I’ve been perusing a lot of very early street scene videos at night, but this one is the best so far. It’s a ride down San Francisco’s Market Street on a cable car, shot just a few days before the devastating earthquake on April 18, 1906 (various versions of this film on YouTube have incorrect dates). What makes so interesting (along with the timing) is the mix of traffic, including quite a few automobiles, and the utter lack of any traffic controls. It’s a dance that border on chaos, yet seems to work well enough.
There is evidence that the number of cars is likely more than would typically have been the case, as apparently there was some advance knowledge among a few of the car owners. And a couple of them make multiple appearances. Still, it’s remarkable film, and a poignent one.
Especially when viewed alongside another shot just a few days later. So much for terra firma.
Fascinating! I the traffic flows without incident because of pure shit luck and nothing is moving faster than a horse trot. Now to separate the men from the boys, can anyone identify any of the cars?
Between electric, gas and oat powered ones, I’m betting on a decent number of Studebakers. 🙂
I saw that same film a few years ago. Regarding the number of automobiles, IIRC the Library of Congress analyzed the license plates and determined that the same couple of cars keep driving past the camera over and over. Most likely the filmmaker wanted to create the impression that San Francisco was a very prosperous city, so he told a few people with cars to drive in front of the camera, and then drive around the block and pass the camera again, and again, and so on. And thus he created the illusion that there were a lot more cars in San Francisco than there actually were.
Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say:
“An interesting feature of the film is the apparent abundance of automobiles. However, a careful tracking of automobile traffic shows that almost all of the autos seen circle around the camera/cable car many times (one ten times). This traffic was apparently staged by the producer to give Market Street the appearance of a prosperous modern boulevard with many automobiles.”
I noticed that, and was just about to post it.
The same car, with the tag number 4867, appears several times in the film.
I noticed 4867, as well. The white license plate and the bowler-wearing driver make it stand out. In the San Francisco of today, we’d probably assume he was circling the block in a futile attempt to find a parking place.
We’ve noted before on this site that filmmakers of the past never imagined we’d be one day watching their works on all manner of high-resolution devices, with the ability to instantly rerun and skip through footage with the touch of a finger. No wonder they resorted to tricks like using the same vehicles over and over again to simulate “traffic,” and other forms of vehicular deception. Another example of this is leaving in continuity errors, such as when cars suddenly change model years, interior colors, or damage patterns from scene to scene, or even shot to shot.
Makes me wonder what things of a similar nature the viewers of 2131 will be noticing in today’s films and videos…
In the spirit of those then versus now videos from a few weeks ago, here’s the same trip almost 100 years later in 2005. It would be interesting if someone combined them to get the same side by side view.
Nice to see the classic PCCs still in use.
Just gotta say that I’m disappointed that the 2005 B/W footage is identical to the color. I met someone who reproduced this film with an antique (but not 1906 antique) camera sometime around 2006.
The horse drawn carts seem to easily get stuck in the grooved rails. Most (but not all) of the cars are RH drive.
It’s obvious to anyone familiar with this route that the film celebrates the last time anyone was able to make this journey in less than an hour.
One of the first things I did notice is that there were a lot more cars than I might expect in 1906.
Did California have any automobile manufacturers around in 1906? I’d assume most of those cars came from east of the Mississippi. In theory they might have been driven out west, but that would be no easy feat back then. I assume they were most likely shipped by rail?
I assume they were most likely shipped by rail?
These older films are fascinating.
A similar streetcar film was made in Vancouver in 1907, showing a small downtown area and some rather impressive ‘suburban’ development. Parts of the downtown are still recognizable but some of the locations are a mystery, even to this longtime resident. Unlike San Francisco, there is not one car to be seen. I find it striking that we are still only little more than 100 years removed from a time when animals were used for most transportation, in much the same way as for the previous 2000.
About 45 years later, when Vancouver was replacing the streetcar system with electric trolley busses, someone had the foresight to film many of the routes again with colour film. Some useful commentary was added on the 1980’s by several men who had worked on the streetcar system and still knew the details. The filming wasn’t professional and is obviously geared towards documenting the streetcar system, but the footage still gives a good sense of Vancouver circa 1952.
I watched these – pre and post earthquake films a few years ago. I picked up a few new things this time. I am struck by the sheer number of pedestrians everywhere. I note that the carriages and wagons seem to intentionally place their wheels in the streetcar tracks. I think this may have given them a smoother ride than the cobbles or dirt and/or reduced the “steering” effort. The cars seem to have a quite smooth ride, even though at that point shock absorbers weren’t used. The only damping is from the leaf springs.
