Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906

Modified: 14th Dec 2021
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San Francisco, famous for landmarks including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and much more is the most distinct and multicultural city in the United States. In the book, "Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906," by Barbara Berglund, she distinctly describes San Francisco's expeditious evolution, she takes readers back to an earlier and more chaotic time where gender, ethnicity and social class levels were much more unsettled. San Francisco was a town with only a few hundred people in the 1840’s, and within a decade it became a city whose economy expanded due to the gold rush. Due to the growth of this small settlement came its conflicts. This rapid growth caused massive immigration of different genders, ethnicities and social classes. "The transformation of San Francisco from Mexican pueblo to American metropolis in less than fifty years brought the full measure of nineteenth-century pressures – urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and internal migrate on – to bear on the city and its inhabitants with particular force and speed" (11).  Berglund demonstrates the attributes of gender, race, and class. San Francisco was built into the foundation of the American nation. Every conservative within the city set the social order as to how the settlers of San Francisco would go about their life in society.

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Berglund widely expresses these topics when it comes to how San Francisco made it to where it is present day. First, the significance of gender played a huge role when San Francisco was first starting. Although the city was mostly male populated, females were very limited as to what power they could have, which caused women to have quite a reputation. The ratio of men to women was very low. Since there were bias sex ratios many men had to fend for themselves. "Every man was his own housekeeper, doing, in many instances, his own sweeping, cooking, washing, and mending" (29). If a man was incapable of doing such things, they were to be considered unfit to be a citizen of California. Females and males were not considered equal, even if they were the same race. Many women turned into becoming prostitutes as well as entertainers who were in clubs to fulfill more than just one man's needs. "It also signaled that gender boundaries were becoming more rigid, especially when contrasted to San Francisco's earliest years when prostitutes made up such a significant proportion of its female residents that they were much less socially marginalized […]" (40). Women who would go into prostitution helped them financially. Women were typically seen as housekeepers by most men. Whether they were staying at home mothers or hotel tidies', they were just looked upon for the means of cleaning and sex. "Most of the women were of "the disreputable class," but men were "our respectable sons and brothers, who move in good society, and are of 'good repute'" (134). Since men were more capable of doing hard labor, women were very limited in matters such as politics and unequal pay. 

During the California Gold Rush many different cultures, races, and ethnicities were in one place. Many young American men found themselves surrounded by Mexicans, African Americans, Indians, Chinese, French, Italians, etc. As competition for gold became vicious, racism became very frequent. Ethnic and racial stereotypes became so common that, “Mexicans were seen as lazy and violent, Chinese clannish and mendacious, blacks intellectually inferior, Jews grasping and averse to physical labor, Irish thuggish and drunken, French sexually depraved, and so on” (Kamiya). Middle-class and elite white Euro-Americans placed themselves on top of the racial order. The Chinese made San Francisco a relatively friendly environment for African Americans throughout the nineteenth century. “From the start, Chinese faced racial hostility and discrimination and would quickly be positioned on the bottom of the city’s racial order” (26). White men mistreated Chinese because they feared for competition. By the 1870’s Chinese immigrants made up eight percent of San Francisco. “As you walk through the streets of Chinatown you hardly realize yourself in America” (96). Berglund describes in the third chapter how Chinatown was an area of racial and cultural controversy. San Francisco's Chinatown became a site in which whites encountered Chinese settlers face-to-face from which, "many whites came away with what they believed were social truths about this new immigrant group" (97). This site was also a place that made Chinatown into a cultural frontier that controlled social power. Many African Americans also faced widespread discrimination. Blacks were servants but they didn't face much hate because the whites disliked the Chinese even more. "Some San Franciscans viewed African Americans as more appropriately servile – less "impudent" and better mannered both in terms of etiquette and attitude" (47). Many immigrants were put at the bottom of the racial order leading them to go through hardships for their life in America. 

The uprising of migration to California had many people dreaming of a life of wealth and luxury, but only a small number of people became well-off. S Since San Francisco was evolving the town grew in the form of businesses, food industries, and even entertainment facilities. This introduced the division of people by class. Division in class in San Francisco meant economic tensions between different social classes. Social class is classified of people based on their socioeconomic status, wealth, and power. White men who owned land had the highest status in society and other races were put on the lower in the societal ladder. "Part of what made early San Francisco so unusual was the disjuncture between social class and occupation as well as a lack of expected social deference" (3). A person’s status in San Francisco was either viewed as middle-class or elite residents. People with money were able to afford to go out to these restaurants and entertainment facilities. For the poor, they worried about how they were going to eat and where they were going to sleep. "For middle-class and elite Americans, the clear demarcation and separation of public and private activities in the home was of the utmost importance" (27-28). The Palace Hotel was the place for the elite people which "distinguished and separated the elite from their social inferiors, both literally and symbolically" (26). They were able to drive inside the hotel's driveway, provided privacy for them and were able to sleep comfortably. While unfortunate people had to work. Black workers were hired to serve the elite and many others worked as cooks. People with higher social statuses lived a better life, while those who were less fortunate

In conclusion, Barbara Berglund’s book, “Making San Francisco American,” is the story of San Francisco’s foundation evolved from a city of chaos caused by diversity to a city in which is now popular for their landmarks and history. Berglund explains how San Francisco became American by explaining how class-, race-, and gender-based influenced the way the city is present day. Gender inequality had women turn to prostitution to make money and live. The racial ladder had the Chinese be mistreated and go through hardships. Social classes meant there were economic tensions between the elite and the poor. Due to the migration and the chaos that happened during the gold rush, San Francisco wouldn't be what it is today.


Berglund, Barbara. “Making San Francisco American Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906.” University PR of Kansas, 2010.

Kamiya, Gary. “The Dark Side of the Gold Rush.” SFOpera, Nov. 2019,


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