Hold the Phone Fiche: New Telephone Directory Database at Sutro Library

Since 2019, Sutro staff and volunteers have been working on making the Sutro Library’s telephone directories on microfiche (aka phone fiche) more accessible remotely and have created a new database fulfilling that goal! But before I give you a tour of this new database and how you might search it, I wanted to go over a brief history of telephone directories and how they may be useful for your genealogical research.

Similar to city directories, phone directories can be used to identify where an ancestor was at a certain time, which is especially useful when tracking movement in between the census years (i.e. every 10 years). Earlier phone books didn’t always look like how they do now. The first one was published in 1878 on a piece of cardboard and listed 50 people in New Haven, Connecticut.[i] Today, telephone directories still endure and many of us receive the yellow pages on our doorsteps every year.

First telephone directory published in 1878, courtesy of University of Connecticut Archives & Special Collections

Early telephone directories like the one above were meant to share telephone subscribers’ names not phone numbers, and they included instructions on how to use a phone, e.g. which end of the phone to talk into. Since then, listings evolved into book form and usually include the number, address, and head of household’s name. 

While we do have some phone books scattered throughout the open and closed stacks including ones that were repurposed into scrapbooks, the bulk of our directories are on microfiche, and they cover more recent years from 1970s – 2000s. This phone fiche collection was only available on-site and not searchable via our catalog so researchers could only find out what we had by physically browsing the microfiche drawers…until now!

For the past two years, Sutro staff and volunteers have been working on making this accessible remotely by inputting the phone fiche titles into a database. The first batch of states have been finished and ready for users to search. Geographic regions include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, and Florida. Other states may be listed in the database when they share borders with these first 10, but their holdings are not yet complete. We hope to have the next batch of 10 states available soon so make sure to check back often if you don’t yet see your area of interest. For the states we do have completely recorded, the database includes information on the title of the directory (often the city or county is represented here), year of publication, type (yellow or white pages), and some entries include a notes field detailing communities that are included in that directory. The database can be found in multiple places on the website: 1) directly via this link: https://www.library.ca.gov/sutro/genealogy/phone-fiche/; 2) via the Sutro Library’s genealogy webpage under the Online Resources tile; or 3) in the listing of all of the California State Library’s online resources under the “T” section.

To search this database, you can do so in a few ways: by keyword in the search box on the right (we recommend searching the city of interest); or by the filters on the left-hand side which include state, type (white or yellow pages), and date. Or you can search by the filters first and then do a keyword search to narrow those results. Unfortunately, you cannot do vice versa, that is, a keyword search and then apply filters to those results. What happens when you do is that keyword search will be cleared so you will only see results related to your filtered search. Please note that this database is for searching which directories are in the Sutro Library’s holdings and is NOT a database for searching for specific names found in those directories. 

Screenshot of the database with the filters and keyword search functions in red boxes. To search by state, select state of interest from drop down. To search by yellow or white pages, select from drop down under the Type filter. You can also type in a date or stick to keyword search (upper-right box).

Once you identify the directory you need, write down the title and year and schedule an on-site visit in our reading room. If you are unable to visit, and need a quick look-up, feel free to contact us through our Ask A Librarian messaging system and provide the directory title, year, type (white or yellow pages), and the name of the person of interest.

Now that you’ve been given a brief history and tour of this new database, it’s time to “let your fingers do the walking!”[ii]

Special thank you to all of those who dialed in on this project: our volunteers, Ryan and Kristine; Sutro staff member, Kim; and staff members of the California State Library IT Department, Jay and Jacky.

For further reading on using telephone directories for genealogical research, check out: https://blog.genealogybank.com/genealogy-101-using-telephone-books-for-genealogy.html

Today’s post was written by Genealogy & Local History Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

Sutro Library Telephone Directories highlighted in photos above:

Pioneer Obituaries from the San Francisco Chronicle, 1911-1928; The Loss of the Steamer “Central America”…; Copy of the First Telephone Directory Issued in San Francisco, 1878. San Francisco: N.p., 1952. Print. Location: Sutro Library Reading Room F869.S3 D25

List of Subscribers. San Francisco: Pacific Bell Telephone Co., 1818. Print. Location: Sutro Library Vault MISC 000614*

San Francisco Temporary Telephone Directory. San Francisco, California: Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co., 1906. Print. Location: Sutro Library Vault MISC 000976*

*These materials require at least a 72-hour advance notice prior to your visit.

[i] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/first-telephone-book-had-fifty-listings-and-no-numbers-180962173/

[ii] Some readers may recall this slogan used in a campaign by the Yellow Pages in the 1970s!

Gardens: A history.

WARNING: This blog post has a lot of cool images!

Rösel von Rosenhof, August Johann et al. Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium: in qua omnes earum proprietates, praesertim quae ad generationem ipsarum pertinent, fusius ennarrantur. Nürnberg: gedrucht bey Johann Joseph Fleischmann, 1758. Print. – Frontispiece.

 “Humans have long turned to gardens—both real and imaginary—for sanctuary from the frenzy and tumult that surrounds them. Those gardens may be as far away from everyday reality as Gilgamesh’s garden of the gods or as near as our own backyard, but in their very conception and the marks they bear of human care and cultivation, gardens stand as restorative, nourishing, necessary havens.”

  • Robert Pogue Harrison Gardens: An essay on the human condition.
The Florist and Pomologist: A pictorial monthly magazine. London: Journal of Horticulture Office, 1872. p.15,16.
Austen, Ralph. A Treatise of Fruit-Trees… Together with The Spiritual Use of an Orchard… Oxford: Printed for Tho: Robinson, 1653. Print.

What is it about gardens that so attracts us? They have been the subject of poetry, literature, and religion. From the beginning of civilization, gardens have been in every city, every culture, and every era of history. Gardens are all around us, they provide shelter, food, amusement, and medicine. They are places for prayer, for celebration, for love, for learning, for pleasure, for communion with nature, and for contemplation. And throughout literature, in every culture, they serve as symbols for the circle of life and death, reflecting ideas of nature and nurture.

Falda, Giovanni Battista. Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda. Nuovamente dati alle stampe con direttione di Giov. Giacome de Sandrart… Norimberga: Giov. Giacomo de Sandrart, 1686. Print.

Taking a deep dive into the Sutro collection, gardens of every type reveal themselves – from book bindings to title page vignettes to photographs to the myriad works on gardens, horticulture, and industrial agriculture, its universality is unmistakable. Humans are intrinsically tied to gardens. In The Gardener’s Year, Czech author and social critic Karel Čapek holds, that to the gardner, gardening is not a subset of life, but rather life is a subset of gardening.[1] His book is not only a literary Czech masterpiece and practical guide to gardening, but a passionate discourse on his tending to his garden over the course of a year. Where the seasons and nature constantly change everything in the garden, and the author indulges in the drama wrought.

[1] Robert Pogue Harrison. Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2008. Web.

Giovanni Battista. Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda. Nuovamente dati alle stampe con direttione di Giov. Giacome de Sandrart… Norimberga: Giov. Giacomo de Sandrart, 1686. Print Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda.

Looking through the Sutro stacks, many species of gardens start to emerge: pleasure gardens, working gardens, public gardens, artists’ gardens, kitchen gardens, home gardens, imaginary and literary, as well as medicinal. They have been the backdrop of the most profound human drama, from the biblical Garden of Eden to some of the most memorable scenes in literature. The famous scene in Romeo and Juliet takes place in an walled garden orchard where even the words used to profess their love for each other reflect nature: “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.”

Shakespeare, William, and Charles Knight. The Works of William Shakspere [sic] : Containing His Plays and Poems, from the Text of the Editions by Charles Knight; with Glossarial Notes; and Facts Connected with His Life and Writings, Abridged from “William Shakspere [sic], a Biography”. London: H.G. Bohn, 1862. Print.

Gardens of Literature

Schedel, Hartmann, and Georg. Alt. Das buch der Croniken vnnd geschichten mit figuren vnd pildnussen von Anbeginn der welt bis auff dise vnsere Zeÿt. Augsburg: Johann Schönsperger, 1496. Print.

Cultivation of natural resources is essential to our existence. The Earth provides the basic things we need to survive, but without human cultivation civilization would not exist as it does, with numerous food staples having gone extinct. And while we physically rely on some form of gardening and agriculture, its symbolic nature is equally as powerful. Perhaps no garden has more notoriety than the Christian Garden of Eden. In Christianity, not only is the earthly garden the place where humanity falls from God’s grace, but Paradise is itself described as pleasure garden, where the righteous go in the afterlife.

Part of frontispiece of Salmon, William. Botanologia, the English Herbal : or, History of Plants. London: H. Rhodes, 1710. Print.
Baldelli-Boni, Giovanni Battista. Vita di Giovanni Boccacci. Firenze: C. Ciardetti e comp., 1806. Print.
Darwin, Erasmus et al. The Botanic Garden : a Poem, in Two Parts : Part I. Containing The Economy of Vegetation : Part II. The Loves of the Plants : with Philosophical Notes. London: Printed for J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1791. Print.

The word Paradise actually derives from the Persian word for walled around garden or park, pairideiza and in Greek, παράδεισος – pronounced parádeisos, which was an enclosed park for animals. Similar forms of the word appear throughout various cultures to describe some kind of enclosed space or garden.

Salmon, William. Botanologia, the English Herbal : or, History of Plants. London: H. Rhodes, 1710. Print.

In ancient Greece, philosophers and schools were also creating gardens. Epicurus taught that the ultimate goal for humans is to attain “spiritual tranquility,” and similarly to tending to a garden, nurturing the soul allows it to grow and thrive. To that end, Epicurus had his students tend to a garden. 

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, had Academic gardens near a grove dedicated to the hero Academas. His “decision to plant his school in a park on the margins of Athens – removed enough to listen to the voice of reason, close enough to stay within earshot of the citizens set a pattern for the future history of academia in the West.”[1]

[1] Robert Pogue Harrison. Gardens: an essay on the human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2008, 39.

Ebers, Georg, Clara Bell, and Samuel Birch. Egypt, Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesque . London ;: Cassell, Petter, Galpin and Co., 1881. Print.

