Historians have said their job is trying to figure out what an image in a funhouse mirror actually looked like. True enough; time passes and our views of the past become distorted, and it’s not very long before even the distortions have their own distortions. And while we’re trying to untangle all that, we realize with dismay the original views weren’t so cogent in the first place.

Looking back at Santa Rosa a hundred years ago and most things seem familiar at first, except for obvious changes in fashions, technology and their world being completely dominated by white men (well, more obviously so, anyway). But squint just a little harder and everyday differences begin to appear; we no longer have peddlers knocking on our kitchen door, for example, trying to sell us eyeglasses.

It was common to see peddlers going door-to-door in 1910 as shown in the two articles transcribed below, both warning readers not to buy the peddler’s fraudulent or shoddy merchandise. The Santa Rosa Republican alerted that “traveling hawkers” were conning housewives into buying overpriced tablecloths and over at the Press Democrat, it was reported that investigators from the State Board of Optometry were in the county looking for peddlers selling “window pane” spectacles.

(RIGHT: Cartoon from the Jan. 9, 1898 Los Angeles Herald calling for immigration reform to limit the number of Syrian “pests” entering the country)

Peddlers were viewed with some suspicion anyway, and the newspapers only mentioned them in connection with crimes. In these stories the papers almost always specified the peddler’s ethnicity, which was usually Eastern European or Middle East – maybe Polish, Jewish, Russian, or as shown here, Syrian. And while they did sell useful things, most of their income came from dubious medicines and worthless glasses. From an insightful memoir of a Russian immigrant who arrived in 1904, recalling how family members taught him the trade: “…We bought all sorts of notions, small things such as needles, thread, string, buttons –all kinds of little things needed in every home. We also took along the most important thing, eyeglasses. The whole business is built on eyeglasses. A pair of glasses that costs a few cents can be sold for several dollars…”

But back to the PD report about an investigator looking for peddlers selling eyeglasses; isn’t the strangest part of that story really that the California State Board of Optometry had its own police force? And so it did; in 1907, former Los Angeles cop Nick B. Harris was hired as its Chief of Inspectors “to conduct the fight against the undesirables regardless of time or expense.” Over the following three years news items can be found about him chasing eyeglass peddlers and others selling bad optics. Just a few weeks before he swooped into Sonoma County, he was in pursuit of a gang reportedly planning to sell around $30,000 in fake telescopes and binoculars at the historic Los Angeles aviation meet in January. Later that year he opened his own detective agency in LA; here’s to Nick B. Harris, who truly deserved to be called a private eye.

Next in the annals of odd 1910 crimes: A counterfeit ten dollar bill was passed to Santa Rosa fish monger Bert Stump. But this wasn’t the sort of U.S. Treasury note that Bert or anyone else saw every day – it was supposedly printed in 1862. Why did Bert accept “torn and tattered currency” that would have been almost fifty years old? Maybe in part because he was still unfamiliar with the concept of dollar bills. Until the 1907 Bank Panic most transactions were done using gold and silver coins, and criminals exploited the public’s unfamiliarity with paper money by first printing counterfeits of the “clearing house certificates” that were temporarily used in wake of the crisis, then later altering the new $1 and $2 bills to read as $10 and $20. “Bert knows fish, and he thinks he knows silver,” the Press Democrat said, “and will handle those as heretofore in the course of his business.”

A few months later, the Santa Rosa and San Francisco papers reported that con men had bamboozled a local farmer out of his life savings by getting him drunk and enticing him to bet heavily on a game of bocci. On the face of it, a crime that could possibly happen today. But when the bocci cheaters were captured five days later it was revealed that they were using the ill-gotten loot to cheaply buy up much of the counterfeit money from second hand shops that had been stuck with worthless currency – apparently the gang believed they could vastly increase their criminal fortunes by passing the fake coins themselves. Yes, coins – judging by the 1910 newspaper accounts and the 1911 Attorney General report, it appears there were more bad guys with coin dies than printing presses. Quiz: Who today can identify a coin die? Extra credit: Explain how to silver plate a coin on a kitchen table using stuff easily obtained in 1910 (hint – it’s much easier than you might think).

Our final disjointed look at past and present concerns the magazine thieves. “Some vicious people are stealing magazines from the rooms of the local coffee club,” the Press Democrat noted grimly. I doubt anyone today would use the adjective “vicious” to describe someone who lifted a magazine from a coffeeshop, but read on: “Quit stealing them. Cease to be a thief. The man or woman who smuggles these books and carries them away deserves to be despised.” Thus the article is revealed to be another of PD Editor Ernest Finley’s Queeg-like obsessions with annoying misbehavior, not unlike his earlier crusade against orange peels on the sidewalks. I wonder how he’d possibly cope with today’s incivilities, such as mobile phones ringing in a movie theater or people who lunch their way through a visit to the grocery store – front page headlines, I’ll wager.

