Arts & Events
Richard Schwartz’s montage of century-old newspaper stories from the Berkeley Daily Gazette, Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century, with a great wealth of pictures from a variety of sources, has been reprinted in a 10th anniversary edition of more than 300 pages, featuring hundreds of new photos (and six pages of acknowledgments), available from Schwartz’s RSB Books, as well as local bookstores.
Schwartz, who is originally from Philadelphia and moved to Berkeley after he got out of college in 1973, recalled the “happenstance” way in which the book came about. Author of a single previous book, The Circle of Stones, about a mysterious stone circle in Stampede Valley in the Sierra Nevada, Schwartz began visiting the Berkeley Historical Society, “riveted” by the film of a turn-of-the-century streetcar.
“Later, as I perused the society’s collection of photographs of old Berkeley, I saw fields where there were entire neighborhoods,” he said. “The university was rolling grassland crossed by the willows of Strawberry Creek. Through these pictures, I experienced the past of my adopted home.”
On an early visit to the Society, Schwartz heard that a “foot-and-a-half worth of century-old newspapers that had been donated” were in poor condition from mold and were to be “put in the dumpster.” Schwartz reacted. “I jumped up! I couldn’t imagine them thrown away.” Taking them home, where he thought he’d store them, “instead I put them on my dining room table. They were in bound volumes. I opened one up—and was lost in it for three days, mesmerized.”
Putting yellow Post-Its on pages that struck his eye, Schwartz then started photocopying stories to share with friends, ending up with “30 piles on the living room floor, stories about kids, about animals, crime, medicine, about what they did for fun ... I came in one day and it hit me how I’d share this: 30 piles on the floor, 30 chapters in a book. I couldn’t imagine the town not knowing these stories ... about people just like you and I, living a hundred years ago ... they show you what everyday life was—and their unconscious value system, just as newspapers do today. Though it’s hard for us ‘modern people’ to believe that stuff was written the way it was, with tongue-in-cheek jokes in news stories ... in one article about a bank being robbed, the reporter notes that the bank president ‘held a meeting with himself’! On one hand, it’s a totally different world; on the other, exactly the same. There’s no resolving that; I don’t try.”
When Berkeley 1900 was first published, Schwartz said, “the response was totally unexpected. The whole first print run of 2,000 books sold out in three weeks. One night a friend and I stood outside Pegasus Bookstore on Solano Avenue, watching one person after another buying it, just laughing in disbelief. It was fun placing it in pet stores, movie theaters, hardware stores, places you don’t usually see books. It was 10 months on the local bestseller list; the Chronicle picked it as Holiday Book of the Year.”
Schwartz ruminated on the themes that spring from the old stories and photos.
“You can see the battle of a rural place with farms and animals becoming urban, urban needs budding drop by drop in these articles, about a cow drinking paint, or a horse hit by a train,” he said. “You realize how death was right over their shoulders back then: a young couple takes the train to Santa Cruz for the weekend; by the time they’re back, two of their children have died of diphtheria. People were more on their own back then, except for neighbors. Everybody seemed to belong to fraternal organizations. After the Earthquake, they didn’t wait for government money; they banded together, did it on their own—and when the relief effort worked, disbanded it.”
Schwartz spoke of recurring details he found poignant: “many people, especially immigrants, carried notes around with them, in their back pockets, so if they died, they wouldn’t be buried in the wrong place ... and you realize this place was loaded with animals. An article tells how a bear was spotted in 1905 near the reservoir up by Spruce Street—and in a pioneer family album, I found a picture of a bear on a chain, on Spruce Street. The same bear?
“Because of the book, pioneer families have contacted me and offered to share albums. And I’ve been collecting on my own since the first edition came out. I have a kind of radar, when I see a new image: this image goes with that article. Or whoever calls me with an image, I’ll find an article to match.”
Schwartz cited a few stories that amused him. A building contractor himself, he was taken by a news story about a contractor of a century ago, “reporting a bundle of rope stolen from the back of his wagon—and at the end of the article, it says two detectives were assigned to the case!” Or acerbic pieces, like one about “a famous Berkeley quintessential weirdo, with an overactive imagination, who told everybody he was a government scout, getting married ... kernels of eccentric Berkeley, even back then!”
Commenting on the images, Schwartz said, “The photographs show us what our imaginations aren’t good enough to realize ... what we take for granted is really all so new. I’ve become so moved by these people who found their way into the newspapers, of their everyday heroism—so proud of them, I’ve felt an obligation to share this with the community. It’s less a book than a kind of neighborhood sharing. There’s something grounding about it.”