[The following entry is from guest blogger, Julian Marasigan, who recently graduated from SF State University with a B.A. in History. Julian volunteered at the Sutro Library in Spring 2019 and worked on the description for the Woodward’s Gardens collection finding aid. He supplied all the text and images that follow.]

Original Woodward’s Gardens letterhead

According to Bancroft’s Tourist’s Guide:

Woodward’s Gardens are on the west side of Mission Street, between Thirteenth and Fourteenth. This famous resort is both park and garden, and much more besides. Its fences enclose nearly six acres, but its actual surface considerably surpasses that area, from the fact that the hill-slopes and terraces, with the various floors and galleries of the different buildings really double or even triple the original surface beneath, so that, if spread upon one level, they would cover thousands of square feet more. They thus rival any public square in size and far surpass it in variety and beauty.–Bancroft’s Tourist’s Guide Yosemite. San Francisco and Around the Bay, (South.) San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft & Company, 1871

The description above is from the entry for Woodward’s Gardens found in Bancroft’s Tourist’s Guide. San Francisco and Around the Bay (South) entry on Woodward’s Gardens. Woodward’s Gardens was a major pleasure garden located in San Francisco during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Garden’s were opened in 1866 by Robert Woodward, a local entrepreneur who made his money through operating a supply store during the gold rush and the owning of a hotel, called the What Cheer House. After opening the estate as Woodward’s Gardens, Robert Woodward and his family moved to his estate, Oak Knolls, in Napa. Once the Gardens were opened to the public it became a place for celebration and education. Within its walls was a zoo, an aquarium, a museum, an art gallery, a library, a green house, rotary boats, hot air balloons rides, a skating rink/pavilion/amphitheater, mosque replica, outdoor gymnasium, and camera obscura. Woodward’s Gardens was open to the public from 1866 until it was closed by Robert Woodward’s heirs (Robert Woodward himself passed away in 1879) in 1891 with the property being divided into lots and much of the art and books purchased by Adolph Sutro.

I started this semester with no idea who Robert Woodward was or what Woodward’s Gardens was. Now as the semester comes to a close, I have learned so much but still have many questions. This one collection of letters could give me a lifetime of research.

Throughout the semester I learned how to properly handle historic documents. I learned how to research different questions as they came up. I learned that handwriting is sometimes easy to read and sometimes hard to read. I learned a lot about not just Woodward’s Gardens but the entire culture around pleasure gardens and the fascination of people in the latter nineteenth century with natural wonders. What had started out as just simply writing what each letter was about became something of a massive learning experience.

One of the interesting things that this collection of letters provided was physical evidence of history. From letters written from P.T. Barnum to a letter written from the consul of Hawaii, concrete evidence of the past abounded in this collection.


Letterhead and letter from the Consulate of Hawaii. A reminder that the state of Hawaii was once its own country.

The letters from P.T. Barnum’s circus were an interesting piece of history. Not only do they describe how to build a circus ring, they also show the evolution of P. T. himself. Initially, P.T. Barnum became well known for his museum/circus but in the course of two years his letterhead went from focusing on the attractions to focusing on Barnum himself.

This idea that Barnum knew his name was part of the attraction is confirmed by one of the letters I found in the collection written by Ann E. Leak.

Letter from Ann E. Leak, an arm less woman, written entirely by foot

Ann E. Leak was a woman born without arms. She learned to do things like write and braid hair with her feet.  After the Civil War she helped support her family through exhibiting herself with various showmen. One of these showmen was P.T. Barnum. In the above letter Ms. Leak mentions that Barnum does not pay well because he knows his name draws a crowd.  After finding this letter I did some more research and found out that although she never exhibited at Woodward’s Gardens she did eventually make it out to California. Furthermore, my research showed that she eventually got married and had a child while in her 40s and continued to tour the world.

This letter from Ms. Leak, along with several others that I found talking about “freaks”, became a research topic and paper for a class I was taking this semester all about monsters and monstrosities. In this history class we looked at monsters from a historic perspective, what fears they represent, and why the monster never dies. Part of this course covered the idea of the human oddity or “freak.” My paper focused on why people became interested in freaks and why the freak-show became so popular in the mid-nineteenth century. I was able to use several letters from this collection as primary sources, giving me first-hand archival research, something rare while still an undergradate student.

Leak signature
Signature of Ann E. Leak

Most of the writing I encountered while working with this collection was legible, but sometimes hard to read because of the cursive script. Some letters had absolutely gorgeous handwriting. Others on the other hand, were hard to read and required a lot of time to look at and try to decipher what was written.

One of the challenging to read letters

As I processed this collection I encountered many questions which included:

Why were sea lions a popular animal for people to request Mr. Woodward to get them? Why is rollerskating so popular? What did Mr. Woodward do to make all his money? Where did all the animals come from? How did people know to write to Mr. Woodward to try and get their curiosities bought? How popular was Woodward’s Gardens? What did the gardens look like?

These and so many other questions came up as I did my work and lead me to go out and do further research on my own. I found several sources describing Woodward’s Gardens such as the Bancroft’s Tourist’s Guide and The Illustrated Guide and Catalogue of Woodward’s Gardens. Both of these were published while the Gardens were still opened and provide insight into the gardens and their content.

Cover of the Illustrated Guide and Catalogue of Woodward’s Gardens

My outside research took me to many different online sources and to the San Francisco Public Library which has two copies of the Illustrated Guide and Catalogue of Woodward’s Gardens in their collection.

Overall, processing the Woodward’s Gardens collection gave me not only an amazing learning experience but also furthered my knowledge of the Bay Area (particularly San Francisco) in the nineteenth century and the entertainment available to people here.

To conclude I want to quote once again from the Bancroft’s Tourist’s Guide:

We have now completed the general tour of this elegant park, with its delightful    combination of the beautiful in nature and the wonderful in art, with the rarest curiosities of both. As a broad and airy holiday play-ground for tired pupils, as a romantic retreat for family picnics, as a pleasure-park for the quiet promenades of old and young, as a varied field of study for the naturalist, as one of the lungs through which the tired and dusty city  may draw a cool, refreshing, healthful breath, and, finally, as a grand union of park, garden, conservatory, museum, gymnasium, zoological grounds and art gallery, no eastern city offers the equal of Woodward’s Gardens.


Julian Marasigan, SF State History undergraduate class of 2019

If you are interested in seeing the Woodward’s Gardens collection, please email sutro@library.ca.gov two business days in advance of your visit. The finding aid can be found here  https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8jw8mpw/

Additionally, the California State Library has additional books and photographs of the Gardens that can be found by searching the online catalog.



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