Streetwise - San Francisco A-B-Cs—Part #1


More by Frank Dunnigan

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - San Francisco A-B-Cs—Part #1

by Frank Dunnigan
April 2012

Growing up in the Outside Lands in the 1950s and 1960s, most families did things a certain way, unless they did things that OTHER way—as in “You say tomato, I say tomahto.” For almost any subject under the sun, there were always at least two popular choices…

After-School Activities—We had the choice of a large well-lighted schoolyard just half a block away at St. Cecilia’s, not to mention two full city blocks of open space at Larsen Park just around the corner. In the end, though, the favorite after-school play spot was the middle of the street on our block of 18th Avenue.

Baby Sitters—For many of us, her name was Nana or Grandma. Very few of our mothers would ever trust some strange teenage girl to care for precious US.

Bakeries—It was always Baronial on Taraval vs. Adeline on West Portal for folks south of Golden Gate Park, and Sugar Bowl on Balboa vs. Shubert’s on Clement for those living north of the Park.

Banks—Being Irish, it was a no-brainer that we’d be doing business with the “Irish Warehouse”—the Hibernia Bank at #1 Jones Street and its Sunset Branch at 22nd & Noriega that later became infamous as The Patty Hearst Branch after 1974. Many families did business with Bank of America, and some had an older relative who had “worked with A.P.” [Giannini] in the old days.

Board Games—Every family had its own “house rules” about how the game of Monopoly should be played, and newcomers were always advised to discuss these guidelines before starting to play the game. One universal unwritten rule seems to be that anyone who landed on the FREE PARKING square got to collect whatever fines and taxes, specified by Chance and Community Chest cards, had been deposited in the middle of the board—and often the Bank started out the pot with a $500 bill. Likewise, issues involving extra and/or lost turns when rolling doubles a certain number of times in succession had to be made known to all in advance.

Bread—There was only one—Wonder Bread, in spite of the efforts of some Moms to promote the health benefits of whole wheat bread. Only Grandma and her friends ate things like Roman Meal for “regularity”. Today, many of us won’t touch processed white bread on a bet.

Breakfast—In preschool days, it was always Tony the Tiger and his bowl of Kellogg’s Sugar-Frosted Flakes (the PR people made them drop the word “sugar” 30 years ago). For many of us, this was our first experience at providing for ourselves. For those Moms who insisted that a “hot” breakfast was preferable, it was usually Quaker Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat—but supplemented with a good dose of sugar.

Cars—In those days, families were fiercely loyal to a particular brand, and Ford vs. Chevy was the most common theme, with devoted adherents on both sides. For most of the 1950s, the standard number of vehicles per household was either ZERO or ONE. Most families with 2 or 3 kids had sedans, but the arrival of that 4th child invariably prompted the parents to shop for a station wagon.

Chinese Food—For years, two popular spots for everyone were Yet Wah in the Richmond and Tien Fu in the Sunset.


The author, far happier, at far right, 18th Avenue, December 12, 1959. - Courtesy of Frank Dunnigan.

Christmas—Always celebrated with outdoor lights and much merriment, throughout the entire month of December each year. Families that did not celebrate Christmas usually celebrated Hanukkah, with similar festivities and rituals.

Christmas Trees—Aluminum was a fad only in the late 1950s. The debate over real vs. artificial continues from days gone by unto the next generation.

Coffee—Every post-World War II household had a chrome electric percolator in the kitchen, usually a wedding gift. Plugged in every morning, it exuded a wonderful aroma throughout the entire house—one that is not matched by automatic drip machines. Then came instant coffee, and many parents opted for that as a great time saver, and the popularity of ground coffee began to fade a bit. Today, most of us would simply not be ourselves without freshly brewed coffee (from a variety of different methods and/or retail outlets) to get us going each morning.

Cookies—In the battle of Oreo vs. Hydrox, Oreo was the hands-down favorite among kids, though parents liked the lower price of the competitor. Toll House Cookies, made with real Nestle chocolate chips, were every Mom’s first baking skill. Anna’s Danish Cookies in the Mission (now relocated to San Mateo) was a great place for simple but delicious holiday gifts.

Cottage Cheese—Moms ate it with canned fruit when they were dieting. Dads and kids didn’t touch the stuff at all.

Delicatessens—There was loyalty to Bill’s on West Portal, Herb’s on Taraval, and Shenson’s in the Richmond District. But the grand-daddy of them all was Herman’s on Geary between 7th and 8th Avenues. Ah, walking into that place could clear out your sinuses for a month. Today, only the blue ceramic tiles remain on the lower front wall of the best place in town to get a sandwich and a kosher dill pickle.

Department Stores—There was only one and it was The Emporium. Those people understood the shift away from downtown-only stores, and were the first to expand with the opening of their Stonestown store in July of 1952. Mom’s 1947 wedding dress came from the City of Paris, and one great-aunt liked to shop at the White House, but other than that, Emporium had a stronghold on our family’s purchases for nearly a full century. Sears at Geary & Masonic was a favorite place for many Dads to spend a Saturday afternoon checking out the Craftsman tools or the lawn furniture. I can still smell the popcorn every time I drive past that building!

Dining Rooms—These were used for holiday meals and company only, along with teenagers who were typing term papers. Dinner was always served in the kitchen, though if Dad was going to be late getting home, Mom would occasionally allow for dinner in the living room on the coffee table in front of the TV set. Unlike the Cleaver Family, I didn’t know anyone who routinely sat down to dinner in the dining room every night.


Guglielmore family in Easter bonnets on 32nd Avenue near Moraga, 1952 - Courtesy of Murray Hushion.

