House Cleaning Day: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

We thought we had come upon just another photograph of a work party after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Here was a large group of men wielding tools in a rubble-strewn street.

Front near California Street. View south of men clearing the street for House Cleaning Day, March 3, 1907.Front near California Street. View south of men clearing the street for House Cleaning Day, March 3, 1907. (wnp71.0093; Martin Behrman Negative Collection / Courtesy of the Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives. GGNRA/Behrman GOGA 35346; G810 EF-111)
 

But something wasn’t right. These men looked a little too well dressed for workingmen: nice hats and ties, watch chains, clean shoes. The scene is Front Street near California Street, with the offices of Ehrman Bros & Co. in the background. Did the cigar-importing firm put its employees to work as general laborers?
 

Front near California Street. View south of men posing clearing the street for House Cleaning Day, March 3, 1907.Front near California Street. View south of men posing clearing the street for House Cleaning Day, March 3, 1907. (wnp71.0095; Martin Behrman Negative Collection / Courtesy of the Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives. GGNRA/Behrman GOGA 35346; G810 EF-113)
 

Our friend and researcher John Freeman tipped us off on the story here: “These photos are from March 3, 1907, ‘House Cleaning Day,’ a day set aside for volunteers to join together to shovel debris off the streets, and sweep them clean, with the intention to boost community spirit and show the world that progress was being made in reconstructing San Francisco after the 1906 catastrophe.”

A group of local teamster firms stolen the idea from Boston’s once-a-year “Spotless Town Day.” The proposal was for San Francisco’s own day of service in which “merchants and their employees, labor unions, teamsters, contractors, and everybody who can assist, will be asked to take up shovel and broom in behalf of clean streets and sidewalks.” But San Francisco had a bigger job ahead of it than Boston. Almost a year after the earthquake and fires of 1906, the clearing of rubble, paving of streets, and general reconstruction was far from complete.1

The whole event was planned in a couple of weeks. Large companies, city agencies, social clubs such as the Outdoor Art League, school children, and allied unions all promised their support and participation. Chinatown merchant Sing Fat pledged a dozen men. Women’s Associations organized luncheons and coffee stations. Teams, wagons, and tools were donated for the day’s work, and liquor dealers were asked to close for the day to aid in turnout.2

Circulars were sent to residences across the city reading: “It’s up to you. Why? Because: This is your city; these are your streets; this is your business—and if you don’t help to improve you own property, who will? Roll up your sleeves and help. Tidy up your front yard; sweep off your sidewalk; clean your street. Everybody is working—do your share.”3

If you’re thinking you would rather not volunteer your Sunday off to work, pastors across the city agreed. Rev. George E. Burlingame of the First Baptist Church called the idea “an injustice to the workingman, a transgression of divine law and a violation of the laws of the State of California.” The San Francisco Call rejoined that the event was voluntary: “Let every man feel that he is giving such help as he can give, as free as the air of heaven, with absolutely no strings on his desire to work a whole day, a half-day or a few hours.” Even so, on the day of the event, sermons were given against it and scornful men handed out cards to volunteers reading “Wanted, 10,000 suckers.” On the pro-volunteer side, souvenir badges were distributed showing that everyone works, “even father.”4

The New York Times recently published a piece on the dirtiest block of San Francisco (Thank you for that, NYT. There doesn’t happen to be a soiled corner in New York City to write about?) Meanwhile, our new mayor is demonstrating her focus on clean streets by carrying a broom to public events. Should House Cleaning Day make a comeback? Could the city come together without the help of an earthquake?

House Cleaning Day badge. (BANC PIC 1973.055:219.48b–PIC; Anna Blake Mezquida papers, circa 1860 -1965, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)
 

Notes:

1. “Propose City House Cleaning,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 12, 1907, pg. 7.

2. “Everybody Willing to Aid in Cleaning City,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1907, pg. 5. “Suggest That Saloons Close,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 1907, pg. 3.

3. “Organize for House Cleaning,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 1907, pg. 2.

4. “Protests Against Work on Sunday,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 1907, pg. 2.; “Teamsters Offer Services in Cause of Clean City,” San Francisco Call, February 19, 1907, pg. 16; “Try to Discourage Zeal of Street Brigade,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 1907, pg. 2.