Proud traces of Berkeley’s building and construction trades abound in a little-known niche of the urban environment: our sidewalks.
At the end of the 1800s, builders promoted concrete as a modern replacement for brick or board pedestrian walkways. Back then it was called “art stone,” and contractors set their names like a cattle brand in the fresh mix as a mark of craftsmanship.
The number of stamps proliferated during the East Bay building boom that followed the 1906 earthquake, and a majority of the ones remaining date from the 1930s and ‘40s. Many of these stamps have suffered slow attrition due to the inevitable succession of root-damage repairs and curb cuts, and each new city campaign of sidewalk paving has the potential to put even more of these stamps at risk.
Stamps were good advertising, and some contractors added addresses, and later even phone numbers. Some cities required stamps in order to track faulty work, but most were set during a less litigious era where pride in craft mattered. Some of Berkeley’s oldest stamps are from prominent contractor/developer John Albert Marshall, Sr. One of his 1899 stamps graces the front steps of an old home at 1670 Dwight St. Very few contractors now use stamps, although some do. The sidewalk in front of the recently refurbished California Theater on Kittredge Street bears a 2002 stamp from the SBI Construction Group.
Most stamps were modest, with just a name in simple type. Others were more elaborate, integrating heraldry crests and labor symbology; there’s even a delightful artistic pair of fleur-de-lis stamps at 1210 Bonita St. and a lucky horseshoe for Ensor H. Buel at 1843 Cedar St. Many included the year and even the month of pouring. This was an open trade that did not require a large capital investment, and the ethnic surnames echo the immigrant waves of the past: Anaclerio, Barale, and Fadelli (now Berkeley Cement); also Dahlquist, Hierkildsen, and Lindstrom.
One can also trace evolution in the family business, from single owner-operator “Paul Schnoor,” later “P. Schnoor & Son,” and finally “Schnoor Bros.” Some stamps for the same contractor change over time, allowing for subtle clues about age. The stamp of the venerable firm of J.H. Fitzmaurice has gone through at least four variants.
Some stamps reflect not the contractors, but the trades that represented them. Right in front of Virginia Bakery and at Freight and Salvage one can find the distinctive crossed tools mark of the earliest union stamp, that of the American Brotherhood of Cement Workers (ABCW), whose president was Olaf Tveitmoe.
Olaf was a classic colorful California labor leader hero of his time, both a working-class heavyweight who got elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and first president of the racist Asiatic Exclusion League in 1908. More recent union stamps belong to the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association, AFL-CIO, whose logo not only includes the number “594” of the East Bay local, but proudly notes by number the master finisher who did that piece.
A good example is in front of Bancroft Clothing on Bancroft Avenue, where a Hal Bennett contractor stamp is accompanied by the cement finisher’s union stamp, Master Number 258.
A few cities have adopted policies to protect the historical heritage reflected by these stamps. Citizens in Normal Heights (San Diego), arranged for the old stamps to be cut out and re-set in fresh sidewalks when they were replaced. A homeowner on North Berkeley’s Fresno Avenue had an endangered stamp neatly set into the driveway when repaving.
The City of Berkeley is undergoing one of its many sidewalk repair projects, and the Planning Department indicates that they will leave them in place if they are in good condition and if homeowners request it.
A tribute to these stamps and link to a photo archive of hundreds of local examples can be found at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/~lcushing/Stamps/SidewalkStampHome.html.
Lincoln Cushing is a cataloger and electronic outreach librarian at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.