Driving—Something that all of us aspired to from the time we were 12 or so. We couldn’t wait to get a driver’s license and be out on our own behind the wheel, and away from parents who were constantly turning to the back seat and issuing the universal threat: “DON’T MAKE ME STOP THIS CAR”.

Easter—Springtime religious holiday that often coincides with Passover. Easter usually required new clothing (suits and ties for the boys, and pastel color dresses and hats for the girls). Among Irish families, ham was the usual dinner entrée, while in Italian households, it was usually lamb.

Floor Coverings—Most families in the 1950s had room size rugs on top of hardwood and parquet floors. Then there was a movement in the 1960s to improve things with wall-to-wall carpeting covering the floors. By this millennium, new buyers were thrilled to rip up old wall-to-wall and improve things with…what else??—rugs on top of hardwood and parquet floors.

Gasoline—Even though there were many more brands available in the olden days before oil company mergers, there were many places to choose from: Chevron, Richfield, Shell, Flying A (aka Tidewater-Associated). In the 1950s, Dad did business with the Flying A station at the southwest corner of Taraval and 15th Avenue, and then he switched to Gene’s Richfield on Vicente at 23rd Avenue. It seems that his original brand loyalty to Flying A developed back in 1937 when he was driving home from the night shift as a mail handler at the Rincon Annex Post Office at Mission and Spear streets to his home on 21st Avenue between Quintara and Rivera. As he sputtered along Lincoln Way in his ’37 Plymouth one night, he realized that he was out of gas, with only a dime in his pocket. He rolled in to the Flying A station at the southwest corner of 19th & Lincoln where he filled up with enough for the ride home, but immediately signed up for his first credit card, thus bonding himself to that brand for decades to come.


Richfield Station on the southeast corner of 23rd Avenue and Vicente, 1951 - San Francisco Assessor's Department

Halloween—Keeping the lights on and handing out treats was a universal thing, though some parents really got into it with their own costumes. Even though this is pretty standard today, it caused no end to the embarrassment of their own kids back in the 1950s when parents were supposed to act “normal.”

High Schools—At St. Cecilia’s in 1966, fully half the boys went on to St.Ignatius on Stanyan Street and nearly half the girls went to Mercy on 19th Avenue, though in the 1960s, there was a sizable contingent of girls who opted for St. Rose. Among our public school friends, there was, even then, a huge parental push for the “new” Lowell out there on Eucalyptus Drive vs. the close-by Abraham Lincoln High School.

Ice Cream—Shaw’s on West Portal or Ocean Avenue, plus Wally’s at 24th & Taraval were the favorites for Parkside residents. Once St.Ignatius moved to 37th Avenue in the Fall of 1969, the wonders of Polly Ann on Noriega became known to many more of us based on feedback from our friends who came to S.I. from Holy Name Parish.

Ice Skating—Different families had different favorite places. Some preferred the lessons offered by Legg’s on Ocean Avenue, some liked the hot chocolate and the ambiance of Sutro’s, and others opted for the convenience of the place on 48th Avenue.

Jobs—Dads always had one and most Moms didn’t. Dads generally kept the same employer for life. Among the Moms who DID have a job, it was almost always within a few selected occupations—nurse, school teacher, librarian, department store saleswoman, or office clerk.

Kids—Most families had 2, though occasionally 3. Only-children were the subjects of their friends’ sympathy and jealousy at the same time. Families with 4 or more children aroused a lot of curiosity and raised eyebrows among the neighbors.

Kindergarten—St. Cecilia’s eliminated its Kindergarten after 1957, reinstating it some 30 years later, after the crush of baby boomers had dwindled. Living on the borderline between Parkside and West Portal for Kindergarten, most parents on our block opted for sending us to Kindergarten at Parkside after meeting Mrs. Beckerman and Mrs. McAtee, the two long-time Kindergarten teachers there.

Kitchens—Filled with stark white appliances in the 1950s, the 1960s brought color and dazzle into many kitchens, with aqua and pink becoming available in the early years of the decade. By the early 1970s, the choices were avocado, coppertone, and the ubiquitous harvest gold with the firm Mayta-Jensen becoming the standard for remodeling San Francisco homes. Today, stainless steel seems to be the new universal standard choice for kitchens everywhere.

Laundry—Virtually every home was equipped with a washing machine by the time that all of us baby-boomers began arriving on the scene in the 1950s, though in many homes, the dryer came later, finally replacing all those clothesline strung out across back yards. Some Moms still relied upon a laundry service to wash and iron items like sheets, tablecloths, and dress shirts for the man of the house. Ping’s Hand Laundry on Taraval was a popular spot, and Excellent Laundry on Clement Street used to offer pickup and delivery throughout the Richmond and the Sunset.

Lawns—Every house had them, front and back, and they were kept mowed, watered, weeded, and fertilized. Dads did this on Saturday mornings while wearing T-shirts and wash pants, until the eldest son took over the duties at age 11 or 12 (girls were assigned to keep flower beds weeded and maintained). Once the youngest child was into after-school activities in high school, and no longer available for these projects, Moms took over the chores just long enough to decide that whatever the gardener charged to visit twice a month was well worth it.

Liver—Most Moms conspired to serve liver at least once or twice a month to their long-suffering husbands and children. Some Moms refused to do so, hating the stuff themselves, but this practice continued in many households throughout the 1950s and beyond. As late as my high school years, I can still remember walking in the front door, and detecting that unmistakable smell, thus evoking a universal response—“Uh, I had lunch really late today, so I’m not hungry…”

To be continued next month…


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Page launched 3 April 2012.