Thieves Who Are Engaged In Small Business

Some vicious people are stealing magazines from the rooms of the local coffee club. They have been doing this for some time. These magazines are donated to the people who like to read them. There are twenty-two of them and they are stamped at numerous places to the effect that they are not to be taken away from the room. But this admonition is not respected and these magazines are stolen and carried away. Of the twenty-two of these magazines received for the current month, fourteen have been stolen already. This is indeed contemptible business and it should be rebuked. Those magazines should be left in the club rooms where they can be ready by all who patronize the institution. Quit stealing them. Cease to be a thief. The man or woman who smuggles these books and carries them away deserves to be despised.

– Press Democrat, January 4, 1910

Woman “Stung” in Purchase of Table Cloths

…The REPUBLICAN has always advocated…spending money at home with the local merchants…In every instance where this advice has not been followed and people have purchased goods from a distance or from traveling vendors, they have been “stung” and have regretted their unwise policy.

Numerous instances of this could be cited, and they have been both of recent and remote occurrence. One of those which has come under our observation most recently is where traveling hawkers canvassed the city and sold to a number of unsuspecting women table cloths and other house-articles of the same line. After having purchased the goods some of the women who believed all that was told them of the superiority of the goods offered them made an investigation in local stores to see what price the same class of goods were sold at b the merchants of Santa Rosa. They were dismayed and chagrined to find that the “bargains” they believed they were securing from the peddlers could have been duplicated in the stores here at less money than they had paid for them.

Since this has become known there have been choruses of housewives shouting “Never again,” and the lessons that have been taught them in being “stung” in this instance will probably suffice for a long time to come.

Smooth talking agents, who only expect to sell goods to a customer once, and probably never be seen again in the community, are not careful in stating the truth in regard to the articles they offer for sale. The local merchant, who is in business here permanently, expects to make satisfied customers by selling splendid goods at right prices and in this manner to cause the customer to return again and trade in the store. The traveling hawkers have no incentive beyond the selling of goods in the immediate present, and for that reason many times are reckless in their handling of the truth regarding their wares.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  November 17, 1910

State Board of Optometry Seeks Peddlers of Worthless Eyeglasses in the County

Peddlers of fake eyeglasses are going to be brought to book through the efforts of the State Board of Examiners in Optometry. Word has been received by President L. B. Lawson to this effect. There have been some of this class of people, who are not registered opticians, who have been doing business…

…Harris is going out into the country to hunt down an army of peddlers who are said to be “doing the small towns,” and bunkoing the farmers with worthless glasses at exorbitant rates. It is the claim of the State Board that these fakers not only defraud the public in selling their window pane glasses, but they are a danger to the eyes of those who buy the goods.

Numerous reports have come to Secretary F. C. Chinn of the board of persons who have paid as high as $250 for glasses not worth $1. Some of these peddlers are said to have gone so far as to forge credentials and checks to give them standing in communities which they visit. Many ingenious devices for the deceit of the public have been discovered by Harris and his corps.


– Press Democrat, January 26 1910

Bert Stump, fish dealer, has discovered that all is not gold that glitters as U. S. Treasury gold notes. And on account of that discovery, he announces that he has suspended specie payment in redemption of torn and tattered currency, and will refer all such business to the banks or to a government sub-treasury. Bert knows fish, and he thinks he knows silver, and will handle those as heretofore in the course of his business. But although he has only one arm, he thinks he will risk a good swift punch to the next man who tries to pass any ragged paper money on him.

Bert took in a ten-dollar bill a few weeks ago that was in the last stages of dissolution. He received it in payment for fish, and gave proper change in return. He turned in the money at the Santa Rosa National Bank, where it was viewed with a doubtful scrutiny, and accepted on condition that Bert make good if the sub-treasury turned it down. Bert made good to the bank Monday. The treasury people said the note was counterfeit. It bore date of 1862, and looked as though it had been in active circulation ever since the date of issue. Perhaps it had, and perhaps that note was newly-printed by a green-goods gang, and had been worked up to its appearance of age to render its testing more difficult.

You might as well offer Stump a cancelled cigar-box stamp now as to hand him an old greenback. It isn’t safe to do either. He’s mad.

– Press Democrat, March 16, 1910
John Bianchi of This City Meets With Disaster From a Financial Standpoint

A game of bocci, in which Giovanni Bianchi, a brother of “Little Pete” Bianchi, of the Campi Restaurant, participated Monday evening with three others, cost Bianchi $1,000, according to the victim’s report to the police Tuesday. Bianchi arrived in Oakland several days ago and met the three sharpers in a hotel. They scraped an acquaintance and soon afterward confided to him that they had a sterling business venture, but needed $1,000.

According to the Oakland dispatch, Bianchi was induced to become the capitalist. He returned to Santa Rosa with one of the strangers and drew his entire savings out of a bank. Then he returned to Oakland, rejoining the other two men Monday night.

The strange men took hime to a Peralta street resort, where, after a few bottles of wine, they suggested a game. Bianchi was drawn into the contest and when his money was all gone his friends disappeared. He slept over his misfortune before he decided he had been buncoed.

Tuesday afternoon he confided his mishap to Captain of Detectives Petersen, who has had several similar cases recently. The police are trying to run down a gang of bocci sharks who work in the bay cities and make thousands of dollars every few weeks.

“Little Pete” went to Oakland Monday night to try and straighten out the tangle.

– Press Democrat, September 22, 1910

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