Confession time: I have never revealed our great-grandparents loved tamales.
In the hundreds of articles about historic Santa Rosa appearing here, never have I mentioned tamales were the favorite fast food in the decades around 1900. Our ancestors ate them on the street, at celebrations, club dances, parties, picnics and every other sort of get-together. There was a tamale stand downtown, the Boston Restaurant at the corner of Fourth and B featured Mrs. Gore’s tamale pie in their newspaper ads, and as described in a somewhat creepy item below, there were even guys roaming around the neighborhoods late at night peddling the spicy meat and cornmeal snack wrapped in corn husks.
(RIGHT: 1894 cartoon courtesy the New York Public Library)
I long ago stopped paying attention to mentions of tamales in the newspapers – until recently when I noticed I wasn’t noticing everyone was wolfing down…tamales?? Nothing wrong with the humble tamal, but today it’s so far off the American food radar it is not even ripped-off by places like Taco Bell.
Sadly, I’ve probably overlooked other interesting details of life back then; it’s all too easy to become so immersed in reading the old papers that one loses sight of how damned peculiar some of those doings were from a modern perspective. For example, I almost scanned past a tiny, understated item in 1912 about a riot at Max Rosenberg’s department store caused by monkeys.
It seems the two monkeys (the article doesn’t mention what kind) escaped their cages at the feed store and invaded Rosenberg’s. “They seemed particularly fond on the girl clerks and there was almost a panic,” reported the Santa Rosa Republican. “Fully a hundred people rushed in to see what was going on and it was some time before the pets were captured. No damage was done, but the girls were given an awful scare.”
It wasn’t the monkey business that really caught my eye, however; animal disturbances were common – horses bolting, dog fights, and so on. No, what made me look twice was the inconceivable claim there were as many as a hundred people once spotted on Fourth street.
These days you don’t hear much about monkeys running amok in department stores, or monkeys in feed store cages, for that matter. Nor do you see many newspaper articles about groups seeking to rent live bears.
The Native Sons of the Golden West, a prominent California social club, put out a call for all “parlors” (their name for local chapters) to find “a good supply of bears” for their upcoming 1913 convention. Although the state symbol was officially the grizzly bear, the NSGW wasn’t picky: “Any kind of bears, brown bears, cinnamon bears, and even grizzlies, if the cubs are not too old, strong and carniverous [sic]…”
The NSGW held its bear-less convention in Santa Rosa the previous year and it brought about twenty thousand to town for the weekend festivities. That was small potatoes compared to the 1913 celebration in Oakland which lasted four days, drew crowds up to 200,000 and included a six mile “electrical parade” plus ongoing band concerts and pageantry around Lake Merritt. Although references to bears abound in the newspaper descriptions, it’s unclear how many were real live bears, people in bear costumes or paintings of bears. Presidio Parlor No. 143 had a tiny bear on the top of their float, and a “big black bear sat serenely” on the float of the Aloha Parlor of Oakland. It also seems animals were used in some of the many “pioneer days” tableaux presented at the park.
I almost missed that item because I presumed the headline, “WANTED–BEARS NOT TOO TAME” could not be literally true. But the opposite happened with stories about “white slavery,” which appeared at every opportunity in both Santa Rosa papers. My earlier article, “WHITE SLAVERY IN SONOMA COUNTY?” explained this was a national hysteria between about 1910-1915 based largely on twice-told tales about young women being forced into prostitution and sometimes shipped off to Chinese opium dens. I presumed it was true that the public really had deep fears that innocent girls were actually being snatched off city streets. I was wrong. To a large extent, it was about soft-core porn.
(RIGHT: Illustration from From Dance Hall to White Slavery, 1912. Bessie, the former telephone operator, gave in to temptation after being “persuaded” by a “villainous looking highball.”)
There was quite a boom of lurid white slavery novels and serialized fiction in those years. As author Amy Stewart described in a fun article, “Your Great-Grandma’s Dirty Books,” the only acceptable excuse for an unmarried woman having sex was because “she must have been drugged, defiled, and sold into prostitution. This tended to happen, we were warned, when girls left home and went to the big city, where the dangers of liquor and dance halls were all too well-known.”
Here in Santa Rosa, we had visiting speakers describing white slavery in 1912 and 1913, both lectures illustrated with slides.
