected for two terms) and James Denman (elected for three terms), rejected the assimilationist policies of the New England model. “Both Pelton and Denman,” according to Victor Shradar, “viewed themselves as servants to all the public and saw the necessity of representing the needs of all their constituents rather than catering merely to the Protestant, Yankee elite of the city.”(7)

James Denman's third term as superintendent of schools (1873–1876) coincided with a period of labor surplus and high unemployment that peaked in mid-1877. Philanthropic cultural reformers from San Francisco’s Protestant community reacted like their counterparts in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago to the thousands of men who tramped the roads looking for work or who had to be dispersed by city police when they blocked the streets while lining up for jobs. Ragged bands of rootless and discontented young men vented their frustration by harassing the Chinese and smashing business property; they seemed to portend a generalized social breakdown. Rising numbers of destitute migrant families sought relief from hunger and sickness; they appeared to be bringing San Francisco a new class of vagrant children who threatened the future order of society. Newspaper editors, like many city officials, expressed alarm at the prospect of the spreading social malaise. Preachers often suggested a remedy: an education that taught respect for social institutions and encouraged the young to accept the available roles in the working class. Keep in mind, Reverend Noble of Plymouth Church explained in 1874, that “all the world over it is the ignorant classes who are the lawless, dangerous classes.”(8)

Reverend Noble’s association of ignorance and criminality and his conviction that schooling offered an alternative to anarchism fit a rhetorical pattern that became typical during the insecure years of Gilded Age America. The cycles of economic boom and bust that persisted throughout the last quarter of the century also affected San Francisco. The city experienced some return of prosperity in 1881 and early 1882, but by the end of the year unemployment increased. The iron and steel industries had an especially hard time whereas the building trades fared the best. Although the 1886–1892 period witnessed improvements, wages never rose above the cost of living, and employment remained unsteady. The year 1892 brought renewed increases in unemployment, and by June 1893 the eastern financial panic began to take its toll on California. One estimate put the number of unemployed at thirty-five thousand, and the Coast Seamen's Journal reported that the “destitution, misery and suffering” had not been so severe for a generation.(9)

Persistent economic insecurity and the accompanying social turbulence of the 1880s and 1890s helped guarantee that those San Franciscans who regarded the making of the schools into an institutional remedy for disorder would find rich opportunities for reform activities. The reformers, however, faced considerable opposition from representatives of the city’s Irish, German, and Italian residents who found such social control formulas repugnant to their own more pluralistic versions of the good life. Further complication came from the fact that the Democrats dominated the city school board for most of this period, and the Democratic party catered more to the huge ethnic vote than to the smaller native-born group (by 1878, the city had 21,097 foreign-born voters and 16,818 native-born voters).(10) Not surprisingly, when Democrats constituted the majority on the school board, foreign-born membership rose the most. During the 1871–1873 period, when 75 percent of the board members represented the Democrats, immigrants made up 58 percent of the board. During the 1883–1890 period, Democrats controlled 66 percent of the seats on the board, and foreign- born membership averaged 29 percent. Two-thirds or more of the immigrants who served on the Board of Education during the 1865–1895 period had achieved the relatively high economic status of owners of businesses or professionals.(11)

Even before the social turmoil of “the terrible seventies" brought the issue of public school policy to center stage in San Francisco, controversy over the preferred mode of Americanization surfaced in connection with debates about the teaching of foreign languages. John Pelton, Democratic school superintendent between 1865 and 1867, broke with tradition by establishing German, French, and Spanish classes. Foreign-born Democrats had lobbied for such classes, and Pelton acquiesced. He believed that “the object of our Public School system, its true policy and leading idea, is to meet all reasonable educational demands.” The new schools would serve the needs of immigrant families who could not afford private language teaching, “yet they were unwilling to permit their sons and daughters to glow up to maturity, and remain forever ignorant of their mother tongue.”(12) By 1871, one-third of the city's children attended these Cosmopolitan Schools, as they were called, where German and French were taught along with English. Pelton’s successor, James Denman, disliked these schools because he thought they would “perpetuate the evils of caste distinction.” Denman could not discontinue an institution that had quickly become a popular feature of the city’s cultural life, but he appointed an investigating committee that urged teachers to put foreign-language instruction to work as a vehicle for Americanization. Once enrolled, foreign-born students would follow the regular curriculum and have contact with American children, which would—he hoped—provide prompt assimilation. Eventually, school boards with fewer Democratic and foreign-born members cut foreign-language instruction to a maximum of one-half hour per day.(13) After the peak period of popularity in foreign-language classes during the early 1870s, both total enrollment and the number of schools offering the classes declined. Although opponents failed to push a bill through the state legislature prohibiting the use of public money for special language teaching in 1878, hard times led to cutbacks in the financing of “nonessential” courses such as French and German.(14)

