Rebel Girls From Bay Area History: Lotta Crabtree, "The San Francisco Favorite"

Lotta Crabtree came from Grass Valley and became a 19th Century national treasure.

In 1906, when San Francisco was plunged into chaos after the Big One hit, locals were left with few means to find each other. The cast iron fountain on Market Street, where Geary and Kearny intersect, quickly became a major meeting point. It proved to be such an important landmark that, since 1919, there has been an annual gathering at the fountain to remember all those who were lost in the earthquake and the brave souls who rebuilt afterward. What is recalled a little less frequently is how the fountain came to land in the city in 1875—it was a gift from Lotta Crabtree, an actress once known as "The San Francisco Favorite."

Lotta's fountain in 1877.
Lotta's fountain in 1877. (From 'The Triumphs and Trials of Lotta Crabtree' by David Dempsey with Raymond P. Baldwin.)

Born on November 7, 1847, Lotta was the rarest of stars, in that she found fame as a child, retained her popularity throughout her teens and by the age of 21—as noted in The Triumph and Trials of Lotta Crabtree—"The rage for Lotta had begun to approach the degree of frenzy which today is reserved for rock-and-roll singers. All over the country, men and women were skipping to [dances like the] 'Lotta Polka' and the 'Lotta Gallup'."

When Lotta was five, the Crabtree family lived in Grass Valley, when it was still the heart of California gold-mining country. Fearless, precocious and encouraged by both her parents and her famous neighbor, Lola Montez (who taught her professional dance moves), Lotta lifted the spirits of weary miners with her banjo playing, ballad singing, "red hair, merry black eyes, irrepressible laugh, [and] dancing [as] light as gossamer." Her appreciative audience paid her with gold nuggets that Lotta's mother, Mary Ann, collected in a leather pouch. By the time the mining camps had given way to taverns, and the taverns had given way to bonafide San Francisco stages, Mary Ann needed a steamer trunk to carry all the loot.

It made sense for the Crabtrees to move to the city to enable Lotta to pursue her dreams, so when she was 8, they did just that. It was a remarkable time for any performer to be working in San Francisco. From The Triumphs and Trials of Lotta Crabtree:

"Part of the charm of SF was its freewheeling and improvising spirit... In one sense, the theater typified the city's wild and freebooting kind of life, and, in another sense, it provided convenient, if momentary, refuge from it. In a place as primitive as San Francisco during the gold rush decade, the theater mediated between the higher and lower impulses of the more sedate citizens who were determined to enjoy themselves, yet needed a sanction for their pleasures."

By the time she was 11, Lotta was touring California. As she entered her teens, demand for Lotta took her all over the country to act in a wide variety of plays. Lotta proved herself such a versatile and compelling actress, she was invited to perform in London and Paris. The "San Francisco Favorite" was now a worldwide wonder.

(L-R): Lotta as Paul in 'Pet of the Petticoats'; Mademoiselle Nitouche; herself; the Marchioness in 'Little Nell and the Marchioness.'
(L-R): Lotta as Paul in 'Pet of the Petticoats,' Mademoiselle Nitouche, herself, and the Marchioness in 'Little Nell and the Marchioness.' ('The Triumph and Trials of Lotta Crabtree,' by David Dempsey and Raymond P. Baldwin.)

Remarkably, rather than wearing her down, Lotta seemed to thrive while living on the road—something that inspired her to start her own touring company in 1875. One of the things most noted about her was that she retained a joyful youthfulness no matter how old she got or how far she traveled. Even as she reached middle-age, onlookers noted the "strange childlike innocence that would always be her style" and the "beauty [that] radiated from her diminutive, bouncing person."

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After more than three decades as a star, Lotta retired in 1891 a very wealthy woman, thanks not only to her enduring popularity and being one of the highest paid actresses in America but also the smart real estate, bonds and racehorse investments she had made on her travels. Despite her success and riches, Lotta was never welcomed by high society crowds due to their perception of her as eccentric; her penchant for cigar-smoking was deemed too unladylike, her ankle-showing skirts too risqué and her love for putting hats on horses in the street was simply too weird.

Lotta's last performance in San Francisco was at the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, where she sang for an audience of thousands on "Lotta Crabtree Day," November 6. Despite almost 25 years out of the business, she remained adored.

By the time of her 1924 death at the age of 76, Lotta had amassed a fortune of $4 million dollars (which is almost $59 million in 2019 money). Due to the fact that she'd never married (much to the nation's surprise) or had children, she spent the last years of her life planning where her sizable wealth would go once she was gone.

After a great deal of thought, Lotta's will was drawn up. Half of her fortune went to veterans—the plight of World War I soldiers particularly touched her heart— and the other half went to out-of-work actors, recently released convicts (a progressive move for any era) and $300,000 was put in a "Dumb Animal Fund." (During her retirement, Lotta had been vice president of the Massachusetts SPCA.) To this day, the Lotta Agricultural Trust gives grants and interest-free loans to farmers.

A century after her passing, in addition to the one in downtown San Francisco, statues Lotta Crabtree donated still stand in Boston, Chicago and New Jersey—monuments to this most unusual woman who spread joy far and wide throughout her life and helped countless thousands after her death.

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Inspired by the Bikini Kill anthem, "Rebel Girl," the "Rebel Girls From Bay Area History" series has previously profiled:
Arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd;
pioneering journalist Delilah L. Beasley;
Chicana activist Sofía Mendoza;
reparations champion Tsuyako Kitashima;
philanthropist Alma de Bretteville Spreckels;
lesbian-feminist poet, Pat Parker;
AIDS activist, Ruth Brinker;
brothel madam-turned-mayor, Sally Stanford;
and Gold Rush-era civil rights pioneer, Charlotte L. Brown

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