In the world of ancient Egypt there were three types of gardens: sacred, produce, and domestic/pleasure gardens. For the the Royal Garden of Thotmes III, attached to the Temple of Karnak, Queen Hatshepsit sent people to collect insense, myrrh and trees for her fathers temple. And within the many sacred gardens, ritual regeneration and fertility were on display. In addition to this, ancient Egyptians had herbal gardens. A 2700 BCE work by Imhotep contained 300 herbal remedies – with plants for medicines, cooking, cosmetics, and perfume.[1]

[1] Linda Farrar. Gardens and Gardeners of the Ancient World: History, Myth and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow, 2015. Web.

Stieler, Karl et al. Italy from the Alps to Mount Etna . New York: Scribner, Welford, & Armstrong, 1877. Print.

Along with Persia, Egypt introduced gardens to Rome around 60 BCE. The above image shows a peristyle garden, a style that provided privacy in overcrowded Roman cities as well as green space, light, and space for entertaining.

Stieler, Karl et al. Italy from the Alps to Mount Etna . New York: Scribner, Welford, & Armstrong, 1877. Print.

During the Middle Ages the biblical Garden of Eden influenced the creation of two designs: a pleasure garden and an enclosed one.[1] Professors at the time would teach Anatomy, Surgery, and Botany. And during this period, gardens were planted for “observing and admiring nature.”[2]

[1] Amy L. Tigner. Literature and the Renaissance Garden from Elizabeth I to Charles II. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web, 4.

[2] Arthur W. Hill. “The History and Functions of Botanic Gardens.” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 2.1/2 (1915): 185-240. Web.

Falda, Giovanni Battista. Li giardini di Roma, disegnate da Giovanni Battisto Falda. Nuovamente dati alle stampe con direttione di Giov. Giacome de Sandrart… Norimberga: Giov. Giacomo de Sandrart, 1686. Print.

Monastic gardens credited to Charlemagne, are cited as laying the foundations of modern botanic gardens. Physic gardens and simple gardens were enclosed for planting medicinal herbs.[1]

[1] Ibid.

William Salmon. Botanogia, the English herbal: or, History of plants. London: H. Rhodes, 1710.

One of the first types of gardens to be printed were ones about herbal gardens. An example in Sutro’s collection is this 1710 copy of the English Herbal by William Salmon, a successful physician in Restoration-era London. His specialty was mixing exotic ingredients to make drugs to treat patients. At the time doctors would cultivate “medicinal plants in order to safeguard the Practioner against the Herbalist and to enable him to have a correct knowledge of the plants which were the source of the drugs he himself would have to compound.”[1]

[1] Ibid.

Miller, Philip. The Gardener’s Dictionary : Containing the Methods of Cultivating and Improving the Kitchen, Fruit and Flower Garden, as Also the Physick Garden, Wilderness, Conservatory and Vineyard. London: Printed for the author, and sold by C. Rivington, 1731. Print.
Withering, William. A Botanical Arrangement of All the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain : with Descriptions of the Genera and Species, According to the System of the Celebrated Linnaeus … . Birmingham: T. Cadell, 1776. Print.

Moving through the Renaissance into the Enlightenment, the motivation to try to create classification systems to document plants, flowers, trees, etc., increased. “From the late sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, we see the beginning of intense horticultural study, the development of the botanical garden, and the use of these scientific gardens as a means of both understanding the expanding world and expressing colonial aspirations.” With collection and cultivation of plants come also the interest in their description and illustration.”[1]

[1] Victoria Emma Pagán, Judith W Page, and Brigitte Weltman-Aron. Disciples of Flora. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2015. Web, 6.

Edwards, Sydenham, and Robert Sweet. The Ornamental Flower Garden and Shrubbery : Containing Coloured Figures and Descriptions of the Most Beautiful and Curious Flowering Plants and Shrubs Cultivated in Great Britain . London: G. Willis …., 1852. Print.

From an early age Carl Linnaeus love the natural world. Considered the father of taxonomy, he introduced the framework and naming system of genera and species. His first publication in 1735, Systema Naturae (“The System of Nature”), gave birth to the universal use of the Linnaean system. Classification, was shown in this work to be based on whether something was animal, vegetable, or mineral. Linnaeus is a giant in world of biology, influencing generations of scientists. Prior to Linnaeus, naming practices were not uniform. ” The need for a workable naming system was made even greater by the huge number of plants and animals that were being brought back to Europe from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. After experimenting with various alternatives, Linnaeus simplified naming immensely by designating one Latin name to indicate the genus, and one as a “shorthand” name for the species.”[1]

[1] https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/linnaeus.html Retrieved 07/09/2021

Herbarium of Lord Petre collected by John Bartram before 1742.

Sutro’s collection also includes the herbarium of Lord Petre which was collected by John Bartram in America before 1742. John Bartram is one of the first American botanists and in 1728 founded the botanical garden in Philadelphia. He began collecting specimens and soon had a business selling specimens to individuals abroad.

Versailles and Trianon. Paris?: [publisher not identified], 1870. Print.

Gardens in France during the eighteenth century were everywhere. Apart from the famous gardens of the palace of Versailles, Marie Antoinette had her own garden for just her and her friends – away from the scrutiny of the court called Petit Trianon. Her reputation was damaged by rumors of trysts and nighttime walks in the garden causing a public scandal.

Versailles and Trianon. Paris?: [publisher not identified], 1870. Print.


A quick look at Japan. Sutro library has a large collection of resources on Japan. Japanese gardens developed over a 2000 year period. They are naturalistic, while also being steeped in symbolism. The four main themes are “awareness of the power of nature, Buddhist teaching, literature, and the tea ceremony.”[1]  Sand represents rivers, while rocks represent river gods.

[1] Seiko Goto, and Takahiro Naka. Japanese Gardens. London: Routledge, 2015. Web, 1.

Unprocessed collected of Japanese woodblock prints.

An aspect central to Japanese gardens is designing a garden as a “miniature” of a real world landscape. “In addition to miniaturization, the elements of a Japanese garden often have a double meaning (mitate) to suggest a story or philosophy with the given scenery.”[1]

The tea ceremony which developed in 1392-1573 BCE is another unique aspect of Japanese gardens. “The Japanese tea ceremony is not merely an occasion for drinking a cup of tea, but a refined artistic moment in which to experience aesthetic beauty.” It was part of every individuals’ life, no matter what social strata one occupied.[2]

[1] Ibid.,3.

[2] Ibid.,9.

Unprocessed collected of Japanese woodblock prints.

Above is an image from Sutro’s copy of the Tale of Genji in an accordion fold. Written in the 11th century by a Japanese noblewoman, it reveals insights into aristocratic customs and values of the time. “The scenes of the novel were painted on picture scrolls and recreated in gardens.” Seventeenth century Japanese Prince Toshihito “designed the garden not only to recreate a pictorial image from Tale of Genji, but to create a world with a view of the island and the sound of pine trees where he could play the role of Genji.”[1]

Unprocessed collected of Japanese woodblock prints.

The Japanese tea ceremony, called chanoyu or sadō is secular and sacred, and depending on how it is practiced is seen as “an inner, or spiritual, experience of human communication similar to Zen meditation, which involves finding oneself by experiencing nature.” The ceremony is represented by wabi and sabi (synonymous with purity and serenity) – central concepts to the design of tea houses and their adjoining gardens.[2]

[1] Ibid.,26.

[2] Ibid.,27.

Industrial revolution to the Present

Vizetelly, Henry. A History of Champagne : with Notes on the Other Sparkling Wines of France . London: Southeran, 1882. Print.

With urbanization and the swelling cities of concrete, civic leaders and governments realized that designated green spaces were necessary for health and sanity. And in both Germany and Britain efforts were made “to solve social problems and build new communities through urban agriculture.”[1] Urban gardens, parks, and other green spaces are now an essential element in just about every modern city. Even public transportation beautifies its concrete and mechanical by planting trees and other natural elements.

[1] McNeur, Catherine. “Food and the City: Histories of Culture and Cultivation Ed. by Dorothée Imbert (review).” Buildings & Landscapes 24 (2017): 120-22. Web.

Rockridge Bart Station Oakland, CA 94618 – taken by Sutro Librarian Diana Kohnke

And in a 1998 report by University of California, Berkeley, “together with what it costs to groom other planted areas in the state, such as parks and schools, all told a whopping $9.7 billion is spent annually in California on “environmental horticulture”: potted plants from Home Depot, fertilizer, tools, water and everything else that goes into making yards, schools and parks beautiful.”[1]  Sutro’s collection shows the breadth of what gardens mean to our humanity and to our survival. If you take the time to look, you’ll notice that gardens exist all around us – symbolically and physically.

[1] https://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/98legacy/11-23-1998a.html, retrieved 6/28/2021

A Tale of Two Readers

The philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus was a great influence on the Franciscan intellectual tradition, and it shows in the copies of his works that were once property of the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco. The school was founded in 1533 by Franciscans to prepare the children of indigenous elites for priesthood. Though it produced no priests in the 16th century, its students were trained in various subjects—such as rhetoric and philosophy—and were trilingual, being able to read and write in Nahuatl, Spanish, and Latin.

One book contains several annotations in Latin, made in a careful hand, suggesting a reader who was well educated. The annotations run up and down the outer margins, and are even found in the space between the two columns of printed text.

Another Scotus book carries a different kind of inscription, written in a less practiced hand. It reads: “no entiendo la letra por eso no se” (I do not understand these letters, that is why I don’t know). The book’s text is in Latin and was printed in the first part of the 16th century. The Roman typeface is legible to those who know the Latin alphabet, though it features many abbreviations that were in common use in printed books of the early 16th century. It could be that the user of this book was illiterate in Latin, confused by the letterforms of this particular typeface, or unfamiliar with the archaic abbreviations.

A few pages later we find another inscription which appears to be by the same person: “indulgencia a quien leyere esta hoja por sixto 30” ([an] indulgence to whoever reads this leaf by six 30). It seems the reader who cannot understand the letters is announcing that an award awaits whoever can.

Both of these books are bound into a single volume. There is an interesting contrast between the first heavily annotated book–clearly the work of a very eager reader–and the later one, whose user professed their ignorance. When might these works have been brought together?

