Wednesday, June 16, 2010

San Francisco, Turn of the Century

I called my blog Rebecca's Collections because I thought I might show some of my other collections here too. I have shown one of my scrap albums, and My Realitty's posts this month about her 1890s San Francisco Italianate style house have inspired me to show some of my great-grandmother Florence Mason Palmer 's first album. This album was started by her mother and continued by Florence, who went on creating scrap books and keeping newspaper cuttings during her later life. It's no wonder I'm a collector, really!

Somehow, I seem not to have photographed the cover of the scrap album, so that is something to do on my next visit to my mother. It's a couple of inches thick, and the pages are thick, good quality paper, as you may be able to see from the scans.

My great-grandmother, Florence Elizabeth Mason, was born at the Grand Hotel, San Francisco, in November 1877. Here she is in the mid-1880s:

And here are her parents, John Elliott Mason and Nellie Chapman Mason:

J. E. Mason was a civil engineer. He was born in New York, and arrived in California in the early 1870s. He and his father, and W. S. Chapman, Nellie's father, were involved in real estate and installing water supplies and irrigation in the new colonies.

With her father and mother, Florence sailed to Europe in 1889 and again in 1891.

She visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889.

Florence attended Alameda High School, from which she graduated in 1894. In the same year, she visited the California Exposition,

and was accepted into the University of California, Berkeley (you can see a photo of UC Berkeley at the turn of the century on My Realitty's blog).

Her album documents her social life more than her academic work:

Here she is with the other members of her sorority:

I don't have with me her graduation photo, but I did take photos of some of the items in her scrap book showing the graduation celebrations. I don't know if this photo of Florence was taken at that time, but it looks to me as if she's wearing a ball dress here.

After graduation, Florence and her parents sailed around the world, visiting Japan, China, the Phillipines, India, and Europe again.

During part of this voyage, Florence met and fell in love with her future husband, an English civil engineer who was then working in India, in Calcutta:

They kept their love affair and engagement secret for several years. J.E. Mason did not approve of his only daughter marrying an Englishman, so after travelling to Paris to buy her wedding gown and trousseau, Florence married Frederick Palmer in Calcutta with only her mother present.

However, with the birth of their first child, a son named after J. E. Mason, father and daughter were reconciled, and the Palmers visited the Masons in San Francisco during 1905.

Compare their clothes with those worn by mother and daughter in My Realitty's scene one afternoon in San Francisco in 1906:

For some reason, J. E. Mason travelled to Mexico over Christmas 1905. He died there on December 26, 1905. Florence and her baby were staying with her mother when this tragedy occurred.

Florence was again, or still, staying with her mother when the great earthquake struck San Francisco in April 1906. Their house on Washington Street, built only four years earlier in 1902, was not damaged by the quake or the fire which followed. A couple of years ago, I was surfing the internet and came across a diary of the earthquake - written by someone else - which mentioned the Mason house. Of course, right now I can neither find my printout, nor the website again! If I do, I'll add details.

Florence's mother, Nellie Chapman Mason, died in San Francisco in September 1916.

None of the newspaper clippings I've included here is completely accurate, with J. E. Mason's death notice stating that Florence's husband was an army surgeon (he was a civil engineer), and Nellie Chapman Mason's funeral notice giving her father's name as her husband's. Still, I wish all my ancestors had left such rich records of their lives!


  1. what a tradition of family members with a sense of history - to keep everything over this long time - that is really rarely done, I still remember the astonishing story about your dollhouse-collecting-grandmother in England - what a boring family I have, they never moved even to the next town...

  2. Perhaps its partly because they did move so much and so far that many of my ancestors had a strong sense of history and where they came from.
    Your family is the kind that would probably be descended from Iron Age inhabitants whose skeletons are found by archaeologists, though! To me, that's not boring at all - many historic changes happened around them, but their connection to that town and that piece of land remained.

  3. What a wonderful heritage...I hope you will continue with this story soon.
    And what an independent young woman of her defy her father and travel half-way around the world to marry the man she loved!
    Do I spy an historical novel written by a great-granddaughter in the works? :)

  4. Dear Rebecca,
    Oh my, what a marvellous record your family has kept. My uncle is trying to piece together our family geneology, and such a document would be worth more than pearls! Your family history is not a glimpse, but an open window into the past.

  5. What a wonderful story. It's like one of those epic novels spanning centuries. Your great-grandmother was quite a remarkable woman for her day and age. She traveled the world and went to university. Then married an exotic stranger against her father's wishes. I really like this woman!!
    How lovely it is that you have the pictures and clippings and know so much about your adventurous GG. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed it.

  6. Oh Rebecca how wonderful! Florence was so beautiful and had such an adventurous life! How fun to link your real history to my Victorian dollhouse. I will print it out and keep it with the house as part of it's history too! Thank you for sharing this adventure. Carol

  7. what a nice story! and how lucky you are, of having got all these pictures. I have found a few, while working on my family's genealogy, and was so happy to discover , what my ancestors looked like. And to find, that I look like them, in a certain way.
    Your great-grandmother was a modern and elegant woman, and I was surprised to learn all the things, she made, for the period , she lived in. My ancestors were farmers, and there was not such a "picture tradition" in those families. And I have had less surprises while studying their lives :)

  8. Your great grandmother was a formidable woman as well as beauty! So fantastic it must be for you to have so much records of her life! You come from an impressive family! And thank you so much for sharing, it was extra fun to read after following My realitty's posts this month!

