Guide to Historic San Francisco

Your family will love learning about this less-told history of the City by the Bay 

When tourists check out the sights of San Francisco, it often involves taking a couple of snapshots and moving on to the next landmark, museum or tourist attraction. But there’s often an amazing story with each place visited.

Bay Area author Alec Scott tells many of these stories in his new travel book, “Oldest San Francisco: A Guide to Historic Treasures” (Reedy Press, 2023). Scott, who lives in Oakland, says he fell in love with San Francisco when visiting a college friend at his home on Telegraph Hill with a view of Alcatraz. When a publisher asked him to write a travel book, he jumped at the opportunity.

The book is broken into San Francisco neighborhoods and provides historical information and stories about the oldest spots in the city. It includes everything from the oldest restaurant (Tadich Grill) to the oldest public monument (Lotta’s Fountain) to the oldest chocolate factory (Ghirardelli) to the oldest public Japanese tea garden in the United States (Japanese Tea Garden).

“Before I wrote the book, there were places I knew about and liked but I didn’t know much about them,” Scott says. “It really made me look at the city differently.”

Native Bay Area residents may have heard some of the stories, but others are less told. For example, Sicilian immigrant Babe Alioto’s garage, the oldest in town, has gone from fixing Packards to Teslas. Books Inc., the city’s oldest bookstore, was founded by a man who peddled books to miners.

Here are some highlights from the book that families will enjoy.

Levi Strauss & Co. (Oldest Jeans)

1155 Battery St.

When doing research, Scott especially enjoyed his tour of the Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters. The book describes how Levi Strauss came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush and made the jeans, now considered a fashion statement, for miners and workers needing sturdy pants.

Scott describes how Tracey Panek, the in-house historian, gave him a tour of the vault where the oldest known pair of jeans are kept.

“From a fireproof safe at the conglomerate’s headquarters, Panek removes the oldest known pair of jeans, and I feel I’m getting a private viewing of the Shroud of Turin,” he writes. “This pair has buttons in the waist for suspenders and a tiny slot for a pocket-watch. The oldest pair is faded, of course it is, with multiple stretches at the knee — ‘several people probably wore them. One of them, we think, a miner.’”

Scott writes about the brand’s changing clientele over the years. The female riveters who worked in the shipbuilding plants during World War II often wore Levi jeans, as did on-screen rebels like Marlon Brandon and James Dean. In the 1960s, Levi bell bottoms became popular at outdoor concerts.

“The interesting thing about Levi jeans is it was a fashion style developed on the west coast,” he says. “So much fashion was coming from New York.” 

Shaw’s Candy (Oldest Confectionary)

122 W. Portal Ave.

Founded by Douglas Shaw, this West Portal store opened in 1931, offering ice cream made in house and 300 varieties of candy, some made there, and some brought in. The store was popular for generations with many families making it their go-to spot for sweet treats. 

However, when it passed out of the family’s hands, it almost completely closed until Diana Zogaric, a film editor who had no experience in candy-making, bought the store. 

“The place has a lot of Willy Wonka magic,” Scott says.

Zogaric has since learned how to make candy and run a confectionary shop. 

“There’s still a decent collection of Pezes for sale: Scooby Doo, Little Mermaid, Hello, Kitty, Princess Leia, Garfield, and Bart Simpson, as well as those retro candies, Pop Rocks. But most of the candy is hand-made, small-batch – dusted almonds, malt chocolate balls, mint nonpareils and sour strips,” Scott writes. 

Zogaric has learned the secrets of their core offering: fudge. She has figured out, for instance, that the ingredients – butter, cream, and sugar – must be heated in a big kettle to a temperature near 238 degrees, and then cooled overnight. She and her staff  create both regular fudge and penuche (which uses brown sugar). She’s learned to swirl it to give it a fancy patina on top,” Scott writes.

Balclutha (Oldest Ship)

2 Marina Blvd.

This three-mast ship at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park is just over 250 feet long and has a checkered history, Scott writes.

It started as a merchant ship bringing coal to California and grain to Europe. It experienced much drama on the sea, almost meeting its end twice. After its treacherous voyages between Europe and the West Coast, it carried fishermen and cannery workers up the coast of Alaska and then ended up in the hands of a former carnival performer named Tex Kissinger. He had many ridiculous money-making ideas for the ship.

“First, there was the idea of making it a floating zoo, exhibiting vampire bats and stingrays, boa constrictors and giant turtles,” Scott writes. “Nothing came of it.”

Then, with a crew of adventure-seeking teenaged boys, it headed to a barrier island off Mexico to capture elephant seals to sell to actual zoos. Kissinger and crew realized they didn’t know what they were doing when an irritated bull elephant charged at them. A hurricane then hit the ship and the boys’ mothers went into a frenzy, going as high as the U.S. President in their petitions to repatriate the Balclutha.

It ended up in Los Angeles where it appeared in some movies and then back to San Francisco for the 1939 World Fair. Once in the hands of the Maritime Museum, it was restored to its former glory.


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