There is internal evidence to suggest they were bound at the Convento de Santiago Tlatelolco sometime in the mid-18th century. Discarded sheets from another book—Compendio de la vida marabillosa del gloriosissimo Padre S. Francisco de Assis—make up the endpapers and are attached to both from and back covers.[1] This book on the life of Saint Francis was produced by the famed printer Joseph Bernardo de Hogal in Mexico City and it makes sense for it to have been at a Franciscan convent and the site of a famous school. Because Hogal’s book is from 1735, we know that the volume of Duns Scotus books were rebound or repaired at some point after that—over 200 years after the texts within were first published. It’s possible, then, that the annotations were created over a period at least as long, offering some insight not only into how readers engaged with the text but with the language and objects which carried those meanings across time.

Edge title. The illustration was probably copied from a woodcut that illustrates the title page of another edition of Scotus’s works also in the library at the Colegio.

[1] Interestingly, a second volume—also made up of multiple individual works bound together after publication—has printed waste endpapers from the exact some 1735 biography of Saint Francis by Hogal. As of this writing, a third volume with print waste from the same edition of this biography has been located.

A Stich in Time

Last year the Sutro Library acquired a collection of 19th century trade cards advertising sewing machines. It is not uncommon to find vintage trading cards, also known as advertising cards, in archival collections and it is a treat when you do. Some cards only have text but ones produced after the 1870s are brightly colored and highly visual due to the general adoption of four-color lithography. It is also possible to find die-cut trade cards in unique shapes or possessing folding or moveable paper pieces.

An example of a brightly colored and highly visual die-cut trade card in a unique shape.

Like our modern day business cards, these highly stylized trade cards served not only as a form of advertising and promotion, but also as a form of decoration or expression. By making the cards attractive and appealing to sentiment, many women would retain the cards—along with their product information—for use in scrapbooks or home décor. Below are fine examples of how the cards used imagery and subjects that had nothing to do with sewing:

This meant that the company’s product was always present and visible to prospective customers. The presence of trading cards in women and girls’ scrapbooks from this era shows how the artwork featured during this time transcended mere commercial purpose and became an extension of personal expression [Lindquist].

Make it Sew

While Elias Howe Jr. is often credited for giving the world the sewing machine, it took several other inventors to create the machine we’re so familiar with today. Howe’s 1846 patent came after the first patent for a machine that sewed, was filed in February 1842 [NY Times]. It is hard to fathom now that before the sewing machine was invented, all clothes had to be fashioned and mended entirely by hand. Until the mid-1850s, people both in America and abroad would seek out professional dressmakers and tailors if they needed something made for a special occasion [Baron]. Wealthy individuals had all their clothes custom made but for the average person, this was a luxury few could afford. Most often, the average person had their clothes made by their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, or other female relatives if not by themselves (if they were female). This is not to say that men did not sew, but the task fell disproportionately to women.

Sewing was considered “respectable” work and many women made a living or supplemented their income by becoming a seamstress and taking on piecework executed at home. Manufacturers would give a seamstress a bundle of precut garments for construction by hand or the seamstress would receive work from private individuals looking for repairs, updates, or embellishments to be made. This type of work did not pay well and the overhead of rent, candles, thread, needles, etc. came out of the seamstresses’ pocket [Baron]. Competing against the seamstresses for jobs were, “… prison labor, poorhouse labor, farmers’ wives and daughters who sewed to contribute to the household income, and—especially by the 1850s—with church women’s sewing circles, which used the money earned for charity [Baron].”

Commercially, the adoption of the sewing machine brought many changes: the development of the garment industry, the displacement of hand labor, and a greater attainment of speed, uniformity, and precision creating finished products. One source states that the introduction of the sewing machine was estimated to perform the work of six hand sewers in the late 1850s [Baron].

Picture of a woman using a knitting machine in Pennsylvania’s Berkshire Knitting Mills, 1925 (Sutro Library).

Sew Much to Do

As a means of domestic economy, sewing could be a chore or a choice, a survival skill or an agent of personal expression, depending on the circumstances [Gordon]. Home sewing was gendered labor regardless of whether it was for hire or not. A wife or mother was responsible for all the clothes in the family, all the time. This never-ending task occupied a great deal of time and labor: “No one invention has brought with it so great a relief for our mothers and daughters as these iron needle-women. Indeed, it is the only invention that can be claimed chiefly for woman’s benefit.” [NYTimes]

Trade card expounding upon the drudgery of hand sewing.

Naturally, women sewing at home and home-based seamstresses were a potential market for sewing machines, but very few could afford them in the 1850s and 1860s [Baron]. In fact, in 1920, over 50 years after the sewing machine was introduced to the home market, home sewing and clothing production continued. A survey at that time found that the average worker’s wife, “… would need to sew a significant proportion of clothing for herself and her hypothetical three children, including one apron, ten cotton dresses, one wool dress, and three cotton blouses a year [Gordon].” For women of all income levels, sewing was a form of economy since homemade clothing was cheaper than ready-made.

While the work of sewing was demanding to be sure, it also provided women a venue for self-expression and creativity that traveled outside of the home. The home sewer crafted a visible narrative of her family. The clothes she made either helped in the family’s upward mobility socially or preserved their class status [Gordon].

Dressing well and adapting current fashions to one’s personal taste was a source of power for women: “From the 1890s through the 1920s, sewing fulfilled white, middle-class ideals of domesticity and provided wage-earning women a way to dress ‘respectably.’ Sewing upheld class, race, and gender hierarchies while simultaneously serving as a means to fight discrimination, gain economic power, and challenge notions of correct appearances.” [Gordon] Many women took pride in their handiwork and creativity and found a sense of satisfaction from the praise they received.

Sew Much More

The trading cards found in the Sutro Library’s new collection show advertisements that feature more than just a company’s newest sewing machine. An implied message found in the cards is that a “modern woman” sews on a machine and only “ladies of yore” continue to hand sew thus trying to entice younger women to adopt the new technology.

Trade card juxtaposing an elderly woman still knitting by hand and the new, “modern” woman using a sewing machine.

Adopting this machine, however, was welcoming the Industrial Revolution into the most intimate space one had: your home.

The idea that Mama would have her own machine would have been a novel idea before the Industrial Revolution.

In a way, it was bringing the factory with all its noise, grease, gears, and switches into an environment that seemed so counter to what the Revolution represented.

Sewing machines, like most industrial equipment, could be noisy.

Were the copious amounts of kittens, children, flowers, and scenery used in the ads all a ploy to make the machines less intimidating? These cards depict how hard the manufacturers tried to normalize the presence of this heavy machinery in the home.

Additionally, the cards push a dishonest depiction of a mostly white, American middle class ideal that erroneously assumed the majority of its buyers wished to obtain:

Looking at the trade cards en mass, the ads imply that buying one of these machines will allow the purchaser to sew clothes that will demonstrate how “respectable” they were and help them obtain this fanciful American life. None of the women in the cards look like they work in a factory. Most of them are well dressed, with stylized hair and immaculate children living in decorated homes with blooming gardens.

This trade card suggests that having a sewing machine will afford one more leisure time.

In fact, some manufacturers created custom wooden cabinetry for their machines and advertised them specifically to be part of one’s décor.

“Decorate your home with a “White” sewing machine.”

The fantasy of what you could create with a sewing machine did not end with the consumer. The companies themselves believed their products created a better life for people around the globe. For example, Singer, one of the major manufacturing companies, created a series of trade cards in the 1890s featuring men and women from different countries dressed in traditional clothing and posing with a Singer sewing machine. Called “Costumes of All Nations,” Singer created the cards as a souvenir package for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago [Massachusetts Collections]:

The accompanying text offers scholars searing insight into how American society at that time viewed race, ethnicity, consumerism, and industrialization:

Singer states that its products—and by extension, themselves—improved emerging world markets after people adopted their sewing machines. This hubris hints at the continued human rights issues surrounding the emancipation or exploitation of laborers today working for the global fashion industry in countries like Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia [Mehta].

Sew What?

There are so many ways scholars can use these trade cards as a primary resource. As an example of commercial printing, the cards demonstrate the artwork and craft of dozens of woodcuts, lithographers, and paper producers.

The Sutro Library’s collection in particular documents how sewing machines, like firearms, the telegraph, and the cotton gin, played a major role in developing American’s industrialized society. The cards stand as a physical testament to the size and development of the machines themselves and the corresponding growth of companies such as Singer, New Home, and Remington. These companies’ advertisements propagated an idealized view of womanhood that still reverberates today and provides direct evidence of how early advertising promoted ideas of race, gender, and the role of women in the American home. Additionally, labor and economic history trends can be seen, as well as the growing interest in material culture in the later part of the 19th Century.

Studying sewing machines advertisements offers scholars a highly illustrated example of how the growth and development of American technology changed over time [Cooper].

We would like to thank the California State Library Foundation for making this acquisition possible.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.


Baron, Ava and Susan E. Klepp, “If I didn’t have my sewing machine…” Women and Sewing Machine Technology” found in Jensen, J. M., & Davidson, S. (1984). A Needle, a bobbin, a strike: Women needleworkers in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Cooper, G. R., & Cooper, G. R. (1976). The sewing machine: Its invention and development. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. https://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/HST/Cooper/CF/view.cfm

“Costumes of all nations, India, etc. The Singer Manufacturing Co., New York, New York, 1892,” Massachusetts Collections Online found at: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth-oai:cf95mx45x

Gordon, Sarah A. “BOUNDLESS POSSIBILITIES”: Home Sewing and the Meanings of Women’s Domestic Work in the United States, 1890-1930.  Journal of Women’s History; Baltimore Vol. 16, Iss. 2,  (2004): 68-91,209. DOI:10.1353/jowh.2004.0045

Lindquist, Benjamin. Slow Time and Sticky Media: Frank Beard’s Political Cartoons, Chalk Talks, and Hieroglyphic Bibles, 1860–1905, Winterthur Portfolio 53, no.11 (Jun 2019): 41–84. https://doi.org/10.1086/703977

Mehta, Shiyani. “Garmet Worker Exploitation: An International Human Rights Problem.” Found in Human Rights Pulse, August 25,2020. https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/garment-worker-exploitation-an-international-human-rights-problem

“The story of the sewing-machine: Its Invention Improvements Social, Industrial and Commercial Importance,” New York Times, January 7, 1860, Page 2. https://www.nytimes.com/1860/01/07/archives/the-story-of-the-sewingmachine-its-invention-improvements-social.html

Found Letters: Creating My Family’s First Jiapu

Every semester the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis, teaches a one-time class for an SFSU undergraduate course focused on genealogy where students take what they learn to research and write a paper about their ancestor’s immigrant experience. Our guest writer, Sarah Fong, was a student in this past semester’s class and shares her paper with us in the following blog post.