I passed through the Indonesian city of Ujung Pandang (Makassar) back in 1990. This was a city of 3 million people with 1 traffic light. The intersections worked in a similar manner. Cars, trucks, wagons, pedicabs, bicycles, pedestrians all crossing from four directions simultaneously. Traffic moved continuously but slowly. It worked!.
Many SF fires were not from ruptured gas lines but arson, since homeowners had insurance for that, but not earthquakes. An Army Signal Corps captain witnessed people torching their homes.
The Earthquake is claimed to be a contributing factor to the Panic of 1907, because of the financial strain it induced (legit or not).
A deaf woman from Riverside, California and I were discussing about the peril of living in California. Her insurance agent would gladly sell the earthquake insurance, but the cost was so prohibitive (requiring about 40% of house value or something like that up front). The agent discreetly mentioned that she only had to light a few candles and ‘knock them down‘ right after the earthquake. The cheaper fire insurance would pay for rebuilding the earthquake damage.
I’m a sucker for any sort of “filmed on the streets” footage more than a few decades old. Far from SF is this late-50s footage: 35mm color, and more American cars than I’d have guessed (’59 Chevy at 1:00):
Agree, I find these videos fascinating.
Ps you related to the great Ben Ferencz?
@RobertWalter: he’s a personal hero of mine, but apparently no relation. In-the-know people do ask about the name “connection” once in a while, though.
This one has such a great mix of European (mostly French, German and Italian) and US cars. Aching to know where this was shot — I’m thinking Beyrouth…
What strikes me as fascinating about this is not just the primitive cars, the chaotic appearing “every man [and woman] for himself” interplay between vehicles and pedestrians, or the way people are dressed, but the sight of block after block of Victorian architectural splendor along Market Street. The overall visual effect of this (especially in living color) must have been quite spectacular.
As shown in the modern footage, very few of the buildings existent in 1906 survive today. People living in the first decade of the 20th century would view our modern architecture as shocking and bizarre. It amazes me that with all our cutting edge technology and construction methods, we cannot (and do not) produce buildings and cities with the artistic quality that is comparable to the highest traditions of Western civilization previously achieved. We have advanced technologically, but not artistically or spiritually.
Charles Crocker Mansion, Nob Hill, San Francisco. Destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire:
Keep in mind, today’s cities and buildings are designed for (greater) population density than those of yesteryear. I wouldn’t be surprised if the density then was even less than that of a medium sized city of today.
Looks like a place of everyday carnage! The driving behavior reminds me of films from Calcutta, but with far fewer on the streets. This film could make the basis for the most awesome Steampunk video game ever!
My favorite moment is between 2:25 and 2:30, in which Man in Black Suit (aren’t they all?), with head down, almost walks into the path of a car, turns, strides away almost into the path of a streetcar.
Another drive through San Francisco, from the master:
I was going to post James Stewart’s pursuit of Kim Novak from “Vertigo,” but something happened…
Had the opportunity to see this looped at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA. The film was projected such that everything was “life size.” It was really quite mesmerizing. One felt that, with a couple steps, one could have stepped back in time…
Let’s hope autonomous cars can dance as elegantly.
Love the Mozart, Paul!
The horse-drawn streetcar at 9:40 really surprised me. For how long did they keep that system?
I didn’t expect to see so many cars on the road in 1906. I see they still used horse drawn vehicles in the role played by trucks and vans today, and everything seems to be dicing with one another competing for space on the road (people, horse drawn vehicles, cable cars and cars). What strikes me about the after earthquake footage is that the people seem to be wandering around as if lost, a natural consequence of an event of that nature.
The pace of urban street life in this video is far different than what we’re used to. The first road markings in the US were three years away, in Wayne County Michigan, 1909. The first electric streetlight wouldn’t be invented until 1912 in Salt Lake City. The first stop sign was 9 years away, also in Michigan. Painted crosswalks are invented 42 years later in England, replacing raised beacons and posts. The automobile industry and automobile enthusiast clubs won’t coin the word “jaywalking” for another 15-20 years, based upon the term “jay”, a pejorative word for a simpleton.
I posit that the future will be more like this video than the present. Autonomous braking, soon required in all cars, will empower pedestrians to begin “jaywalking” again in urban walkable districts, confidently knowing they can walk in front of cars and they will (most likely) stop. Jurisdictions will have to decide if they will allow this, or take measures to control people and promote traffic flow.
Instead of jammering on here, I wrote about this video and thoughts for the future a while back on our corporate web site, link below