First up was J. C. Westenberg, who ran the “Whosoever Will” mission in San Francisco. Westenberg appeared in many cities around the state in those years showing his slides at the invitation of some local church, with collection plates being passed around afterward. Whether Westenberg was a true believer is uncertain, but he was a big self-promoter and frequently in big trouble. He was investigated by the Church Federation of San Francisco for playing fast and loose with donations to the mission and did not show up when the Charities Commission ordered him to appear with his books. He was jailed at least twice: Once in Berkeley for a soliciting donations without a permit, and after he was found guilty of libel against Oakland’s Chief of Police, who he claimed was among the city’s “white slavers” operating bordellos (also included were Oakland’s mayor and top city officials). He was also sued for saying Dr. Julius Rosenstirn of the San Francisco municipal clinic had collected $50,000 from prostitutes. Rosenstirn was a public health hero for pioneering sex education for prostitutes, particularly teaching them symptoms of venereal disease.
The 1913 speaker was Rosa A. Davis, then at the start of her career as a white slave expert. Davis later found herself warmly endorsed by the temperance movement and expanded her expertise to the dangers of Demon Rum. Before all that, however, Rosa was on the vaudeville circuit narrating a silent film about the bank-robbing Dalton gang, sharing the bill with the Shomers, “a pair of iron-jawed artists performing marvelous feats of strength with their teeth.” It’s a living.
So I almost overlooked great stories about bear rentals and runaway monkeys and the true seamy side of the white slavery industry. (And tamales! I’ve already forgotten about tamales again!) But I almost overlooked one of the best items I’ve ever read in the papers.
In the 1913 Santa Rosa Republican (and on a page which I printed for another article) was the story of a young man who went to the County Clerk for a marriage license. Asked his age, the young man said he was twenty. Told that he had to have his parent’s consent at that age, the young man said he did. Told further that he had to have that consent in writing, the young man “fell over on the counter and then slid to the floor in a dead faint.”
The paper continued, “Deputies in the office rushed to his aid and by applying cold water in large quantities brought the young man back to consciousness. He left with his fiancee, saying that he would secure the necessary consent as soon as possible and return.”
MONKEYS GET AWAY CAUSING EXCITEMENT
Friday morning wild excitement was caused in the Red Front when the two monkeys kept caged in Roof’s feed store on Fifth street, escaped and ran into the store of M. Rosenberg. They seemed particularly fond on the girl clerks and there was almost a panic. Fully a hundred people rushed in to see what was going on and it was some time before the pets were captured. No damage was done, but the girls were given an awful scare. The monkeys are now safe back in their cages.– Santa Rosa Republican, March 8, 1912WANTED–BEARS NOT TOO TAMEHealthy Cubs that Can Growl For Sept. 9th Parade
The Native Sons’ celebration of Admission Day will be held in Oakland this year and the committees on the coming festivities are determined that September 9, 1913, will be an event, the glory of which will dim the pyrotechnics of all past events. The Committee on Unique Features has requested that a good supply of bears be provided by the parlors of the state. Any kind of bears, brown bears, cinnamon bears, and even grizzlies, if the cubs are not too old, strong and carniverous [sic]. Yet the native son of the bruin family must not be too mild. To qualify for the Oakland dissipation he must “register” some fierceness. The celebration committee’s request was brought up by the N. S. G. W. last meeting and as the organization has no bona fide bears, no real wild bears in its membership, it was decided to appoint a special committee on initiation; suspend all previous rules governing the initiatory ceremonies, and let the committee make, and be governed by, its own rules; this committee is expected to have a large class ready for the great fiesta of the Ninth. There was considerable difficulty in selecting the committee as the members of the parlor present modestly hesitated to qualify as bear hunters, Finally President Marvin Vaughan, President-Elect John M. Boyes (in private, life chief of police) and the late financial secretary, John Calhoun Hoke Smith, were with difficulty selected for the honorable mission. These Native Sons of the Golden West did not rush for the work but were persuaded to volunteer because of the cause and the glory of their beloved California, which demanded the sacrifice if some old dam bear should interfere with the abduction of her cubs…if any person has a tame cub bear in stock and is inclined to lease the animal for parade purposes during several days in September, the committee will be pleased to hear from that person. The Ursus Minor will be accorded a prominent place in the great procession and will get to see Oakland in all the colors of the rainbow, and if he is not scared to death, will enjoy the experience.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 11, 1913FAINTS WHEN DENIED LICENSEYoung Man Startles County Clerk’s Office
So overcome when told that he could not secure a marriage license was a young man from the country that he fainted away in County Clerk W. W. Felt’s office Thursday. He and his bride-to-be appeared at the desk in search of the necessary permit.