My class project was created in order to understand my mom’s immigration to the US through her perspective. In order to do so, I conducted an interview with her and reflected on how she communicated with my dad when she first met him through a letter. The following are various letters in my mom’s voice which I created using information from my interview with her and my dad’s box of letters. Also included are my thoughts on how immigration affects perception and information I’ve learned while researching records in China. By “recreating” her letters, I try to show how I understood my mom’s thoughts during this transitionary period. While the words are my own, my mom has seen this project and made sure the details are accurate to her history.

Letters from Mom to Dad that he kept in a safe

My parents were pen pals before my mom was brought to the US; they sent letters across seas for 3 years from China to the US before they got married. These letters provide a physical and personal timeline of their relationship and her immigration to the US. At the same time, her story is impersonal in the sense that it resembles many immigrants who came from China. The arranged marriage, her reason for travel, her starting point, and so on, mirror millions who fell in love with the dream of the US. My dad was a US citizen and my mom needed an expedited way to get in the US. She found her way through marrying someone she never saw.

May 1991

Dear Great Uncle,*

Hello, my name is Jin Xian Liu, although you’re probably already aware of this. I’ve heard a lot about you from my family at Shu Chong (樹涌) and never imagined we had relatives outside of the village. You’re from Ho Chong (濠涌) correct? We were in the same area but didn’t have the fortune of meeting.

Did you also study at the high school in Zhong Shan? The one at the end of the cracked road and broken street lights. My bike tires have popped more times riding into the city than the paths around my hut. I’ve heard it was similar to when you were here, but I imagine there’s a few more lines running across the concrete now. Do you ever miss them I wonder? I can’t imagine I would. With streets like the ones over there, remembering these ones must seem odd. Is it true the ground glitters over there? To earn a name like Gold Mountain, it must be very pretty.

Sorry, it’ll be a while before I can fly over, but I’m very excited to see everyone! My brothers are moving there in a month, my sisters will join you in a bit. I’m concerned about everyone leaving before me and it’ll take a while before I can gather money for my flight, but don’t worry, I’m a very hard worker and have a job moving dishes. My studies have been going well too.

Having so many siblings, I’ve learned a lot about taking care of others. I’m confident I’ll be able to repay you for this opportunity you’ve given me.

 Also, I’ve heard you currently have a wife? I hope to sit down together so I can learn from her on how to best take care of you. Do you have a favorite food?


Jin Xian Liu

*In China, people are addressed by their titles instead of names.

One of the letters Mom sent. She mostly talked about her studies and her day.

I find myself at an almost moral stalemate as I look at my mom’s immigration through the values I’ve learned in the US. There are four distinct factors within my mom’s journey that, by American standards, are rather uncomfortable: 1) the arranged marriage; 2) my dad being my mom’s great uncle; 3) the age gap between them (42 years); and 4) my dad courting mom before divorcing his first wife (he only filed for a divorce a year before marrying my mom). These factors are a remnant of old traditions where “‘marrying first, then falling in love’ […] remained relevant for decades to come for those who married for practicality, rather than for pure love” (Zhou and Xiao). It’s a loveless marriage out of the usefulness of being married with the hope they would connect after tying the knot. Women are allowed to divorce after a law passed in China 50 years ago, but in arranged marriages they only have the power to leave instead of choose whom they could marry. Despite this, my mom’s optimism and upbringing outshined anything, making her the exception. Love was more a matter of “when” instead of “if” for her.

On the other hand, my parents didn’t grow up in the US; matchmaking in China is common, traditions are the foundation of Chinese culture, and marriage is the best way to get citizenship. Not only was the marriage born out of necessity for moving, but it was normal in their culture. My dad wasn’t happy in his first marriage. He had a feeling of disconnection with his wife mixed with fear of no one to take care of him that influenced his decision to find someone else. Unlike in the US, families in China often live together and take care of their elderly. Shipping them off to a retirement home is a negligence of responsibility because care in the household is reciprocal–the elderly took care of the children so the children should take care of them when needed (known as filial piety). My mom never minded marrying to take care of dad so I didn’t question it either; however, whenever I talk about my mom’s immigration, it always feels like I should defend why I don’t find it as uncomfortable as expected.  

Mom visiting Grandma in Zhong Shan

December 1993

Dear Great Uncle,

It’s finally time to go. Despite our monthly correspondence, I’m getting the same feeling as writing that first letter. This nervous jitterbug has settled on my skin and won’t go away. By the way, thank you so much for the coat you sent with the last letter! It’s much comfier than anything I’ve bought and I’m happy your first sight of me won’t be in something I’ve patched up. Are all clothes like this over there? You’ll have to take me shopping some time.

I’m going to miss my hut. I’m going to miss waking up to the rice rustling as the mice move about, collecting the produce to sell at the market, and gathering pine-cones to throw in the furnace. I’m going to miss watching the stars reflected in the well when I bike back from school and drinking their reflection as if I’m sipping up those bright lights. I’m thankful for the working street lights that’ll line the roads in America, but I hope to continue seeing the same stars that are overhead as I write this. I’ll miss these things, but I know I’ll find things to miss over there too.

Was that too wordy? If I’m going to college there, I felt practicing was necessary. There’s a lot I have to learn after all! Even though I’m coming to take care of you, it seems you’ll be my teacher for many things too. I hope to learn all I can about stocks, English, driving, and all of the practices they have in America.

Also, I appreciate the offer of paying for my flight, but my classmates gave me a lot of red envelopes as a farewell. I’ve also saved up quite a bit so 950 dollars is no problem. My classmates helped sew the extra money into my shirt (I couldn’t let them cut the jacket you bought) so I won’t lose it before we arrive home.

See you soon,

Jin Xian Liu

Mom in America for the first time, Dad gifted her a car.

February 1994

Dear Husband,

Is it too soon to call you that? I wanted to write this last letter since we’re in China for our marriage. Although our visit will be short, I look forward to seeing the Great Wall, your home village, and taking you to Shu Chong. I wonder how different it is in the few months I’ve been away. Most of the people have already moved to the city. I suppose they didn’t want to share a single telephone in the middle of the courtyard anymore. The lines for it tended to run long.

Although this letter will be the last (and it’s so odd writing it with a clear face in mind), I felt it necessary to mark a goodbye to my life before. I never dreamed I’d live in the city–much less travel over the ocean. You probably experienced this before you moved to the US for the Korean War. Being from a small village, you dream about the big city but never imagine yourself in it; too many tomatoes to pick, too many relatives who need someone to support them, and too much to do on a daily. This life was all I knew and I wasn’t unhappy being there. Then my relatives all started leaving to America and I was left alone.

I never thought I’d follow, but I did hope beyond anything to reunite with them. You gave me that chance and a new life ahead of me. You don’t have to worry about me leaving you. I promise to take care of you.


Amy Fong

Mom and Dad’s Marriage

Chinese records are documented in paper books called Jiapu (also known as Zupu), written on temple walls, or marked on gravestones. The physical presence of the records are important to the family and they’re “mostly original manuscripts that remain in private family collections” (Morton). There are no copies because it was traditional to have only one manuscript of records. That manuscript can be edited, but it was not often reproduced. It’s a paper trail that’s closely guarded but easily lost because hardly anything is digitized. According to Sunny Morton, a lecturer in the global genealogy community, “many Jiapu were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s” (Morton). This mostly affected Northern China, however, it caused a great loss in family history. This has led to many families bringing their Jiapu with them when they immigrate (my parents didn’t do this). While this means the Jiapu are more protected, they’re also more widespread causing it to be more difficult to track down. 

A service called My China Roots has acquired 2500 Jiapu in order to help the process in making these resources online, but it’s a very slow, cumbersome road (Wang). Because many of the records are held within family ancestral homes, the only way to access them is to visit the places they’re held. This means knowing the name of the original village the Jiapu is held, having someone go there to take pictures of the records or get the manuscript, and hope they know the dialect within the village to talk to the locals when there are hundreds of Chinese dialects in existence. My dad spoke Longdu while my mom spoke in the Zhong Shan dialect. The dialects are similar to Cantonese or Mandarin, but distinctly different enough that holding a conversation would be difficult. For the Jiapu that were taken out of China, they’re “scattered throughout libraries in Asia and the United States” (Morton). Traditions, while important to China, have made finding specific records almost impossible.

An example of a typical Jiapu/Zupu.  Courtesy of chineseancestor.org.

This is why it’s so important my mom kept the letters to my dad. They have names, descriptions of places, and are the Jiapu for how my mom created her new life here. Her keeping them was partly for sentimental reasons and partly for tradition, but now they’re an integral part of my family history due to the uncertainty of the location of other records. I know the names of the villages they both came from, however, the chances of the records being in the place likely swallowed by the city are slim. Mom was one of the last people within her village to leave for the US so it’s fair to assume the village is now deserted. Immigration created new opportunities for my mom, my dad, and anybody who found themselves in my parents’ position, but for a country like China, the records of history are erased when left behind. The chippings on the gravestones fade, the Jiapu scatter, and wood boards wear out over time. There’s a special feeling to holding the physical evidence, the Jiapu of your history, and Mom’s letters are the closest things I’ll likely get to that time before I was born.

(From left to right) Li Yu Chan (Dad’s brother’s wife), Fong Jin Yun (Dad’s big sister), Fong Xiu Yun (Dad’s younger sister), Me, Asa Fong (Dad’s younger brother), Dad, Mom

February 7, 2019

Dear Husband,

You’ve left to a place I can’t yet follow. I’m writing to say thank you for the life you’ve given me. As small as this one is, I hope this letter reaches you.

