Saturday, September 5, 2009



The Magazines and Newspapers Center of the San Francisco Public Library offers a wealth of archived historical resources pertaining to the entire tumultuous day-by-day frontier saga of our city - as told within the pages of the rough-and-tumble newspapers of the 1800s - all in our microfilm collection on the fifth floor.

The early newspapers of San Francisco faced many obstacles between printing press and distribution. Hearty and resourceful publishers faced periodic paper shortages, battled catastrophic fires (between 1849 and 1851, the entire city managed to burn itself to the ground a good half dozen times), opposed labor insurrections, outrode economic turbulence, and competed in an increasingly volatile newspaper market that struggled to establish itself under crude and frontier conditions. Some titles came and went in a very short time. One such paper was the CALIFORNIA STAR. Other publications survived to chronicle a great deal of the daily lawlessness, fear, adventure, and extraordinary courage of San Francisco's early trailblazers.
The populist, independent, and influential ALTA CALIFORNIA was originally issued three times per week (beginning January 4, 1849) - by a crew of eleven printers using handset type - before eventually becoming the first ever daily paper in San Francisco, by January of 1850.

Publisher Edward C. Kemble was a determined and visionary printer with strong entrepreneurial interests. Having noted the frenzied activity and heightened interest citywide that seemed to surround the various San Francisco port arrivals and departures, Kemble initiated the first ALTA CALIFORNIA steamer edition on April 9, 1849. These were high-demand, special export press runs of the ALTA (transported by sea vessel) that covered local affairs and California news for readers along the faraway Atlantic Coast.

Wide distribution and a growing local readership made Kemble's ALTA the top journal in early San Francisco.

By the end of 1850, the ALTA CALIFORNIA (along with four other city newspapers) found itself reeling in the bitter conflict between management and house printers over fluctuating wage rates. A number of organized printers had formed the San Francisco Typographical Society in June of 1850. Publishers had fought back with the formation of the Associated Press of the State of California, which was born at an August 8-13th, 1851 statewide convention of editors and reporters. Amongst the publishing concerns (which included newspaper men from as far away as San Diego, Sacramento, Sonora, and San Joaquin) on hand were representatives from San Francisco's EVENING PICAYUNE, the MORNING POST, the SAN FRANCISCO HERALD, and of course the ALTA CALIFORNIA.

The AP convention established a standardization of general advertising rates, those for auctioneers, and prorated charges for "political, religious or benevolent notices".

Wage proposals for printers were parried and discussed with members of the San Francisco Typographical Society, along with accompanying efforts to establish standard cost rates for printing posters, circulars, deeds, consignment works, and the like.

What the Associated Press convention did not resolve was the ongoing scale dispute regarding printer's wages, the most contentious issue dividing printers and publishers. For its part, the ALTA CALIFORNIA opposed the unionized typographers with a wholesale (though temporary) layoff of affiliated members, declaring editorially in the October 28th, 1851 issue:

"We bore their tyranny as long as it could be borne,

and until we could free ourselves from it . . .
having paid them for their services . . .
we can afford to let them take their own course."

The San Francisco Typographical Society became the Eureka Typographical Union in late 1853; two years later affiliated members forged Local No. 21 of the National Typographical Union. The ALTA was the first of the San Francisco papers to utilize a steam printing press. The resourceful typographers not only thrived alongside this innovation, but successfully adapted to the linotype (typesetting) machine in the 1890s. And yes, Local 21 proudly lives on today.

The ALTA CALIFORNIA rose from the ashes of the dying CALIFORNIA STAR and the CALIFORNIAN, and from the start, tirelessly advocated for the establishment of civil organizations as a prelude to prospective statehood. In its very first issue, the ALTA cast itself as self-appointed arbiter, conscience and clarion of unimpeachable veracity on January 4, 1849:

"The unenviable position which this sheet at present occupies of being the only paper printed in California renders it imperatively necessary that it should be independent and fair."

The ALTA was an active participant in the creation of a provisional government, and for some years afterward, furnished a public voice and print oracle for municipal reform in San Francisco. On a statewide level, the paper reported in detail the September-October, 1849 Monterey constitutional state convention, led a successful campaign to retain United States Army headquarters in San Francisco (by strenuously opposing the erstwhile plans of military authorities to relocate operations to Benicia), and the ALTA reported (October 19, 1850) the arrival of the steamer Oregon, bearing official notification of the admission of California as the 31st state of the Union.

Next: the ALTA CALIFORNIA battles crime in the city

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