The depressed conditions of the 1870s also moved reformers throughout the country to agitate in favor of state compulsory attendance laws. Whereas labor unions supported these coercive laws to prevent competition from child labor, philanthropists and cultural reformers saw them as a way to “save the child” and protect the state. The laws particularly appealed to reformers in states troubled by industrial upheaval, and sixteen out of thirty-eight states had passed them by 1885.(15)

California’s legislature, with Republicans mainly supporting and Democrats mainly opposing, passed a compulsory attendance law in 1874. Prior to passage of the law, Democratic state superintendents had opposed it whereas Republicans cited the link between pauperism, crime, and the lack of education as compelling reasons for supporting the measure. In 1878, following the violent “July Days” of 1877, San Francisco’s superintendent, A. L. Mann, argued that the city police should arrest truant children because it would be cheaper “to educate people at the public expense than to pay the cost of their arrest, conviction, and imprisonment for crime.” The San Francisco school board, like the majority of city boards elsewhere in the country, made no serious attempt to enforce compulsory attendance during the nineteenth century. Neither teachers nor administrators cared much for the prospect of teaching unwilling truants along with other students, especially when the lack of spaces meant that even those who enrolled voluntarily could not be accommodated. The San Francisco board eventually adopted a policy of eliminating students if they missed eight days of school in any one month as a way of meeting the demands of parents who wanted their children placed. Compulsory attendance legislation thus appears to have played a largely symbolic role in San Francisco: placed on the books by reformers determined to use the schools to reinforce social order, the laws remained there as testimony to the high status of the reformers’ ideals.(16)

Lincoln School on 5th near Market Thomas P Woodward collection courtesy Society of California Pioneers.jpg

Lincoln School on 5th Street near Market, c. 1870s

Photo: from the Thomas P. Woodward collection, courtesy Society of California Pioneers

Just as the city’s Protestant cultural reformers sought to protect the state and the society by keeping children in school, both Protestant and Jewish reformers believed the future would be more secure if slum children from poor families could be attracted to school at an earlier age. Fewer than a dozen kindergartens existed in the United States before 1870, but by 1880 over four hundred operated in thirty states. Kindergartens in San Francisco owed their beginnings to a group of Jewish philanthropists and charity workers led by Judge Solomon Heydenfeldt and merchant Samuel Levy. Heydenfeldt and Levy had attended lectures by Felix Adler, founder of the New York Ethical Cultural Society, during his visit to San Francisco, and they decided to try out his ideas about the benefits of free kindergartens. With a name (the Public Kindergarten Society) and $130 in pledges, they asked prominent reformer and suffragist Caroline Severence (who had recently moved from Boston to Los Angeles) to recommend an instructor. Kate Wiggin, a young friend of Severence, also from New England and recently graduated from a kindergarten training school operated by German-born Emma Marwedel, quickly accepted the offer to come to San Francisco. Toward the end of 1878 Wiggin opened the Silver Street Free Kindergarten in the Tar Flats area south of Market Street. One year later Sarah Cooper, born in upstate New York in 1835 and already a resident of San Francisco for a decade, established the city’s second kindergarten on Jackson Street in the infamous Barbary Coast district.(17)

Altruism and the control of social disorder provided the rationale for the work of Cooper, Wiggin, and their supporters and followers. Wiggin shared Cooper’s belief that it was “far better that we plant kindergartens and organize industrial schools and educate the young for work, than to let them grow up in such a manner as to be good for nothing else than to form Jacobin clubs and revolutionary brigades.” Cooper believed, along with Wiggin. that the kindergarten provided a way to “plant a child-garden in some dreary, poverty stricken place in a large city, a place swarming with unmothered, undefended, undernourished child-life.”(18) An estimated one thousand educators, writers, society people, and curiosity seekers came to observe the Tar Flats class in the first year and a half. Cooper believed strongly in what she called “Christian activity,” and the kindergarten seemed an ideal vehicle. In addition, kindergartens nicely fit her concept of “preventive charity” for “the pliable period of early childhood is the time most favorable to the eradication of vicious tendencies, and to the development of the latent possibilities for good." By 1884, her Golden Gate Kindergarten Association operated six classes on an annual income of over $10,000.(19)

