Social Life in 1851: A Frenchman's View

"I was there..."

by Albert Benard de Russailh


Gold Rush Saloon with an exotic cast of characters.

Image: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA


San Francisco evolved from a temporary frontier town of 900 inhabitants in 1848 to a bustling city of 50,000 in the span of only 10 years. During this period the argonauts' quest for profit and advancement was fierce and many citizens thought that San Francisco life was too dominated by hard work, struggle and selfishness. Yet, the intensity of economic and political pursuits was matched by an equal intensity to live it up and enjoy social life. The absence of established social conventions and restraints, the seemingly immense opportunities, and a heterogeneous population coming from all parts of the globe, all contributed to a social life whose variety and liveliness seemed unprecedented in the American urban experience.

Among the many different immigrant groups which influenced social life, the French were one of the largest. While the French immigrants did not flourish in business and politics, they probably had more influence than any other group in changing the standards of living and manners of the nascent city. Looking down upon the rough and crude urban conditions they encountered, the French often recreated the refined environments of their mother country. Their restaurants, theaters, stores and saloons were all distinctly French in both decor and ambiance. The manners and dress of French citizens were in stark contrast to those of most other San Franciscans.

The re-creation of national culture and mores was not unique to the French, yet for the French, more than for any other immigrant group, this desire seemed as much a reflection of nostalgia as of chauvinism. Many Americans resented such unabashed nationalism on the part of an immigrant group. According to the San Francisco Annals: The wild glorification of Frenchmen to every thing connected with their beautiful France, is often a neglectful insult to the land that shelters them, and which they would ignore, even although they seek not to become its permanent citizens. While many Americans were offended by French chauvinism, in time French customs were nonetheless incorporated into urban life and ultimately helped weave San Francisco's social fabric.

The following excerpt is from Albert Benard de Russailh's journal which chronicles his attempts to strike it rich in California in 1851-52. Apparently Benard had fallen in love with a charming but poor English girl and had decided to come back to her after making a fortune in California. Soon after his arrival, however, he seems to have forgotten her amid the rumble and tumble of the instant city. In this piece, Benard describes various aspects of San Francisco's social life. While Benard looks down upon certain California practices, his comments reflect intelligence, a certain open-mindedness and a great attention to the details of city life.


Life in San Francisco is not unusually difficult: men do not die of hunger if they are willing to work, and yet many of our compatriots here are far from being well-off. Before a man embarks on an adventure like this, he should think carefully of all the suffering and privations that may await him; he should crush out every bit of vanity and sensitivity, and get rid of prejudices that may be well enough in his own country but certainly are out of place here; he must be prepared for the petty mishaps that will befall him, and hard enough to overcome every possible obstacle. In short, he must have courage, energy, and a firm character. Don't think that everyone can blithely come here and adjust himself to this completely new existence. I've seen men go mad, and many others lose hope and drink themselves to death, finding no better end for their troubles. I've known some who were reduced by discouragement and boredom to such a condition of bestial torpor that they were utterly incapable of the slightest effort.

At the time of my arrival in San Francisco the cost of ordinary living was very high, but it is only fair to add that one could earn enough to pay one's expenses. In March, 1851, a fairly good dinner without wine cost $2.00, a bottle of wine, $1.50 which brought the price of an ordinary meal to $3.50 a person. For this amount, at Véfond's or at the Trois Fréres Provenaux, I could have had an excellent dinner and the best wines. At the same period one could rent a corner of a bedroom for $1.50. You were given a blanket and had the right to wrap up in it and stretch your weary bones on the floor. Daily expenses ran up to $5.00. Everything else was in proportion: laundries charged $9.00 a dozen to do up shirts, although a new shirt cost only $2.00. The bootblacks working in front of the El Dorado, the Parker House, and the Union Hotel earned from $10.00 to $15.00 a day each. The negroes and other workmen who were always hanging around the Wharf charged $3, $4, or $5 to carry a trunk or two. A musician could earn two ounces ($32) by scraping on a squeaky fiddle for two hours every evening, or by puffing into an asthmatic flute.

