Tucked away inside the lobby of 201 Mission Street is a deceptively simple arrangement of four vitrines and four information stands. I say deceptively because I only expected to spend about twenty minutes browsing the seventy-odd items. An hour later, I was ruminating on an empty container of Burnett's Cocoaine, a product from 1857 Boston and purportedly "a perfect hair dressing."
Through the end of January, the Transbay Archaeology Exhibit is on view during building hours, free to any curious passersby. While contractors excavate the future terminal site, archaeologists from William Self Associates, commissioned by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA), have pinpointed prime locations for exploratory digs and unearthed a variety of historical artifacts.
If you're hoping for buried treasure, you won't find it here. Instead, the archaeologists discovered evidence of rough working-class lives, the remnants of families and businesses in the South of Market neighborhood in the difficult post-Gold Rush time. The exhibition casts an unbiased eye across the selected objects, providing evidence of both virtue (a student's slate pencil) and vice (an opium pipe).
Burnett's CocoaineViewing the bluish glass bottle that formerly housed Burnett's Cocoaine, I was impressed by the sheer number of small business with custom containers. It appears that nearly every pharmacist marketed his own "miraculous" product (most of them mostly alcohol, a tried and true cure-all). Some examples on display: Dr. Rowell's Fire of Life (made in San Francisco from 1875 to 1897), Emerson's Bromo-Seltzer (popular for the impressive span of 1889 to 1950), and Dr. J. Hostetter's Stomach Bitters, a brown embossed vial that once contained a liquid so high in alcohol content it was sold by the glass at saloons.
The objects themselves are intriguing, but the exhibition truly excels in expanding upon the artifacts through the use of written and visual support materials. One featured newspaper clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle, titled "CASUALTIES THE LOT OF THIS SMALL BOY" tells the story of little Joseph Ferry, bit by dogs. The article's value comes from the telling picture it paints of the neighborhood in 1899.
While the first South of Market residents lived in tents and shacks, these dwellings were gradually replaced with prefabricated wooden homes brought in from New England. Ferry and his family lived in one of these narrow buildings, crowded onto a tiny lot with others like it. He suffered his accident watching the neighborhood take on a new permanence: "this boy, with several other youngsters, was in the alley, admiring the prowess of mechanics engaged in the construction of a two-story brick stable at 40 Natoma Street, for new brick buildings do not rise in the lifetime of many dwellers in that humble thoroughfare."
Such snippets of information -- combined with pictures, maps, and census records -- cannot bring viewers fully into the past, but even a brief glimpse into the South of Market neighborhood in the latter half of the 19th century can (and will) spark a visitors' curiosity for more.
Some complementary resources for the amateur historian are readily available online. If you are interested in the "medicines" of the time, the bottles of which dominate the exhibit's vitrines, go no further than the William H. Helfand Collection of Proprietary Medicine Pamphlets. For those more interested in San Francisco's physical transition into the present, Old SF pairs Google Maps with images from the San Francisco Public Library's Historical Photographs Collection. And lastly, Pastmapper puts the 1852-53 San Francisco city directory into yet another Google Maps format, providing glimpses of the people and business (importers, cabinet makers, and tinmen galore) that once were.
Exiting the exhibition onto Mission Street as the light was fading, I thought about all the remnants of San Francisco lives that sit buried under our contemporary city, literally providing the foundations for our daily activities. In turn, what material objects will prove to be our legacy in generations to come? We can only hope they are as strange and wonderful as Burnett's Cocoaine.
The Transbay Archaeology Exhibit is on view through the end of January 2012 at 201 Mission Street, with plans to go on tour around the Bay Area, locations not yet announced. For more information visit transbaycenter.org/project/archaeology.