If you toss out the bloomers and floppy hats, the campers of 1907 look an awful lot like the homeless of 2007.
By Joe Eskenazi
Anyone who ever played Oregon Trail on an Apple II+ knows well the assorted pleasures West Coast pioneers faced out in the wild. Random onslaughts of dysentery, cholera or hostile Indians could ruin your morning. Starvation might lead you to feast on shoe leather, wood or Uncle Steve. And, after thousands of miles riding atop a donkey, quips about how tired your ass is grew stale.
Yet, less than a generation after San Francisco grew from a dusty Mexican town on a hill to California’s largest city, many of the very same people who suffered through cholera and Indians were scampering back into the hostile wilderness — as campers.
“There was a very quick turn-around,” notes Susan Snyder, author of the cleverly titled Past Tents: The Way We Camped. “People were out and camping out and the mountains within 20 to 30 years” of San Francisco’s arrival as a City.
Snyder is the co-curator of a Past Tents exhibition at the California Historical Society on Mission. With a pair of Grover Cleveland-era tents, a trove of sepia-toned photographs and a display of antique camping gear, the retrospective is an amusing lunchtime exhibition.
But if one ignores the fading vestiges of the Victorian era evinced by gaudy accoutrements and floppy hats, one can’t help but notice that the recreational camper of 1907 bears a striking resemblance to the camper-by-necessity of 2007.
In some cases, there are even similarities in the camping locations: A series of black-and-white photos from 1890 depict a group calling itself “The Merry Tramps of Oakland” roughing it on Nob Hill. I don’t know of any encampments quite as resplendent on Nob Hill today, or of any tramps, per se. But it’s a safe bet that any tramps there now are not so merry.
As someone who hadn’t bought any new equipment since his Boy Scout days, I was shocked to recently receive a 40-minute tutorial on how to properly wear my backpack during a recent trip to a large camping store. The snippets of early-century camping advice culled by curators Snyder and Tanya Hollis for the exhibition, however, are far lower-tech.
Boots all wet? No worries – fill them with hot ashes from the campfire and they’ll be dry by morning. Are your matches damp? Not a problem – just run them through your hair about a dozen times. Weighed down with a heavy blanket? That’s easy – don’t pack one heavy blanket when two light ones are warmer.
In fact, a 1929 photo taken at Kings River Canyon shows a swarthy gentleman who evidently took that last snippet of advice, swathed in a bevy of blankets after a night spent beneath a tree.
photos | courtesy of U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library
“They just wrapped themselves in blankets and built a fire, if they were lucky,” said Snyder of early century campers.
But Snyder could just as well be talking about people living out of doors now. In our technology besotted era, advice on drying one’s shoes with ash seems more befitting a hobo or transient than a camper.
In fact, I took snapshots of the archival photos with a digital camera and was able to persuade several people that I'd seen encampments of homeless people on my lunch break in downtown San Francisco and used a fancy doo-dad on the camera to make the shots sepia-toned (no word on how I got everyone to wear a hat or grow a Chicken John mustache).
Whether it’s migrant workers, prospectors or Chinese shrimp fisherman, sunny California has a rich history of poor people forced to sleep out of doors. With poverty on the rise, housing scarce and exorbitantly expensive and the San Andreas fault ever-present, it’s hard to imagine a day in the future when San Francisco isn’t a campground of sorts.
But, just as the pioneers returned to their gritty wilderness haunts with tents on their backs, wouldn’t it be nice to envision former homeless people and their children heading to Golden Gate Park for a night around the fire in 30 years time?
They could even be rousted by an aging Gavin Newsom and C.W. Nevius.