With Love,

Amy Fong

Warren Yut Fong (1931-2019, a great dad)


Morton, Sunny. “How to Find My Chinese Ancestors.” FamilySearch Blog, 29 Mar. 2019, http://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/chinese-family-tree-jiapu/.

Wang, Emily. “Talk Story Review: My China Roots.” 1882 Foundation, 6 Mar. 2019, 1882foundation.org/talkstory/talk-story-review-my-china-roots/#:~:text=Jiapu%20(%E5%AE%B6%E8%B0%B1)%20and%20zupu%20(,


Zhou, Christina, and Bang Xiao. “’Marry First, Then Fall in Love’: The Evolution of Love and Marriage in China.” ABC News, ABC News, 21 Apr. 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-22/marry-first-then-fall-in-love-how-marriage-evolved-in-china/9641958.

“Zupu 族谱.” Chinese Ancestors, 30 May 2016, chineseancestor.org/culture/zupu/.

A Souvenir Passenger List: Taking a Genealogy Gamble

Cover of photo album titled "Souvenir of European Travel 1875."

Every semester I teach a one-time class for an SFSU undergraduate course focused on genealogy where I provide a general overview on research tools and a hands-on classroom activity. This activity includes a worksheet that guides students through the primary and secondary sources on their tables and ultimately simulates the genealogical research experience.

While researching items for one of these worksheets, I made a wonderful discovery and thought it would be useful to share my discovery process with our readers as well as tips for conducting your own genealogical research.

It all began with this ginormous 1875 photo album of David B. Gamble’s trip to Europe. The photos offer no information other than the sites Gamble visited.

  • Cover of photo album titled "Souvenir of European Travel 1875."
  • Photos historic sites in Ireland inside album from 1875
  • Souvenir passenger list for "Amerique" and a photo of the ship to the right of it.

Tucked on the inside cover of the album is a souvenir passenger list. Lists like this one were usually distributed prior to sailing or during the voyage and provided a way for cabin passengers to make acquaintances with one another.[i] On the cover of this passenger list we learn the name of the ship, which port it departed from, where it was heading, and the date of departure. Inside, the passengers are listed alphabetically along with what I have guessed to be their place of residence. We can see that David isn’t the only Gamble listed. There’s also an Edwin P. Gamble. I became curious to find out how these two were related!

Using only the information provided in the passenger list, I set out to search for David P. Gamble through FamilySearch.org (a free genealogical database). Since I know he was in New York in 1875, I selected “Any” for Life Event and input New York plus the year but with a five-year cushion.

Tip: This 5-year range will help with pulling up records where the year may have been written or indexed incorrectly (for example, a 5 may have been mistakenly recorded in the index or abstract as a 6).

The second result seems the most promising as it has many of the fields matching what I searched: name and year. The record set is called “United States Passport Applications” so it could be related to this trip. Since the original has been digitized and is freely available through FamilySearch.org (noted by the camera icon on the right of the result), I don’t want to rely on the abstract (the information we see in the results list) and instead want to investigate the original myself. And after doing so, I deduce this record happens to be David’s passport application for his trip abroad in 1875. In this application we see that the name, year of application, and city of residence match what was cited in the souvenir passenger list so we can confirm this David is our person. We also learn quite a bit more about him like his birth date and birth place.

Passport application of David B. Gamble in 1875, courtesy of FamilySearch.org

Tip: When you have access to the original, always check a few records before and after the one you first find. Sometimes there will be more information on the person in question. Looking at the image after David’s application, we find that of Edwin P. Gamble with much of the same info confirming they were traveling together and not just two people with the same last name who both happened to be on the same ship.

Now that we know when David was born (1847 according to the passport application), we can switch the Life Event in the search menu for Birth and input in a location and a year range.

Tip: More results will appear if you broaden the location so in this case I searched by state. On other genealogical websites and databases, the opposite may be true where the narrower your location, the more relevant the results.

My goal with this new search was to find as many census records as I could for David since census records are full of information and a great place to start. I specifically wanted to find out how Edwin and David are related and the earliest census with both Edwin and David is 1860 since Edwin was born in 1852. What I immediately notice after finding the 1860 census is that David is in the same household as someone named “Edwin P.” and it’s the same age difference we determined from the passport applications. From this, we learn David and Edwin are quite possibly brothers!

Tip: Good to make note of any variant spellings of names which you can add to your search. In the 1860 census, we see the recorder spelled their surname as Gambell instead of Gamble.

Screenshot of Gambell family in 1860 U.S. Census, courtesy of FamilySearch.org.

Next I moved on to the 1870 census but had a hard time finding it with David B. Gamble as my search terms so I switched to searching for Edwin P. Gamble and had success. I noticed a few more people listed in the Gamble household in 1870. At first glance, it appeared there was no David but instead a Daniel. And the abstract for the census record reflects that. (See screenshot below) At closer inspection of the original, we can see how “Daniel” was mistaken for David: the circle of the second “d” is not closed completely which makes it look like two separate letters, “e” and “l”. This explains why I couldn’t find the 1870 census when searching for David!

Tip: If no results first appear for an ancestor, try searching for someone else in their family and finding the record that way.

I also notice someone with an incorrectly indexed name: Preston Alexander. In line 30 of the original, it reads as Proctor and is meant to be read as a surname not as a first name (which is how it’s implied in the abstract above). And then the wheels begin to turn in my mind when I take note of the occupation of the head of house, Edwin’s father James Gamble: Soap and Candle Manufacturer. Curious and curious-er.

One of the suggested records is that of Find A Grave, which is a database separate from FamilySearch.org with cemetery and tombstone information. The inscriptions provide vital information and sometimes information on the deceased’s ancestors and descendants as well as a biographical description, especially if they were a prominent figure in society.

Since I am interested in learning more about their father, James, and his soap business, I click on his Find A Grave record. and we find a biographical description full of information on this family. In the first line we learn that James Gamble is indeed the co-founder of Procter and Gamble! For as long as this item has been catalogued, there has been no mention that the previous owner, David B. Gamble, was related to that Gamble family who co-founded a company of which many brands are still used today.

This souvenir passenger list example goes to show that all you really need to get started on your genealogical research is a name, and where and when an event happened. This tiny ephemeral piece gave us all three clues leading to a curious connection to our modern world.

Feel free to share in the comments about your own curious connections!

Today’s post was written by the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

[i] Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives provides documents and information on immigrants from primarily European countries to North America including souvenir passenger lists. – https://www.gjenvick.com/Passengers/FAQs/WhatArePassengerLists.html


There are so many powerful symbols in American history and these symbols of national pride hold a wealth of information about how people in the past viewed our country’s struggles, aspirations, and trajectory. Nothing exemplifies this more than Columbia. Many of us may not be familiar with the personification of our country, Columbia, but we are well versed in the things that bear her name: Columbia University, the District of Columbia, British Columbia, Columbia Records, and Columbia Pictures.  While these references have meaning today, the historic underpinnings of the name may not. 

In the early history of our country, America’s allegorical image was conceived in the European mind as an indigenous woman, falling in line with the custom to bestow female figures to countries, continents, and to other concepts like Lady Liberty and Justice.

Examples of individual countries in female forms would be France’s Marianne or Britain’s Britannia:

Left: Statue of Marianne in Paris, Picture by Author; Right: Statue of Britannia, courtesy Wikipedia

Britannia is usually shown wearing a white gown and helmet and carrying a shield and trident. Her dress and accoutrements look more Roman than Gaelic owing to the fact that she first came into being during the Roman rule of England sometime after 43 AD. Britannia, who represents the British Empire, saw a resurgence in popularity during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

The Four Continents from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1603), pages 333-338.

The above images show how continents were often imagined.  Europe was commonly depicted wearing a crown with an imperial purple robe surrounded by classical architecture, objects of the arts and sciences, Christianity, and often times a bull. Asia was almost always clothed in the richest of fabrics and seen with a burning urn of incense. Africa’s female form, frequently clad in something revealing, was surrounded by a menagerie of exotic animals and would be either a Black female from central or southern Africa or a Moorish woman from northern Africa.

These European artistic depictions of continents and individual countries had a strong agenda: to show the greatness of Europe by contrasting European civility and education against the so-called “underdeveloped” and/or “barbarous,” unchristian lands. Thus, the female form used to personify the continent of America or the New World was always shown as the most “primitive” of the continents since the Europeans had recently learned of its existence and erroneously deemed it to be in an uncorrupted and idyllic state. An example of this is seen in this engraving found in Arnoldus Montanus’ book, Nieuwe en onbekende weereld, of, Beschryving van America en ‘t zuid-land (1671):[i]

“America” Engraved image found in Arnoldus Montanus’ book entitled, Nieuwe en onbekende weereld.

Here America is a young Native woman wearing an elaborate feather crown and skirt. Rather than being surrounded by the European symbols of the arts, she is surrounded by signs of agricultural and mineral wealth. The presence of spears hint at conflict, but she appears as an Amazonian princess, held aloft on a cornucopia reminiscent of Botticelli’s famed painting, The Birth of Venus. This is a Venus for the New World, manufactured to excite the European mind into pondering all possible things assumed freely available to them in North, Central, and South America.[i]

As the years passed the New World became the newest prize for global powers to fight over and the London political cartoons began using the Native American woman to represent British America rather than the entire New World[ii]. Later, as tensions grew between the 13 colonies and Britain, British Americans began to desire different iconography from what the Europeans had created for them originally. Perhaps it was the closer proximity to, and conflict between, the colonists and the various Native American groups that made the Colonists begin to search for a different allegorical image[iii]. Or perhaps the Colonists rejected the idea of seeing themselves depicted as a Native personage which, in the 17th and 18th century, implied subjection to the Mother Country’s superiority and cultural dominance[iv]. The new republic needed a symbol that put the United States on an equal footing with the more established global powers.


Once independent from European powers, the United States began to craft its own non-indigenous secular iconography dominated by two allegorical females: Liberty (representing our national principle) and then later, Columbia (representing our physical place on the globe)[v]. In 1792, Congress officially decided that Lady Liberty was to be the embodiment of the national consciousness and decreed that almost all currency carry her visage, not that of the elected president[vi]. The practice of coins showing an idealized image of Liberty continued throughout the 19th century.

