Objets d’Art

The central art room at 238 Post St. (1898-1906)

In the summer of 1904, Congregational minister Lyman J. Abbott visited San Francisco. When he returned to New York, Abbott wrote an article “Impressions of a Careless Traveler” for the weekly magazine The Outlook. In it he wrote:

“One of the most attractive art stores I have ever visited, possessing a great variety of art articles, is that of Mr. Vickery, of national repuation; and not the largest, but certainly the most artistic and charming bookstore I ever visited, East or West, in America or Europe, is the bookstore of Paul Elder adjoining. They furnished conclusive evidence that there is a large, cultivated constituency, both artistic and literary, in and about the city.”1The Outlook, no. 78, 17 Sep 1904, p167

The art room at Bush & Van Ness (1906-1909)

As Abbott discovered, Paul Elder’s bookstores were full of all manner of art for sale, and many of their makers were well-known artisans whose work is still prized today: pottery by Dedham, Newcomb, and Redlands; metalwork by Jarvis and Toothaker; paintings by Giuseppe Cadenasso and William Keith; photographs by Dassonville and Ukiyo-ye prints from Japan, framed or unframed; jewelry, metalwork, leatherwork… It was all carefully planned and arranged to give the customer a sophisticated, multi-faceted shopping experience like no other.

Paul Elder proudly featured Lyman Abbott’s quotation on page 1 of his 1904 catalog “An Arts & Crafts Bookshop.” On page 3, an unknown author—Ruth Gordon suggests it was Charles Keeler2Ruth I. Gordon, “Paul Elder: Bookseller-Publisher (1897-1917): A Bay Area Reflection,” Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1977, p32—continues the high praise in a piece entitled “An Appreciation”:

The art room at 239 Grant St. (1909-1921)

In philistine San Francisco, on the farthest rim of the American continent, there is a modest little bookshop in which all this harmony of environment has been thoughtfully considered. Upon on Post Street, where so many artistic places have of late years been developed, not quite two blocks above Kearny Street, the passers-by may notice a simple entryway, with windows on either hand, where books and pieces of art handiwork are in evidence. If he is a connoisseur, or at all in sympathy with decorative work, he will not fail to pause for more than a passing glance.

The art room at 239 Post St. (1921-1948)

In the window to the left of the door, swings from an iron crane a sign-board, to which are affixed artistic bulletins of new books, or of some ware to be seen within. In the window to the right are some suggestive bits of handicraft work—quaint and unusual pieces of jewelry, shown to advantage on a soft ooze skin, a rare vase of pottery on a piece of old-gold Japanese brocade, a brass candlestick of graceful design, or some choice oriental bronzes.

With such a tempting threshold, who that is fond of things of beauty could resist entering to explore?

Brass vessel from 1900 or 1901. Private collection.

Those who were fond of things of beauty found that the exploration could be expensive: in 1903, a Cadenasso painting of eucalyptus silhouetted against the sunset, entitled “Under the Shadows,” was priced at $350, a hefty sum at a time when the average physician’s or lawyer’s annual salary was  $1,200. On the other hand, as I have described elsewhere on the website, Elder took pains to provide merchandise for customers of all price points. Some of the more popular books, for example, were offered in a range of bindings with prices ranging from 50¢ to $5.

Amidst all these sumptuous objets d’art, two are known that Elder went so far as to stamp with his own name. The first is a brass vessel with an interesting handle, from 1900 or 1901. We can be confident of this date because Elder and Shepard didn’t begin using the tomoyé design until 1900, and in 1902, Elder stopped calling himself “D. P. Elder” and began using “Paul Elder.”

Hallmark on the brass vessel, “D. P. Elder, Morgan Shepard, S. F.” within a tomoyé. Based on other handwriting examples, I believe this hallmark was designed by Morgan Shepard.

We don’t know who designed and made the vessel. A reasonable hypothesis is that it’s one of three metalworkers featured in Elder’s 1904 catalog or his 1905 “Catalogue of an Arts and Crafts Bookshop.” Those craftsmen are Frank Burgess, Douglas Van Denburg, and Victor Toothaker. The jug itself does not appear in any Elder catalog.

The second example of an Elder rebranding is the Elder candlestick, featured in both the 1904 and 1905 catalogs. At the turn of the century, of course, candlesticks were a requirement in every home: even by 1925, only 50% of all American homes had electricity, although in the San Francisco Bay Area the number was almost certainly higher. In theory, the candlestick should have sold reasonably well, although I only know of a few examples: two of my correspondents each own a pair (one pictured below), as do the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Unfortunately, no store records are known to have survived in the 1906 earthquake and fire, so we’ll probably never know.

A pair of the Paul Elder candlesticks. Private collection.
The Elder candlestick, from the 1904 “Catalog of an Arts & Crafts Bookshop”
1904 hallmark on the Elder candlesticks
  • 1
    The Outlook, no. 78, 17 Sep 1904, p167
  • 2
    Ruth I. Gordon, “Paul Elder: Bookseller-Publisher (1897-1917): A Bay Area Reflection,” Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1977, p32