After answering a number of questions the young man was asked his age and responded that he was twenty. He was asked if he had his parents’ consent and said that he had. When he was told that the consent would have to be written and filed in the Clerk’s office, and that without this he could not secure the license, he fell over on the counter and then slid to the floor in a dead faint.
Deputies in the office rushed to his aid and by applying cold water in large quantities brought the young man back to consciousness. He left with his fiancee, saying that he would secure the necessary consent as soon as possible and return.– Santa Rosa Republican, June 26, 1913NEW LIGHT PUTS BAN ON SPOONINGFather Cassin Pleased With Erection of New Street Light in Front of St. Rose’s Church
The erection of an electric street light in front of the Church of St. Rose, on B street, is much appreciated by the rector of the parish, the Rev. Father J. M. Cassin.
There are two potent reasons why the god father takes kindly to the new lighting system on B street. One is that the light will now illuminate the pathway into the sacred edifice on dark nights; another is that it will put an end to the “spooning” of love-sick couples on the church steps after dark. The church steps have been a popular resting place for couples after a stroll and on more than on occasion Father Cassin has found it necessary to suggest to boys and girls that they select some other place for their whisperings of affection.
Consequently the esteemed spiritual director of affairs of St. Rose’s parish was in good humor Thursday when complimented on the additional comfort the new lamp will give worshippers when entering the church at night.
The efficacy of the new lamp calls to mind a good story that was told by Father Cassin at the time when the world was gazing at Halley’s comet.
About 10 o’clock one night Father Cassin happened to be standing in his dooryard. A tamale man came along.
“Want a tamale?” queried the vendor of the priest.
“Too late, too late, my man,” was the rejoinder.
The man passed along. Just in front of the church he stopped and inquired again.
“Want a tamale?”
The reply was not distinguishable where the priest stood, but it game him a cue. Someone was loitering about the entrance to the church.
The priest stole stealthily to the church steps.
“What are you doing here?” inquired the man of God of two objects he could barely distinguish.
“Watching for Halley’s comet,” came a weak feminine rejoinder.
“You had better go home and take a rest in the meantime,” suggested Father Cassin. “You will not see the comet again for seventy-five years.”
The comet had several nights before [it] became invisible.
The lovers said nothing but went their way, and the priest count not forebear an audible smile as he again entered his residence.– Press Democrat, August 2, 1912WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC SUBJECTWill be Given at M.E. Church South Wednesday Night
The White Slave Traffic will be the subject of a meeting to be held at the M. E. church, South, on Wednesday evening at eight o’clock. Rev. W. H. Nelson is the pastor and has made arrangements for this lecture.
All the churches of this vicinity are specially invited to participate in this meeting. This fight is aimes especially at the white slave traffic, the red light district and the social evil. All public officials are invited to attend.
J. C. Westenberg of the Barbary Coast Who-so-ever Will Mission of San Francisco will give his famous stereopticon lecture on the white slave traffic.
Mr. Westenberg was once a gambler and saloon keeper. He will tell a most interesting and thrilling story, in word and picture, showing scenes of the Great White Way, New York; the Chicago Stockade; Views of the White Slave Traffic; Ten years in Rescue Work; the Submerged Tenth; Twice-born Men; the Power of the Gospel in the Slums.
Admission will be free, but a silver offering will be taken. Money received at this meeting will be devoted to the work of suppressing the White Slave traffic in California and to the Who-so-ever Will Mission Rescue Work.
President David Starr Jordan of Stanford University has strongly endorsed Westenberg. It is hoped that a large audience will be present on Wednesday evening.– Santa Rosa Republican, June 18, 1912WHITE SLAVERY BY ROSA DAVIS AT ROSE TONIGHT
Miss Rosa A. Davis will appear again today with her talk on “The White Slave Traffic,” and will also give a short illustrated talk on police graft. A feature of the act today will be a recital entitled, “Five Dollars a Week.”
Miss Davis has won renown on the coast with her interesting and instructive lectures. She is a Southern woman, and has a soft, moderate voice, but it is well regulated, speaking clearly and distinctly with expression. Miss Davis will close her engagement today and those wishing to hear her should not miss the opportunity.– Santa Rosa Republican, May 13, 1913