But liberty is a principle and the allegorical image of Liberty was not America’s alone. What was needed was a symbol that represented the country that was uniquely ours: Columbia. The corporeal reality of place, the American goddess Columbia derived her name from a Latinized version of Christopher Columbus meaning “Land of Columbus.”[vii] Who came up with the moniker is up for debate: was it Chief Justice Samuel Sewell of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who wrote a poem in 1697 calling the collective colonies Columbina?[i] Was it Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1738 describing the Colonies in the British publication Gentleman’s Magazine?[ii]

Regardless of her origin, Columbia becomes a stand-in for the American Colonies both at home and overseas. She is mentioned in the 1775 poem “To His Excellency General Washington” by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784), the first published African-American poet in U.S. history.[i] In fact, the song, “Hail, Columbia!”, composed for George Washington’s inauguration, was the unofficial anthem for the new country until the “Star-Spangled Banner” replaced it officially in 1931[ii]. It is still used today as the vice president’s official entrance music[iii].

Now that they had a name they needed a personification as well. The elaborate feathers and exotic animals previously seen when America was visualized as a Native America woman gave way to a figure that was distinctly European and reminiscent of Classical Greece. Columbia is shown frequently as a young White woman wearing classically draped garments decorated with the stars and stripes, often carrying an American flag and wearing a soft Phrygian[i] cap:

Columbia, courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

Columbia carrying a flag, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Modern audiences will recognize a version of Columbia as the torch-carrying, robed lady featured in the opening credits for Columbia Pictures’ movies or the floating robed woman facing West carrying a book and telegraph lines in John Gast’s 1872 famous painting, American Progress:

Images of Columbia were featured extensively in political cartoons during the American Civil War both at home and abroad. Famed cartoonist and illustrator, Thomas Nast, supportive of the Union effort, frequently depicted Columbia in his political drawings about the conflict between the states:

Left: Nast’s Columbia weeps after the 1864 Democratic National Convention; Right: Nast’s Columbia looks victorious at the end of the Civil War.

During the latter part of the 19th century, John Tenniel, the famous English illustrator who would later create the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, drew his own version of Columbia:

“Mrs. Britannia. “Ah, my dear Columbia, it’s all very well; But I’m afraid you’ll find it difficult to join that neatly.”

Here, a matronly Britannia, looking maddeningly smug, gives the girlish Columbia instruction as the later gloomily holds a torn map representing the divided States of America[i]. There is a strong Mother-Daughter feeling in the drawing hinting at the past Mother Country-Colony relationship the two countries once had.

One of the most striking images from the Civil War era is Christopher Kimmel’s lithograph featuring the allegorical figures of Columbia, Liberty, and Justice coming together to celebrate the end of the Civil War[i]:

Columbia, Liberty, and Justice celebrate the end of the American Civil War.

“The artist depicts in symbolic terms the downfall of the Confederacy. Columbia, crowned with stars, and Liberty, wearing a Phrygian cap and holding an American flag, stand on a pedestal in the center. On the pedestal are carved the likenesses of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In front of the pedestal Justice, armed with sword and scales, leads a charge of Union troops toward the right[ii]

A word from Uncle Sam

Today, most of us consider “Uncle Sam” as the personification of our country but he figuratively represents the federal government and has since the War of 1812[iii]. Again, the famous illustrator Thomas Nast in the 1870s would create the visual image we are most familiar with: a White male with whiskers wearing a top hat and red and white striped pants.

“The Lightning Speed of Honesty.” Cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in the 24 November 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly

One has to consider the role of gender in how and when Columbia and Uncle Sam are used. World War I recruiting posters used the personification of the male government to get men to enlist to do the traditionally male activities of engaging in war and defending one’s country. Columbia, Lady Liberty, and the Goddess of Justice are all female, implying vulnerability and fragility, and in need of protection.  Uncle Sam is stern, reminding men of their duty to protect the constant, pure, and nurturing Columbia.

Columbia today

So why isn’t Columbia as widely known today? Perhaps men and women stopped viewing women as “helpless” after they won the right to vote in 1920[i]. Or perhaps, she was supplanted by the rise of Lady Liberty once more after the United States received “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” as a gift from France in 1886[ii].

However popular Lady Liberty is to us today, a new, modern version of Columbia was seen during the 2017 Women’s March: 

Shepard Fairey’s poster found in the Sutro Library’s 2017 Women’s March collection, M000014, box 11, item 275.

Los Angeles based artist Shepard Fairey created a poster for the March inspired by a decade old photograph by Ridwan Adhami of Munira Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American.[i]  Just like in Adhami’s photograph, Fairey’s poster featured a woman wearing a hijab patterned with America’s stars and stripes, reminiscent of the stars and stripes on Columbia’s clothes.[ii]

Even England’s Britannia is getting an updated look. Recently, The Royal Mint, the British maker tasked with producing all of the UK’s coinage, released a coin depicting Britannia as a woman of color for the first time in her 1,900 year history[iii].

The changes to both Columbia and Britannia show society’s growing awareness of the need for these national icons to speak more directly to all members of their respective societies. These updated symbols underscore the idea that the mythical face of the nation can be as culturally diverse as the society it represents. Clare Maclennan, The Royal Mint’s director of commemorative coins, said “Britannia is an enduring symbol of the people, and as the nation evolves it is right that her image should evolve too.”[i]

Future artistic renderings of Columbia and other American symbols will continue to expand and build upon our shared understanding of America’s identity and values.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library.

[i] Ibid.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/23/womens-march-poster-munira-ahmed-shepard-fairey-interview

[ii] https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2017/01/20/obama-hope-artist-returns-with-people-posters/4f3Fp8gRgDXCd5Xtreq2QN/story.html

[iii] https://www.cnn.com/style/article/royal-mint-britannia-2021/index.html

[i] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/when-america-was-female/273672/

[ii] P. 39, American spirit, vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library

[i] https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004665369/

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://www.history.com/news/was-there-a-real-uncle-sam

[i] Punch, or the London Charivari, October 1, 1864, Sutro Library.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrygian_cap

[i] https://www.commonlit.org/texts/to-his-excellency-general-washington

[ii] P. 39, American spirit, vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hail,_Columbia

[i] http://www.inheritage.org/almanack/american-goddess-female-depictions-of-liberty/

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Johnson


[i] Page 81, Hart, J. L. (2003). Columbus, Shakespeare, and the interpretation of the New World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[ii] Page 52, Higham, J. (1990). Indian princess and Roman goddess: The first female symbols of America. Worcester [Mass.: American Antiquarian Society.

[iii] P. 55, Ibid.

[iv] P. 57, Ibid.

[v] P. 63, Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] P. 39, Daughters of the American Revolution. (2001). American spirit. Washington, DC: National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Vol. 146, no. 4, July/August 2012, Sutro Library

 [LD1]Add an image or two in this section to break up the text

[i] MISC00091, Sutro Library

Finding Meaning in Colonial Maps

Most maps are designed and created with a purpose. This is evident when you open an atlas which shows a wide variety of maps on data like population density and physical terrain, as well as something as simple as using your phone to find directions. The map shown here was also designed with a purpose, shown in what kind of information is present and the way it is given:

Map depicting the proposed future colony of Georgia, 1733.

It was originally published in a pamphlet written in 1733 by Benjamin Martyn entitled “Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia,” which argued that establishing a colony would bring large economic and social benefits to Great Britain:

Title page from Benjamin Martyn’s 1733 pamphlet “Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia.”

The pamphlet and the map it contains are very interesting on their own, but in order to fully understand them we must look at the historical context in which they were created and the motivations of the people who would use it. The map and pamphlet were published by the British, for a British audience, and when looking at something like this bias is almost inevitable. Many of the ideas presented here about this map are inspired by Daniel Richter’s book, “Facing East from Indian Country” which emphasizes the importance of considering different perspectives. A map commissioned by the Spanish or French might have different information present, and Native Americans especially would prioritize wildly different things when it comes to not only something like a map but many parts of culture and how the world is visualized. The interactions between colonists and the native inhabitants of America was one of the biggest and most important aspects of the early efforts in colonization.

These interactions are sometimes remembered as peaceful and mutually beneficial in mythologized tales, such as the story of the pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, but more often than not the relationship between Native Americans and European colonists was complicated, fluid, and even hostile. Early American colonists did not place much importance on race and did participate in friendly interaction with Native Americans, but this doesn’t mean that Europeans saw Native Americans as equals. As early as 1637 colonists in Connecticut set fire to a Pequot village and killed hundreds in the mystic massacre, showing that many saw the natives as uncivilized and inferior. By the middle of the 18th century the attitude among Europeans had become that the native population of America was an obstacle to expansion further west. A good marker for the solidification of this relationship with natives came in 1711 with the Tuscarora war in Colonial North Carolina. This violent war between colonists, the Tuscarora tribe, and their allies had a lasting effect on relations and the ways Europeans viewed the Native Americans.

This brings us to the map presented here, which was published only a few decades after this defining conflict between colonists and native groups. The content of the map is focused on the southeast corner of what would become the United States, with it being centered on the modern-day state of Georgia. You should be able to pick out this name, along with other familiar places like South Carolina and Florida, but while the names have remained the borders and claims of these states have shifted over time. At the very left is the Mississippi River which is labelled as “the line of the present French possession,” marking the Louisiana territory which was at the time claimed by France:

Detail of the 1733 map showing the Mississippi River which marked the line of French possession.

It also places a particular emphasis on many rivers and their tributaries, even labelling many small inlets. Notably absent from the map are many labels for colonial population centers, a few coastal ones such as Charlestown are included, but in contrast the names and inhabited land of various native groups in this region are present. The population of men within each group is also labeled, for instance the Cherokee are marked as having 8000 men. Several descriptive labels are present in places like along the gulf coast which claims there are “no inhabitants from hence to the point Florida,” and a spot along a tributary of the Mississippi described as “a fitt place to settle an English factory.”

