Digital Projects

Pioneer High Society: Jewish Family Networks in San Francisco (1855-1923)

The Western Jewish Americana collections of the Magnes include a host of information on marriage and family ties since the early days of Jewish life in San Francisco, California.

Invitations, newspaper clippings and photographs related to the weddings of members of the Sloss-Gerstle family between 1850 and 1925 in San Francisco allow a closer look at the family and social life of the local “aristocracy” of the period. The images potraying these celebrations, whether posed or impromptu, carry the experiences of the Jewish community in 19th-century California, and provide an invaluable insight into the emotions and expectations of its earliest Jewish immigrants.

Much like many other immigrants newly arrived in the United States, Jews originating from Europe were naturally intrigued by the promise of new beginnings and opportunities provided by the 1848 discovery of gold in the rugged and individualistic territory of California. Many traveled West, and set themselves up in business. Not all found success.

The Sloss-Gerstle family clan represents an astounding Californian-Jewish success story; their control of the supply of seal skins from Alaska during the second half of the 19th century made them very wealthy. An extensive family network, which eventually boasted connections to nearly every other important family or individual in the region, the Sloss-Gerstles made the transition from humble pioneers to aristocrats in less than a single generation.

Perhaps the most valuable tool available to them in forging their network of influence was marriage. Even before they became wealthy, marriage was crucially important to them. The patriarchs of the Sloss and Gerstle families initially united their lineage by marrying two sisters, Sarah and Hannah Greenebaum, and thus laid the foundations for their future prosperity. Later, other successful or prominent local Jewish immigrant families, such as the Haas, Lilienthal and Stern families were connected to the family clan through numerous ties of marriage. Marriages within the extended family were extremely common and were encouraged, even to the point of regarding as “outlaws” those who chose to marry outside its accepted boundaries. Nonetheless, by the first decades of the 20th century the family had become so sprawling and extensive that the cohesiveness and insularity of earlier years could hardly be maintained, and marriages to outside families became more and more common.

This online presentation was created by Benjamin Clifford, Lara Michels, PhD, Archivist and Librarian, and Francesco Spagnolo as part of the “Jewish Digital Narratives” curated by Francesco Spagnolo, PhD, Director of Research at the Magnes in Berkeley, California.

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