  9. Liebe Rebecca, ich allen die vor mir sprachen nur zustimmen: was für eine großartige Familie!
    Doch ich muss auch dir zustimmen zu dem, was du der Puppenstubensammlerin geantwortet hast: Im Grunde ist jeder Lebenslauf so interessant und bewegend, egal, ob die Menschen sich viel oder wenig in ihm bewegten.
    Du kannst wirklich froh sein über diese Schätze.
    Ich habe auch einmal ein wenig Ahnenforschung betrieben, aber meine Vorfahren waren durch den Krieg vertrieben und Bergleute und haben all diese Dinge nicht aufgehoben. Aber die Geschichten, die ich von den alten Tanten erzählt bekam, habe ich alle bewahrt. Ich freue mich auf eine Fortsetzung.

  10. It is fascinating digging through family history and finding out some of the interesting things our forebears did. Funny that JE Mason didn't approve of his daughter marrying an Englishman, despite their common status of civil engineer. My maternal grandfather was a civil engineer too, but came from a family of solicitors some of whom were disappointed he didn't follow the family firm.

  11. Wow, what a beautiful great-grandmother and a fascinating story!! It´s a bit of "Titanic" and "Gone with the wind" :) great! I had to laugh about your: "It's no wonder I'm a collector, really!" I´m happy you are and also happy Florence was one - otherwise we wouldn´t have all these wonderful posts here!!


  12. Thank you all for your comments! I'm glad you enjoyed these pieces of my family history.

    Dear Florine, the only fiction I write is here, about my dolls! My sister has thought of writing a historical novel, though set in an earlier period. There's a bit of a habit among my great-grandparents of defying parents and going halfway around the world - my grandmother's parents did too (Florence was my grandfather's mother).

    Hi Lynne, yes, there are other parts of my family I'd love to have this kind of thing for! But not all families generate it - or hoard it, as mine have! On the other hand, one of my Australian ancestors was declared insolvent, which seems to be quite common in early Australia - so there are court records!

  13. Hello Susan, I'm glad you enjoyed reading about my great-grandmother - she was remarkable, wasn't she? My mother has very fond memories of her. And quite a lot of my family history is like epic family sagas - or perhaps the writers of sagas are inspired by real families!

    Dear Carol, the more I read and saw of Charlotta, Carolena and Katie in San Francisco, and looked at the wonderful historical photos you found to illustrate your story, the more I felt like saying, yes! That's where Florence and her parents were. So thank you for inspiring me - seems other people enjoyed another look at SF too!

  14. Dear Bea, thankyou! It is wonderful to find photos of ancestors you haven't seen or known of, isn't it? Some I have been familiar with for a long time, others I have only discovered recently - and it is such a thrill!
    I think my great-grandmother was quite unusual in the opportunities she had - she was the only daughter of a wealthy man, so travel was easy for her. But yes, she chose to go to university, and to marry a man whose work was in India and then in England, so was clearly intelligent and adventurous too!

    Thank you, Helene, it is indeed wonderful to have these records of her life. I still get frustrated though - two trips to Europe, and what did they do there? All that's in the album is the map of the Paris exposition! They must have done so much more .... So, I can always wish for more!
    Many of my ancestors are quite interesting, but not all in a positive way - I'll maybe share some more here gradually, along with more dolls houses :-)

  15. Dear Oese, the upheavals and destruction of wars can mean so much is lost. But it's wonderful that you have been able to save your aunts' stories. Sometimes people have photos or other mementoes that were kept, but without knowing who any of the people were, or any of their stories, so the things become meaningless.
    I will think about more family stories to share!

    Hello DollMum, I don't find it so surprising really that Florence's father was against the marriage - an American whose ancestors had fought against the British marrying an Englishman! But probably the fact that they shared a profession helped reconcile them, as well as my grandfather's birth.
    My grandfather also became a civil engineer, though he wanted to be a poet, and never believed himself as great as his father. My great-uncle would also have become an engineer if he had not died young - Florence may have defied her father in marrying Frederick, but Frederick's sons would do as their father determined! My uncle became a solicitor, though. I think following family expectations can mean people end up in professions that don't best suit them, or at which they can't do as well as if they followed their talents - so good on your grandfather! I hope it didn't cause a major rift, though.

    Dear Nicola, yes, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, Little House on the Prairie - and other ancestors bring to mind other stories too! Thank goodness they weren't actually on the Titanic, though. Another ancestor did drown at sea, but not in such a well-known sinking ...
    I'm glad you enjoyed Florence's story - maybe I will now share some more exciting episodes from the saga of my family!!

  16. I enjoyed this history very much. Makes me want to put my photos in that album at last...
    Is Frederick is wearing period costume in that photo? Love the San Francisco connection it's a fascinating city.

  17. Hi Barb, thanks for commenting. That's a very interesting question about what Fred's wearing! I think that it is period, as in I think it's an 18th or early 19th century formal style. I'll look up some letters of his we have - I suspect this may be for the Delhi Durbar, which took place in January 1903 - a grand ceremonial occasion when Indian princes and the leaders of the British Raj celebrated the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. I'll get back to you!

  18. Rebecca, Fun to come across all this memorabilia of our shared great-grandmother. Thanks for "immortalizing" it, and her. I'll have to copy the images of the photos that I don't have. They had such a great love story. I love telling it! –Marian