By this time both Cooper and Wiggin had put their association on a permanent footing by gaining the financial support of women from some of the city’s wealthiest families. Inspired by contemporaries in New York and Boston, Mary Crocker, Phoebe Hearst, and Jane Stanford stood at the center of charitable work in San Francisco. According to historian Carol Roland: “Their dynamic leadership and extensive generosity in a wide range of educational and cultural endeavors reinforced the idea that wealth carried with it a responsibility to promote social and civic betterment.”(20) Charles Crocker’s daughter, Harriet Alexander, became president of the board of Silver Street and along with her mother, Mary Crocker, contributed over $12,000 for the school’s operating expenses over a decade’s time. Adolph Sutro and James Fair, of Comstock fame, also provided substantial support. Sarah Cooper’s supporters included Miranda Lux, wife of Charles Lux, one of the city’s ten richest men. Jane Stanford gave Cooper $4,000 to establish the Leland Stanford, Jr., Memorial Kindergarten in 1884, and over the years she increased her donations to the point where she supported six kindergartens. Cooper first secured Phoebe Hearst’s support in 1883 when Hearst agreed to finance a Union Street class. By 1906, her contributions had amounted to over $80,000. By 1895, as forty free kindergartens enrolled 3,588 children, most from poor and immigrant homes, San Francisco claimed to have the largest privately funded kindergarten system in the nation.(21)


3. Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 58—59, 77, 89 — 91, 154, 195 —197; Neil Larry Shumsky, “Tar Flat and Nob Hill: A Social History of Industrial San Francisco During the 1870s,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1972, ch. 6; Jon M. Kingsdale, “The ‘Poor Mans Club’: Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon,” American Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1973):472 — 489.
4. Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 58 — 60, 87—89; Bancroft, History of California, 7:315 — 317; Bryce, American Commonwealth, 2:85 — 89; Walton Bean, Boss Ruef’s San Francisco: The Story of the Union Labor Party, Big Business, and the Graft Prosecution (Berkeley, 1952), pp. 2-4.
5. George W. Plunkitt, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, ed. William L. Riordon (New York, 1948), p. 4; Bullough, Blind Boss, pp. 58-60; Henry George, “The Kearney Agitation in California,” Popular Science Monthly 17 (Aug. 1880):438-439; Petersen, “Struggle for the Australian Ballot,” pp. 228-229. Bullough and Petersen both use “piece club”; George used “price club.”
6. San Francisco, Board of Supervisors, Municipal Reports (1872-1873), pp. 558-559; ibid. (1874-1875), pp. 768-775; ibid. (1875-1876), pp. 750-751; ibid. (1876-1877), pp. 1042-1043; ibid. (1878-1879), pp. 523-526, 758-807.
7. Bryce, American Commonwealth, 2:425.
8. Daggett, Southern Pacific, pp. 26-36, 55; George T. Clark, Leland Stanford: War Governor of California, Railroad Builder, and Founder of Stanford University (Stanford, 1931), chs. 6, 7; Norman E. Tutorow, Leland Stanford: Man of Many Careers (Menlo Park, Ca., 1971), chs. 3, 4, esp. pp. 74-77; Cerinda W. Evans, Collis Potter Huntington, 2 vols. (Newport News, Va., 1954), esp. chs. 16, 17, 27.
9. Daggett, Southern Pacific, pp. 31 — 40; Tutorow, Leland Stanford, pp. 76-77; Clark, Leland Stanford, pp. 196 — 203; Lewis, Big Four, pp. 355 — 359.
10. Daggett, Southern Pacific, pp. 85 — 102; Lewis, Big Four, pp. 361 — 362; Tutorow, Leland Stanford, pp. 83 — 84, 102 — 104; Clark, Leland Stanford, pp. 230, 313—326; Ward McAfee, California's Railroad Era: 1850—1911 (San Marino, Ca., 1973), ch. 7; Lavender, Nothing Seemed Impossible, pp. 348 — 352; Evans, Collis Potter Huntington, ch. 30.
11. Daggett, Southern Pacific, ch. 12, esp. pp. 211,216—217,219; Lewis, Big Four, p. 314; Evans, Collis Potter Huntington, ch. 43, esp. p. 354; Clark, Leland Stanford, pp. 71,432 — 436; Tutorow, Leland Stanford, pp. 24 — 35.
12. Fremont Older and Cora Older, George Hearst: California Pioneer (Los Angeles, 1966), p. 195; Robert E. Stewart, Jr., and Mary Frances Stewart, Adolph Sutro: A Biography (Berkeley, 1962), 5 — 13, esp. pp. 52, 77, 115, 126 — 127, 140 — 141; Lavender, Nothing Seemed Impossible, pp. 232, 267, 366 — 367; Lewis, Silver Kings, pp. 166-169, 171, 173.
13. Ernest Gruening, The State of Alaska (New York, 1968), pp. 66—70, 72, 85, 252; Samuel P. Johnston, ed., Alaska Commercial Company: 1868—1940 (n.p., 1941?), esp. pp. 6 — 8, 25, 27, 35, 37; Lavender, Nothing Seemed Impossible, p. 225.
14. Young, San Francisco, 2:312; Bancroft, History of California, 6:768—772, 7:251 — 252; John S. Hittell, A History of the City of San Francisco and Incidentally of the State of California (San Francisco, 1878), pp. 357, 360 — 362, 365.
15. Lavender, Nothing Seemed Impossible, pp. 242—250, 361; James H. Wilkins, ed., The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Incidents in the Life of Asbury Harpending (San Francisco, 1913), pp. 111— 127, 146 — 157, esp. pp. 152 —153; Julian Dana, The Man Who Built San Francisco: A Study of Ralston's Journey with Banners (New York, 1937), pp. 236 — 24 1; George D. Lyman, Ralston's Ring: California Plunders the Comstock Lode (New York, 1937), p. 121.
16. Lavender, Nothing Seemed Impossible, pp. 370 — 372; Hittell, A History of the City of San Francisco, pp. 405 — 406; Lyman, Ralston's Ring, pp. 272—274, 304—305.
17. Lavender, Nothing Seemed Impossible, pp. 376 — 377, 382 — 383; Lyman, Ralston's Ring, pp. 275, 285—288, 320; Hittell, A History of the City of San Francisco, pp. 421—424; Charles A. Levy, “Working-Class Life in San Francisco: An Examination of Social and Economic Dislocation Caused by the Depression of 1877-1879,” seminar paper, San Francisco State University, 1977, pp. 6—7; Shumsky, “Tar Flat and Nob Hill,” ch. 3, esp. p. 126; Cross, A History of the Labor Movement in California, pp. 88 — 90; Saxton, Indispensable Enemy, pp. 113 — 114; Michael Kazin, “Prelude to Kearneyism: The July Days in San Francisco, 1877,” New Labor Review 3 (1980):5 — 47.
18. Eaves, A History of California Labor Legislation, chs. 3 — 5, esp. pp. 136 — 138, 142 — 145, 148 — 149; Mary Roberts Coolidge, Chinese Immigration (New York, 1909), chs. 4, 5; Wollenberg, All Deliberate Speed, pp. 30 — 34. See also Stuart Creighton Miller, The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785—1882 (Berkeley, 1969), esp. ch. 7; and Trauner, “Chinese as Medical Scapegoats.”
19. Kazin, “July Days”; Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence (Indianapolis, 1959), ch. 8 and passim; James A. B. Scherer, "The Lion of the Vigilantes”: William T. Coleman and the Life of Old San Francisco (Indianapolis, 1939), pp. 267—278; Saxton, Indispensable Enemy, pp. 113-115; Cross, A History of the Labor Movement in California, pp. 88-93; George, “Kearney Agitation,” pp. 437—438.
20. Among the numerous accounts of the Workingmen's party of California (WPC) are J. C. Stedman and R. A. Leonard, The Workingmen’s Party of California: An Epitome of Its Rise and Progress (San Francisco, 1878); George. “Kearney Agitation,” esp. pp. 440 — 441; Bryce. American Commonwealth, 2:425 — 448; Winfield J. Davis, History of Political Conventions in California, 1849—1892 (Sacramento, 1893), pp. 365 — 421; Roney, Frank Roney, pp. 268 — 308; Ralph Kauer, “The Workingmen’s Party in California.” Pacific Historical Review 13 (Sept. 1944):278 —291; Shumsky, “Tar Flat and Nob Hill,” chs. 6, 7; Neil L. Shumsky, “San Francisco's Workingmen Respond to the Modern City,” California Historical Quarterly 55 (Spring 1976):46 —57; Cross, A History of the Labor Movement in California, ch. 7; Saxton, Indispensable Enemy, chs. 6, 7; Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., "The Demagogue and the Demographer: Correspondence of Denis Kearney and Lord Bryce,” Pacific Historical Review 36 (Aug. 1967): 269-288, esp. pp. 278-279.
21. Carl Brent Swisher, Motivation and Political Technique in the California Constitutional Convention, 1878-1879 (Claremont, Ca., 1930), chs. 2 — 8, esp. ch. 2; Kauer, “Workingmen's Party,” pp. 282-286; George, “Kearney Agitation,” pp. 445-446; Bryce, American Commonwealth, 2:436-439; Bancroft. History of California, 7:370-406; Eaves, A History of California Labor Legislation, pp. 150-160. 216; Davis, History of Political Conventions, pp. 381-385; Dudley T. Moorhead, “Sectionalism and the California Constitution of 1879,” Pacific Historical Review 12 (Sept. 1943):287-293; Young, Journalism in California, ch. 12; A. Russell Buchanan, David S. Terry of California: Dueling Judge (San Marino, Ca., 1956), ch. 11.

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

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