The historical background given on native relations at this time and content chosen by the mapmaker on the map all point to the explanation that its purpose was to encourage and facilitate the settlement of this region by the British. The map serves as a sort of tool in determining the ideal locations and what sort of obstacles potential colonists may face. Because of this purpose the creator of the map did not have to include other things like details on already existing settlements. The various native tribes in this region were perceived as an obstacle and the chance of conflict was present, meaning the mapmaker felt it was necessary to explain the military strength of each group through the number of men present. The fact that the male population and name is the only information given shows the disconnect between the settlers and native inhabitants, with expansion bringing conflict between these two groups.

More obvious indicators of priority include the statements on ideal locations for settlement, but information like the extent of claims was also important for this region. British settlement of the interior not only brought conflict with natives, but also with other colonial powers like France and Spain. Florida, with areas marked as having no inhabitants, was a Spanish colonial territory at the time. A slave uprising in South Carolina known as the Stono Rebellion took place in 1739, only a few years after this map was published, with the goal of fleeing to Spanish Florida which offered freedom to escaped British slaves. The settlement of Georgia was partly encouraged because of this colonial competition, to create a buffer between South Carolina and Florida. While the competition with Spain in the south was happening, to the east territorial claims brought even greater strife with the French.

The rising tension between France and Great Britain would culminate in the Seven Years’ War which lasted from 1754 to 1763, also called the French and Indian War for the part of the conflict fought in America. Participants in the war included then Lieutenant-Colonel George Washington who served in the British army at the time. Much of the fighting took place in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi, an area populated by many different indigenous tribes. With the war ending in a British victory, the French lost most of their American colonies and the region was claimed by Great Britain. This brought even greater settlement from the east, with valuable land even being claimed by prominent American figures like Thomas Jefferson and Washington.

The increased settlement brought even more conflict, which the British government recognized and tried to remedy by restricting settlement to the east of the Proclamation Line of 1763, roughly following the Appalachian Mountains. The land west of the line was reserved for native groups, especially those which aided the British in the war, but as the existence of this map shows many believed this place was a potential area to settle and were angered by this decision. This attitude towards settlement restrictions would be a contributing factor to the American Revolution, and the relationship between colonists and natives would continue to be defined by settlement and conflict. By looking at things like this map, used as a tool for colonization, we can try to understand the motivations of those using it and the perspectives they might have had towards others.

[This blog post was written by Nick Archer, SFSU undergraduate in history, who will be graduating in 2022. Nick wrote this essay as part of a class project.]

If you are interested in reading the original pamphlet written in 1733 by Benjamin Martyn entitled “Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia,” please page Vault F289 .M42 1733 once the Sutro Library is open again to the public.

Napoleon and the Book of Fate

Shows title page of Book of Fate with Hieroglyphics

Sutro Library’s copy of The book of fate, formerly in the possession of Napoleon … now first rendered into English from a German translation of an ancient Egyption manuscript, found in the year 1801.

“The Translator, in taking his leave of the British Public, has now merely to state that the BOOK of FATE, in its English dress, is adapted to all conditions of life: and persons of every rank and capacity will now have an opportunity of consulting it, and of regulating their future conduct according to its ORACULAR COUNSELS.”  

Herman Kirchenhoffer from English translation of the Book of Fate, 1822.

Colored portrait engraving Napoleon Bonaparte

The Book of Fate in Sutro Library’s rare book collection offers insights into Napoleon, the effects of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and colonialism.  In 1798 General Napoleon Bonaparte set sail on the Mediterranean with 35,000 soldiers and over 160 scientists and artists (the majority of whom were from the prestigious Commission des Sciences et des Artes) in order to lay siege to Egypt.  It was simultaneously a scientific, military, and economic mission. Under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was directly ruled by the Mamluks (ex-soldiers and formerly enslaved persons) who served to administer Arab interests. On his way to Egypt, Napoleon captured Malta, and proceeded to the port of Alexandria.  

Shows lists of scientists and artists who went to Egypt with Napoleon


Map of Mediterranean

In addition to this, Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition was a reaction to the concern by France’s legislature who feared that generals and soldiers entering into politics would return the country to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror – which from 1793-1794 saw 17,000 officially executed and 10,000 more who died while in prison. The brutality was firmly imbued in the minds of the leaders of the French Republic. And especially feared was Napoleon – a celebrated military hero and an extremely popular public figure in France. Revolutionary executive leader Paul Barras “admitted in his memoirs that the members of the Directory began to perceive “’all the dangers that the Republic ran ‘if Bonaparte were not sent on a mission abroad.’”[1] They decided that Egypt would be a worthy campaign to occupy troops. One legislator, Eschasseriaux, “concluded, ‘what finer enterprise for a nation which has already given liberty to Europe [and] freed America than to regenerate in every sense a country which was the first home to civilization…and to carry back to their ancient cradle industry, science, and the arts, to cast into the centuries the foundations of a new Thebes or of another Memphis.’”[2]

[1]  Juan Cole. Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007., 16.

[2]  Ibid.

Image of aqueduct off the Nile in Cairo

Another reason to invade Egypt was a response by France to the loss of the colony of Saint Domingo (modern-day Haiti) which became its own country after a 1790s uprising of former enslaved persons.  Taking Egypt would, Napoleon wrote, establish “’a French colony on the Nile, which would prosper without slaves, and serve France instead of the republic of Saint Domingo.’”[1] Within this context Egypt provided a new opportunity for crops like sugar and cotton.

[1] Juan Cole. Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East.Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Shows a caricature of Napoleon in Egypt

It was during the Egyptian campaign that soldiers uncovered the famous Rosetta Stone, and it was also during this time that the Book of Fate was found, written on a papyrus scroll attached to the breast of a mummified king found by French Naturalist Charles Sigisbert Sonnini (1751-1812).  While Napoleon’s military venture failed, the establishment of Egyptology as a science was born, as was the craze for all things Egyptian, known as Egyptomania. This excitement towards all things Egypt was the unintended outcome as monuments and relics were given away as gifts by the Egyptian government to British allies, or sold by grave robbers to foreigners, as were the books and published accounts that were written about the country.

Title page and portrait of Belzoni’s Narrative of Egypt and Nubia

The Egyptian campaign resulted in a series of books dating from 1809-1829 called Description de l’Egypte, written and illustrated by more than 164 scholars and engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, map-makers, artists, as well as numerous engravers. The work covers all aspects of society in ancient and modern Egypt, as well as descriptions and illustrations of monuments.  While initially intended for academic purposes, its appeal was widespread.

Shows interior of the temple Medinah Harou

Title page of the Book of Fate’s The Writing of Balaspis by command of Hermes Trismegistus

The Book of Fate was translated into English by Herman Kirchenhoffer in 1822 and begins by detailing how the original papyrus was discovered and how it was used by Napoleon.  It was found in Napoleon’s camp after his defeat at Leipzig in 1813. A Prussian soldier found the book and sold it to a French officer who recognized Napoleon’s coat of arms emblazoned on the front. Knowing that it was valued by Napoleon, he sent the book to the Empress Marie Louise (Napoleon’s second wife), who then ordered that an English translation be made. There is an introduction covering a brief history of temples and Oracles in the ancient world. The actual Book of Fate’s (i.e., the translation of the original papyrus titled, The writing of the Balaspis by command of Hermes Trismegistus, unto the priests of the great temple) comes after, with footnotes to clarify how to consult the Oracle, what directions can be dispensed with, etc.  For example, in one section Kirchenhoffer says that,

He has found that for all ordinary consultations the circle and signs may be omitted; and instead of a reed dipped in blood, he and his friends have invariably and without the least desonninitriment, used a pen dipped in common ink. As to gifts, sacrifices, and invocations, he considers them in a Christian land to be entirely superfluous.[1]

The Book of Fate was discovered by the head of the Commission des Sciences et des Artes, Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini. Sonnini found an interior chamber in a royal tomb in Mount Libyeus and found “attached by a peculiar kind of gum to the left breast, a long roll of papyrus, which, having unrolled, greatly excited his curiosity on account of the hieroglyphics which were beautifully painted on it.” Napoleon had it immediately translated into German, so as to keep it a secret, and if we are to believe contemporaries and news accounts, as well as those of Kirchenhoffer, Napoleon consulted it upon every important military campaign or life event. In fact, a handwritten list in Napoleon’s own hand was found in his personal copy with a list of questions, like the following:

Question 15 – What is the aspect of the Seasons, and what Political Changes are likely to take place.

Answer – (Hieroglyphic of the Fishes)  “A conqueror, of noble mind and mighty power, shall spring from low condition; he will break the chains of the oppressed, and will give liberty to the nations.”

Question 12 – Will my Name be immortalized, and will posterity applaud it?

Answer – (Hieroglyphic of the goat or Capricorn.) “Thy name will be handed down, with the memory of thy deeds, to the most distant posterity.”

[1] H. (Herman) Kirchenhoffer, M Sonnini, and Emperor of the French Napoleon I. The Book of Fate: Formerly In the Possession of Napoleon …. 12 ed. London: C.S. Arnold, 1826, xxx1.

Kirchenhoffer also tells us,

That all the Oracles, afterwards established in the states of Greece and elsewhere, owed their origin to books found in the Egyptian temples, which were pillaged and plundered upwards of 3000 years ago….No institution is more famous than the ancient Oracles of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They were said to be the will of the gods themselves, and they were consulted, not only upon every important matter, but even in the affairs of private life.[1]

[1] Ibid.,xv.

Shows Hieroglyphs and questions from the Book of Fate

Often priestesses would deliver the message from the gods while sitting upon a tripod in the sanctuary of the temple. “When in a state of inspiration, the eyes of the Priestess suddenly sparkled, her hair stood on end, and a shivering ran over all her body. In this convulsive state she spoke the oracles of the god, often with loud howlings and cries, and here articulations were taken down by the priest, and set in order.”

Wilkinson, John. A popular account of the Ancient Egyptians. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1854, 66.
Article on the Book of Fate and Napoleon’s use of it

When Napoleon invaded Egypt, the French Revolution had created an entirely new nation and the Enlightenment was in full bloom.  It was a time of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. France had quashed both the monarchy and the Catholic Church. Napoleon was himself a mathematician and artillery specialist. In an age where Reason replaced God, it might seem counterintuitive that Napoleon used the ‘Book of Fate’, however, even today despite all of our advancements, people use fortune tellers and consult their horoscopes – even some of the most scientific and stoic of individuals.  If you’ve consulted the I Ching, a Tarot reader, or used a Ouija board, then you have consulted an oracle. Oracles date back to the beginnings of human civilization and have been used by individuals in times of crisis, and uncertainty.  It might just be in human nature that, “in sickness and in fear, in distress and despair, before important life decisions and puzzling quandaries, people seek answers that introspection alone cannot give.”[1]

[1] Richard Stoneman. The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak. London: Yale University Press, 2011,1.