You had to give one of the girls in a bar about as much to come and sit with you an hour or two, and if you wanted anything more from these nymphs, you had to pay 15 to 20 ounces ($240 or $320). But to make up for this, every kind of work was extremely well-paid. Almost any small business deal would eventually bring in very handsome profits. You earned money in proportion to what you spent, and you quickly got used to paying $3 or $4 for your dinner and no longer hesitated to spend five times as much as in France for a drink in the middle of the day.

There is a great bustle all day long. Men hurry about doing their business; deals are put through easily and quickly, even when they amount to $100,000 or $150,000, and they are helped along by drinks of brandy in any one of the numerous bars of the city. Practically all transactions are discussed and closed with a few drinks, which is the recognized method of coming to an agreement. When buyer and seller have once drunk together, the bargain is definitely concluded. Wagons and carriages crowd along through the ruts of the street, and the docks are packed with all kinds of goods, brought by ships from the ends of the earth, to be traded for gold dust. By evening everything changes and the night-life begins. Business-men and merchants, who work so hard during the day, can think of nothing better to do right after dinner than to push into the innumerable stuffy gambling-houses where in a flash they lose everything they have earned. A few of them, but not very many, go to the theatre to enjoy subtler emotions.

--Albert Benard de Russailh

More from de Russailh's "LAST ADVENTURE":


The theatres and gambling-houses are the only places where one can spend the evening. On clear nights when the moon lights the dark city, one can stroll along the shore of the bay and on the wharves, and breathe a little fresh air; but I must add that such weather is rare, for it either rains or is cold, and walking is usually unpleasant. Moreover, if you stay too long enjoying the moonlight on the bay the chances are that on the way home you will be held up by some of the escaped bandits from Sidney, who live in the cheap hotels along the waterfront. To get a few cents, they will slug you and drop your body into the bay. After eight o'clock in the evening it is hardly ever safe to walk alone on the wharves, and even if you go with a friend, you must be sure to carry a revolver. Murders are very common, and it is always unwise at night to go beyond the two or three busy streets where there is no danger....

San Francisco has three theatres and a circus. Two of the theatres are American, the Jenny Lind, and the American; the third is French, the Adelphi. The circus is essentially American. When I was a newspaperman, I was fortunate enough to have quite a few privileges. Besides a box in every theatre, I had free passage on board the steamers that ran from San Francisco to Sacramento, Stockton, and Contra Costa; I could ride for nothing in the omnibus that goes to Mission Dolores, four miles from San Francisco. When I had nothing better to do in the evening, I used to stroll around after dinner, and about seven o'clock I often dropped into the nearest theatre, but I always preferred the American, which is extremely agreeable. It has two balconies and a gallery, a dress-circle, orchestra seats, and several stage boxes. There is a great deal of typical English or American comfort. The carpets are thick and soft, and deaden your footsteps so that you can walk peacefully through the lobby and glance into the boxes without disturbing the audience.

I must mention here the Americans' strange manner of applauding a favorite actor or a good scene. In France, and everywhere else in Europe that I know anything about, we clap and sometimes shout bravo, and whistle only when we are disgusted. Actors at home are terrified and paralyzed if an audience whistles; Nourrit, once so well known in Paris, is even supposed to have died from it. But with Americans, whistling is an expression of enthusiasm: the more they like a play, the louder they whistle, and when a San Francisco audience bursts into shrill whistles and savage yells, you may be sure they are in raptures of joy.

The circus is not so firmly established. It remains here a month, then tours the valley towns for a few weeks, and finally reappears in San Francisco. Circus people are all nomads, and need a change of air every day. This is particularly true of the bare-back riders. It is as if they had got so used to riding around on horse-back to amuse the public that they can't bear to stay long in the same place. Today they put up their tent in San Francisco, tomorrow evening they will be performing in Sacramento, a few days later in Marysville, and before a week has gone by they will have crossed the high mountains to pitch their camp and put on the show in Downieville.

