The Gilded Circle

Historical Essay

by Kate Shvetsky


The "Gilded Circle": interrelated clans linked by blood, marriage, and business.

In Gold Rush San Francisco, the most economically successful Jewish families formed their own clique--an exclusive Gilded Circle, forged of interrelated clans linked by blood, marriage, and business. This exclusive clan included the families Sloss, Gerstle Family, Greenwald, Levi Strauss, Stern, Seligman, Lilienthal, Steinhart, Fleishacker, Zellerbach, Brandentstein, Koshland. The Gilded Circle members had a strict code of behavior:

1. Make money

2. Marry one's own kind (German Jewish)

3. Belong to Reform Temple Emanu-El or to no other congregation

4. Acquire tastes of people of rank

They built houses on the same street and went to the same summer retreat.


Gilded Circle on summer picnic, 1890s.

Photos: Judah Magnus Museum

Large families staffed a minimum of six servants and entertained lavishly. Until the early 1900s, guest lists were confined to the Gilded Circle, other socially acceptable Jews, and a smattering of affluent gentiles. Young women who accepted more than the occasional invitation to non-Jewish parties were roundly criticized.

To prepare them for a life of privilege, young women received disciplined training. Nurses and governesses instructed them in proper manners. Tutors gave them art, music, French and German languages. Most boys were permitted to attend public schools before sent east to Harvard or Yale or, alternatively, kept closer to home while attending Stanford or the University of California. The less studious rushed directly into business. Most girls attended private schools.

By the early 20th century, when the third generation of San Francisco Jews were coming of age, the circle's code of behavior had solidified into a tradition to be conformed to or, frequently, rebelled against. Circle members had by then begun to mingle freely with non-Jews at social, cultural, and charitable events, and intermarriage was clearly on the rise.

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