Sunday funnies weren’t the only entertainment threatening the morals of youth; penny arcade peep shows led directly to a life of crime and prison, according to this 1905 Santa Rosa Republican editorial.

It’s a strange commentary for a couple of reasons. There apparently were no peep shows in Santa Rosa at the time, so the issue was only of concern to small town moralists liking to tut-tut over big city vice. It was also old news; the Hearst papers had indeed made a stink about peep shows, but that was six years earlier. Was this cribbed from “The Big Book of Op/Eds” to fill a couple of column inches on a slow news day?

These peep shows are an interesting topic, however, and worth a digression, here. The images were viewed on a Mutoscope, where the customer turned a crank to rotate a Rolodex-like drum with flip-card photographs. (Those primitive machines are not to be confused with Edison’s Kinetoscope of the same 1890s vintage, which had the images on a loop of fragile 35mm film threaded through rollers.) Although Mutoscopes also served up minute-long vignettes of current news, comedy shtick, and sporting events from before the turn of the century, Mutoscopes were most often associated with saucy mini-dramas with titles such as, “The Way French Bathing Girls Bathe,” “The Dairy Maid’s Revenge,” and “How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed.”

The ongoing controversy about the Mutoscope content was perfectly captured in the 1905 etching, “Fun, One Cent” by artist John Sloan, seen at right (click to enlarge). Here young women, not boys, are gawking at titillating images; the Hearst papers also complained that even small children were able to watch the little movies, and as seen here, stepstools were available for those too short to reach the viewer. An excellent paper, “Children at the Mutoscope,” describes more about the scandalous scene portrayed:

“Another girl wears a look of mild shock, while three others peer into eyepieces. A predominant tone of amusement, however, is created by the broad smile worn by a laughing woman at the center of the image. She watches not the naughty peep-show but the face of her shocked companion. She appears to be an experienced older viewer introducing schoolgirls to the arcade. Sloan’s representation is not one of panic or indignation, but of almost-quaint celebration, relating a pedestrian pleasure gleaned from an entertainment that is only mildly risque. Fun for a penny is, if not altogether harmless, part of everyday urban life”

The rugged Mutoscope viewers remained popular at least until the WWII era, and were hauled around to even to the most rural parts the nation by carnivals and traveling shows, giving three generations of Americans their first peek at “dirty” moving pictures. Perhaps the occasional circus or fair that visited Santa Rosa had a sideshow tent with a few worn Mutoscopes, where the local boys and girls could pay a penny, crowd around the machine, and watch “The Corset Model.”

One of the San Francisco papers has started a crusade against the so-called “penny palaces” where indecent moving pictures are exhibited and children – boys and girls – are permitted to go unrestricted by their parents and drink the poison that starts young lives on the downward path of crime. The United States Government has some very strict laws about the use of the mails for questionable literature and pictures, and now and again some bold offender pays the penalty. There should be just as much and in fact more care exercised by the authorities in permitting such pictures to be exhibited in the arcades in the various cities of the State where such institutions seem to flourish. If restrictive laws are not made and enforced society will in the end pay the penalty, for every precaution taken in the interest of training the children of the land into clean, wholesome-minded, useful citizens is so much saved from the prison maintenance account.

– Santa Rosa Republican op/ed, May 11, 1905

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It’s time to rewire the entire town! And how interesting that “Boss of the Road Overalls,” which ran a rotating series of ads, normally showing bright-faced, happy workers operating machinery, chose to portray the electrical lineman looking like a morose hobo, appearing to contemplate whether or not to use that wire to hang himself from the nearby pole. But hey, demand the brand.

If it wasn’t for the earthquake lurking around the bend, historians might say 1905 was the year of big changes for Santa Rosa. Autos were so common that Santa Rosa imposed its first speed limit; so many homes had telephones that you had to look up the number in the “Hello Book” before asking the operator for a connection; major streets were being paved, sidewalks were going in, and now, the whole town was being rewired so residents could enjoy good electricity.

Rewiring the entire town might seem odd, considering that it had been rewired only four years before, according to the definitive 19th c history by Gaye LeBaron et. al. (although it’s unclear from the book whether that may have been limited to streetlights). But upgrades were certainly needed; electrical demand in Santa Rosa was booming. A Press Democrat promotional supplement observed that the power company now provided “300 horse power to various factories,” known because electric motors still were so rare that the company could keep track of them all, as they did in 1904. The newspaper supplement also noted that there were then 12,000 incandescent lights used around town. (How did they know? Even if the Lighting Company sold all these bulbs, were they sure all of them were still working? Was there a burned-out bulb return policy?)

The surprise here is how expensive electricity was in 1905: ten cents per Kwh, just a penny less than it costs today. Adjusted for inflation, that means electricity was over 25 times more expensive for the 1905 Santa Rosan — it would be the equivalent of PG&E now charging us over a buck to use a single 100W regular light bulb for an evening. No wonder that bulb wattage at the time was typically in the dim 30-watt range.

The supplement article also notes that the Lighting Company recently expanded its coal gas plant. As in San Francisco, those gas pipes would fracture during the Great Quake and fuel the fires that did the greatest 1906 damage.

Lighting Company to Spend Five Thousand in Next Four Months in Local Improvements

Announcement was made today by Manager Danville Decker of the lighting company that within thirty days work will be commenced re-stringing all the wires of the company in Santa Rosa. This will cost over $5000 and will take at least three months’ time. To handle the job will require the services of about six special men. In discussing the matter Mr. Decker said that the copper in the wire grows less able with use and exposure to the weather to carry the necessary voltage. With new wires in service it is expected that the lights will burn with a better crilliancy [sp] and that the power supplied to the various motors will be increased.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 2, 1905
Harnessed Energy of Mountain Streams Turns Many a Wheel and Transforms Night Into Day

No scientist has yet been able to give an accurate definition of electricity. However, we have a large and useful knowledge of what it does, and each year we learn more of what it can do…

…Interruptions are of rare occurrence; and when they do happen are speedily remedied by the auxiliary systems fed by stations in nearly all the towns on the line. In the station at Santa Rosa are steam engines and dynamos of nearly five hundred horse power. There is another emergency station at Sebastopol, and another at Petaluma. These are connected so that current from any or all of them can be turned into the main line to remedy an interruption or a breakdown at any point. When the long-distance lines were first installed the engines were frequently called into action, but the task of discovering and eliminating the imperfections was energetically prosecuted, and today the service is well-night [sic] perfect, and the engines have stood cold for a long time.

Here in Santa Rosa the company has more than 12,000 incandescent lights and 1000 arcs, and furnishes about 300 horse power to various factories. The Santa Rosa and Petaluma electric railway draws its motive power from the same source. The high-potential wires into this city carry a current of 60,000 volts, which is reduced by “step-down” transformers to 2,000 volts for the arc lights, to lighter voltage for motors and still lighter for the incandescent lamps. Current is sold at 10 cents per kilowatt per hour, with flat rates on a sliding scale for large consumers. The Santa Rosa Lighting Company has also a splendid gas plant with a daily capacity of 200,000 cubic feet, which supplies gas not only to Santa Rosa but to the city of Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, to which place the gas is piped into great storage tanks under heavy pressure, affording also gas facilities to residents all along the line, a convenience unusual to dwellers outside of cities. There are thousands of gas stoves in the two towns.

– Press Democrat November 30, 1905 promotional supplement

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