1852: English adventurer Frank Marryat pays a visit to a San Francisco Gold Rush barbershop.

more-san-francisco-memoirs1852: A Gold Rush shaving-saloon

I love personal accounts of the goings-on in our little town more than just about anything. The sights, the smells, the daily routine … I want the nuts and bolts of what it was like to live here THEN!

It’s even better when the eyeballs taking it all in belong to an outsider, a visiting alien to whom everything’s an oddity.

For my birthday a couple of years ago my Lady Friend gave me a book that’s packed to the gills with this kind of first-person account. It’s called — aptly enough — San Francisco Memories. And because I’m kind of a dope, it’s only just occurred to me that this stuff is the absolute epitome of what a timecapsule should be — and that I really ought to be sharing some of this early San Francisco gold with you.

Ahem. So share it I will.

Our correspondent: Frank Marryat

Frank Marryat was the son of Captain Frederick Marryat, famous English adventurer and author of popular seafaring tales. A chip off the old block, young Frank had himself already written a book of traveler’s tales from Borneo and the Indian archipelago. Looking for a new writing subject, he set his sights on an even more exotic locale — Gold Rush California.

mountains-and-mole-hillsIn 1850, with manservant and three hunting dogs in tow, Frank left the civilized shores of England behind, crossed the Atlantic and the Isthmus of Panama, and made his way towards the Golden Gate.

The book that resulted, California Mountains and Molehills, would be published in 1855 — ironically the year of Marryat’s own demise from yellow fever.

He covers a phenomenal amount of oddball San Francisco and early California history, all neatly collected to satisfy the curiousity of his English reading public — the Chinese question, the Committee of Vigilance, squatter wars, bears, rats, oysters, gold, even the pickled head of Joaquin Murieta — and to top it off, Marryat sailed into the Bay just as San Francisco was being destroyed (again) by fire, this one the Great June Fire of 1850!

Don’t worry. They’ll have the city rebuilt in a couple of weeks, in plenty of time for Frank to spend some quality months slumming in the Gold Country, and then, like the rest of the Argonauts, ride down into the big city for supplies — and a shave.

That’s right — put your feet up and relax — in today’s Timecapsule, we’re going to visit a Gold Rush barber shop.

from California Mountains and Molehills, 1852

high-and-dry-marryat-1850Gorgeous decoration is characteristic of San Francisco; the people pay high prices for the necessaries of life, so velvet and gilt work is thrown into the bargain. In the “shaving-saloons” this system of internal decoration is carried out in great force, and the accommodation these establishments afford is indispensable to a Californian public.

Let me suppose myself to have arrived at San Francisco from the mines early one morning. Having traveled down on the Old Soldier, I have no carpet bag of course, and I enter a shaving-saloon.

At a counter I purchase any quantity of linen I may require for the moment, and with this I proceed to the bath-room; when I return from my ablutions, I am asked if I would like my head “shampoo-ed.” With a reckless feeling in respect of shampooing, the result of an intimate acquaintance with Turkish baths, I submit to this operation.

Seating myself on an easy chair of velvet, and placing my legs on an easy stool, also of velvet, I become drowsy under the influence of the fingers and thumbs of the operator, as they are passed over my skull, as if with a view to making a phrenological chart, and which produce a feeling at last as if hundreds of fingers and thumbs were at work, and the whole force of the establishment were scratching my head.

I am conducted to a marble washstand, and a tap of cold water is turned on me. I thought I had washed my head in the bath, but it appears not, judging by the color of the water. My head is dried by hard labor, then it is wetted again by a shower of eau de Cologne and water, thrown at me when least expected.

“Will I be shaved, sir?”

Of course I will!

“Take a seat.”

I sink into the velvet chair, and contemplate my dirty boots, that for days have not known blacking, but have known mud, as they contrast with the crimson pile velvet on which they rest. The back of the chair is raised by means of a screw, until my head is in the proper position for operation.

First I have hot water on my chin, and a finger and thumb (generally the property of a colored gentleman) feels for my beard in a dreamy way with a view to softening the stubble. Then comes the lather, and shave the first, and I am about to get up, when I am stopped by more lather, and shave the second; this is conducted in a slow methodical manner, the finger and thumb wandering about in search of any stray hairs, like gleaners after the harvest.

The operator says not a word to me–San Francisco barbers are not loquacious–but his eyes wander to the open door, and suddenly he leaves me with a rush, and apostrophizing some one passing in the street, he says, “Say, how about that sugar?” The reply is inaudible, but I observe that the barber produces a sample of cigars from his pocket, and says, “See here! Fifty dollars a thousand for these won’t hurt you;” and so, having failed to make a “trade” he comes back, and, as he “finishes” me, he observes, in a general way, that “Damn him if that (the gentleman in the street) wasn’t the meanest man in all creation!”

I am then released, and this was a San Francisco shaving-saloon in 1852.