The King’s Daughters: The Women Sent to New France

King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663 – 1673 by Peter J. Gagné

For Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight one of Sutro Library’s most popular titles: King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663 – 1673 by Peter J. Gagné. The book provides information on the French women sent to populate New France known as Les Filles du Roi (The King’s Daughters). The Filles du Roi were 768 women sponsored by King Louis XIV of France in an attempt to boost the amount of filles à marier (marriageable girls) in the fledgling colony. Although the term Filles du Roi did not originate until 25 years after the program ended, the legacy of the decade-long program is still felt today: at least two-thirds of French Canadians can trace their ancestry to one of these women. This includes well-known American figures with French Canadian roots like Hillary Clinton, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie.

About new France and the Daughters

French colonists claimed land that belonged to the Inuit, Iroquois, and Algonquin peoples, initially forming New France along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, Newfoundland, and Acadia (Nova Scotia). By 1663, the population of the New France colony was only at 2,500 and there were up to 14 times as many marriageable men as there were women. Not to mention their English neighbors’ total population outnumbered the French 18 to 1. Many factors contributed to the low rate of females in the colony: cost of sea passage, harsh weather conditions, and limited infrastructure. Wishing to secure the colony’s continued growth, the King paid for the passage of nearly 800 marriageable women and girls to travel from France to the colony with the purpose of increasing the population through marriage and procreation. The influx of women would hopefully encourage men to stay in New France rather than leave once their three-year term of service expired. King Louis XIV was not the first to adopt this solution: the English sent women to Virginia, and Spain did the same with their colonies in the West Indies.

The choice to become a Fille du Roi was voluntary. Women went willingly and sought to better their lives through marriage. Many lacked familial connections in France, but not all Filles du Roi were orphans nor were they prostitutes, which is a common misconception. Women went through a screening process providing a birth certificate and recommendation from their parish priest or local magistrate confirming she was free to marry. Their passage was paid for by the King, and they were given a case which included clothing, needles, 2 livres of cash as well as a dowry from the Royal Treasury. It was about a two-month journey from France, and most departed from the port of Dieppe and arrived in Quebec City. Getting fever, dysentery and other illnesses during a voyage was not uncommon, and it’s estimated at least 60 would-be Filles du Roi perished on their way to New France.

The first 36 women arrived on September 22, 1663. Since they were still unmarried, the women lived in dormitory-style housing and learned practical skills like sewing, cooking, and washing. Dating for the Filles du Roi was slightly like our modern-day speed dating: the women went on supervised dates with potential candidates until the women determined who they would marry and when the marriage would take place. Many of the women would not have this type of agency or freedom had they stayed in France.

Dormitory recreated at Maison Saint-Gabriel. Photo from Peter J. Gagné’s volume 1.

After a match was made, a contract was drawn up. In many of the biographies, these initial matches were often annulled and new contracts created with new suitors. The ceremony usually followed a month later. The average age difference between husband and wife was 4.5 years, and the youngest Filles du Roi to marry was age 13. To encourage procreation, the French government provided monetary incentives to couples to have large families. Once a family reached 10 children they received a 300 livre annual pension. Even with this incentive, the average number of children was 6. And 47 Filles du Roi had twins. In fact, Anne Girard had two sets of twins back to back! There are even examples of Filles du Roi who adopted like Gabrielle Danneville.

The last ship carrying Filles du Roi arrived in September of 1673.The program lasted over 10 years ending after being deemed too costly. France declared war on the Dutch in 1672 so it’s likely they needed funds to be redirected to this effort. The population of New France had increased to 6,700, more than doubling after only a decade. To put it in context, this baby boom was much bigger than that of World War II. The last living Daughter, Anne Rabady died on September 4, 1747 at the age of 93.

A General View of Québec, from Point Lévy,1761 courtesy of Library and Archives of Canada, Wikimedia Commons
about the Book

Copies of Peter J. Gagné’s book in California are hard to find: only one other library in the Bay Area holds the title, and two more in Southern California. While most sources on this subject focus on social and demographic aspects, this 2-volume set presents comprehensive biographies as well as: photographs and reproductions of artwork relating to the Filles du Roi; biographies of the 36 women falsely identified as Filles du Roi; a table of all the King’s Daughters by year of arrival; an appendix with supporting documentation; a glossary; a thematic index; and an index of husbands. Gagné defines Filles du Roi as women who immigrated to Canada under the King’s expense even if the women ended up returning to France. He does not consider those who arrived before or after the program or those who were married in France.

What’s remarkable about the set is the different ways to view the data. And one of those ways is a “Complete Table of Filles du Roi by Year of Arrival.” The last column on this table displays the number of descendants each Filles du Roi had by 1729. The women with the most descendants at this point were (not including those who had husbands with children from previous marriages):

  • Nicole Philippeau who had 17 children leading to 185 descendants;
  • Catherine Pillat who had 12 children in her 2nd marriage leading to 254 descendants;
  • And Anne Lemaître who had 306 descendants due to her son from her first marriage who came to Canada before she did.
First page of “Complete Table of Filles du Roi by Year of Arrival” located in Volume 2.
A selection of Stories

Only a few first-hand accounts exist on life as a Filles du Roi so the book’s biographical dictionary may be the closest researchers have to learning more about these women. The majority of the entries include information on the women’s parents, her estimated year of birth and arrival; amount of the dowry; names of annulled matches; husband’s name, birth year, and location and his parents’ names; children’s birth year, baptismal date; and date of death of the women, and also date of death of children or husband if they died before she did. If she died before her husband, information is also given if the husband remarried. Quite often they married another Fille du Roi.

Anne Couture’s entry shows a standard example of the information a reader will find in this 2-volume set.

Depending on what records exist, some entries have even more information and stories about these women which led to longer entries. If the woman came to Canada and returned to France (married or not) their entries will be significantly shorter than those who stayed in Canada. The longest entry is for Marie Rivière, and this is due to her husband Jean Ratier dit Dubuisson who was sentenced to execution after a quarrel he was involved in left a woman dead. The executioner died before carrying out Jean’s sentence so Jean was given a choice: to wait until an executioner was picked or become the next executioner. He chose the latter. In another interesting turn of events, years later his wife, Marie, was imprisoned for stealing. Jean had to deal out the punishment and placed his wife in the stocks. Later, their son was imprisoned for stealing tools. Like his father before him, he was given the choice to leave jail if he took up the office of executioner, and he did.

Another story of note is that of Marie-Claude Chamois, the youngest child of the secretary to the King and herald of the arms of France. After being rejected by her mother, she left for New France at the age of 14 to start a new life. A few years later, she married François Frigon dit L’Espagnol. When her brother died, she was left the sole heir of her father’s fortune. With the blessing of her husband, she returned to France to claim her inheritance leaving her 7 children behind with François. Her mother still refused to recognize Marie-Claude as her daughter. The court would take 8 years to reach a judgement, and Marie-Claude did not return to Canada and her family until a decision was made.

The last story I want to share is that of a woman of color. Espérance Durosaire was born in Brazil but may have been brought up by a French family. She and her husband did not stay long in the colony after their marriage. Considering that she was referred to as La Moresque (The Moor) and the notary wrote in her marriage contract that she was “a savage woman of the Brazilian nation of Gaul,” I wonder if the reason she returned to France so soon was due to ill-treatment in the colony.

While she is the only Fille du Roi who is identified as a person of color in Gagné’s books, other Filles du Roi had descendants of color, and this was due to their sons marrying indigenous women referred to in the book as “Amerindians.”  One example is Marie Gravois whose sons, Joseph and Michel became engagés Ouest (fur traders) settling in Kaskaskia (the land commonly called Illinois). They both married indigenous women: Joseph married Marie Maouensaoua and Michel married Marie Ouacanteoua. They are just two examples mentioned in the book of Filles du Roi sons who became engagés Ouest and married native women.

Filles du Roi mural painted by Annie Hamel on a wall of the Saint-Gabriel school in Pointe-St-Charles, Montréal. Photo courtesy of The French-Canadian Genealogist.

The remarkable stories of these strong women told in this invaluable resource is available only on-site in our Reading Room. At our Library you will also find other resources related to French Canadian research, including our robust collection of one-of-kind family histories. While the Sutro Library still remains closed to the public, if you’d like us to perform a look-up from this work, please email us at sutro@library.ca.gov and your query will be added to our queue. Once staff are able to return to the Library, we will begin fulfilling reference requests.

Today’s post was written by Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.

Source citation

Gagné Peter J. King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers : the Filles Du Roi, 1663-1673 . 2nd ed. Pawtucket, R.I: Quintin Publications, 2001. Print.

For Further filles du roi research (list compiled by Andie Guanci)

Other Books

  1. The King’s Daughters by Joy Reisinger & Elmer Courtreau (in English; not at Sutro Library)
  2. Les Filles du Roi en Nouvelle-France by Silvio Dumas (in French; not at Sutro Library)
  3. Les Filles du roi au XVIIe siècle by Yves Landry (in French; not at Sutro Library)
  4. Before the King’s Daughters : the Filles à Marier, 1634-1662 by Peter Gagné (in English; located at Sutro Library)


  1. La Société des Filles du roi et soldats du Carignan (The Society of the King’s Daughters and the Carignan Soldiers)  — https://fillesduroi.org/
  2. American French-Canadian Genealogical Society — https://afgs.org/site/
  3. Migrations.fr — http://www.migrations.fr/page%20d’accueil.htm (Free)
  4. FrancoGene.com — Généalogie des Francais d’Amerique du Nord – Filles du roi — http://www.francogene.com/gfan/gfan/998/fdr.htm (Free)
  5. Fichier Origine — https://fichierorigine.com/(Free)