I come now to the Adelphi Theatre, where every Sunday the French Troupe tries hard to put on something worth while. I confess that they do not always succeed, because they have very little to work with. The company is directed by three women, Mesdames Eléonore, Adalbert, and Racine. The other members of the troupe are Mademoiselle Alexina Courtois, Mademoiselle Bréa, Messieurs Richer, Paul Sasportas, Léon Prat, Yomini, Nitzel.

Naturally, we are not severe critics; it would be foolish to expect much art six thousand leagues from France; and we go to the Adelphi every Sunday evening eager to find everything wonderful. I should certainly be the last one to abuse these good ladies, as some of them treated me with great kindness, and, I might say, generosity. Need I add that it was not because of my personal charm? To them I was only a dramatic critic who had to be won over and muzzled, and I suppose they succeeded well enough. I can't help smiling when I think of the glowing write-ups I used to give them in Monday's paper, far better ones than Parisian stars usually receive.

The hypocrisy of the press! Oh well, perhaps. But they are nice people. I often pitied readers of my column in the Daily True Standard, who hopefully took boxes for the next performance at the Adelphi on the strength of my notice. Even though they know little about good acting, they must have cursed me and said I was a fool to praise a show that might deserve to be hissed. But, all things considered, this little theatre is not so bad, and is well patronized.

On the whole, the French Troupe is about as good as one could expect in California; the ensemble is as satisfactory as possible, and the shows are fairly varied, made up usually of light skits or comedies, farces, short plays of a more serious nature, or musical interludes. The women directing the company will soon have been two years in California, and have not done badly from a financial point of view, as they now own the building, the lot, and the scenery. Perhaps they have not earned all their money in the theatre. People say that there are certain wealthy patrons of the arts in the background, worthy men who have endangered their own fortunes to make Mademoiselle Racine and her partners richer. But I shall say no more, lest I be accused of gossiping: I am only telling what everyone in town knows.

Public Dances

It is easy for pleasure-loving people to find amusement in San Francisco. There are the French and American theatres and the circus; women and good restaurants abound; and the streets swarm with horses and carriages. For a time there were no public dances. Shortly before my arrival [1851] this defect was remedied by the proprietors of the California Exchange, who had the happy idea of giving dances in this large hall where much business is transacted by day and which is used as a stock-exchange. Now absolutely nothing is lacking, and a perpetual carnival reigns.

These entertainments are usually fancy-dress balls, and take place twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They are very popular. Although Americans are generally awkward and unbending, they enjoy dancing, and above all they love to watch other people dance. All the women in town appear, French, American, and Mexican; the men gather in crowds; and one often sees beautiful costumes richly adorned with lace, which the women make themselves or order from dressmakers for each occasion. A masked ball naturally permits a certain freedom, but here the feverish atmosphere of the city produces an abandon I have never seen elsewhere. Three distinct quadrilles are always in progress simultaneously, French, American, and Mexican, and the races mingle only in waltzes, polkas, and gallops. The American quadrille is danced with Anglo-Saxon stiffness and impassivity; the Mexican with a southern languor and indolent grace; but the French quadrille is a centre of genuine gaiety and animation.

I often notice how American men steal away from their own group and enviously watch the vivacious French women, who do not hesitate to let themselves go, when they see they are being admired, I am occasionally reminded of our balls at the Salle Valentine on the Rue St. Honoré. There is one important difference: Parisian rowdies often come to blows; but in San Francisco hardly an evening passes without drunken brawls during which shots are fired.

The music is fairly good and is certainly noisy. Eight or ten passable musicians play all the popular dance tunes for quadrilles, waltzes, and polkas. The price of admission is $3.00, and, as I have said, the hall is always crowded.

The Police

As for the police, I have only one thing to say. The police force is largely made up of ex-bandits, and naturally the members are interested above all in saving their old friends from punishment. Policemen here are quite as much to be feared as the robbers; if they know you have money, they will be the first to knock you on the head. You pay them well to watch over your house, and they set it on fire. In short, I think that all the people concerned with justice or the police are in league with the criminals. The city is in a hopeless chaos, and many years must pass before order can be established. In a country where so many races are mingled, a severe and inflexible justice is desirable, which would govern with an iron hand.

--Albert Benard de Russailh


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