Bay Area Stew
The First Hill of Beans: Folger’s Coffee*
The first member of the Folger family arrived in North America in the seventeenth century. After sailing west from England, Peter Folger settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635. It was there that he married Mary Morrell, and together, they had a family of eight children. The most famous Folger descendant of that era would be their grandson Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706 and the son of Peter and Mary’s youngest daughter, Abiah.
Several members of the Folger family were among those inhabitants of Nantucket Island who founded the sperm whale industry along the coast of Massachusetts in 1690, turning Nantucket into the largest whaling port in the world. The Folgers became so well known as Nantucket whalers that they were mentioned in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick.[i]
The whaling industry provided both the oil that lit the lamps of the growing United States and the whalebone that shaped the figures of its female residents. Nantucket’s whaling industry peaked in 1842 and then began a downhill slide, mainly due to overhunting of the whales. Things got worse in 1846, when a fire ravaged Nantucket’s business district and its waterfront, including many ships that were tied up at the time. Among those affected was Samuel Folger, who lost his try-works[ii] and two ships. By 1848, Nantucket’s golden age of whaling had come to an end. The future looked bleak for Samuel’s family, particularly for his children, who included James A. Folger and his four brothers.
Salvation would come from an unlikely place, the West, as a distant glitter of hope in the form of gold. In 1848, local newspapers up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States began reporting rumors of a fantastic gold discovery on the Pacific coast in a place called Alta California. It all sounded too good to be true, and residents of Nantucket shook their heads in disbelief as they read the seemingly fantastic tales. Then, in early December 1848, the papers reported on the State of the Union speech that President James K. Polk had delivered before Congress. In it, he made mention of “an abundance of gold” that had been found in the western lands recently acquired from Mexico. A government report drafted by the army confirmed the find. Many along the East Coast sat up and took notice. It turned out that the wild stories had promise in the form of adventure and potential riches. In short order, Nantucket saw an exodus of energized and optimistic young men who crowded onto fourteen whale ships, joining the rush to the West. Three Folger sons eagerly followed suit. In the fall of 1849, Edward, Henry and James boarded one of the westbound ships and began their 5,500-mile, often arduous journey to California. The voyage down the Atlantic coast was followed by a harrowing, nightmarish trek across the overgrown jungles of the Isthmus of Panama, which featured bandits, hungry alligators, yellow fever and malaria. Having survived all that, the Folger brothers then had to wait several months on the Pacific coast of Panama for passage on a steamship that would bring them north to California. Finally, on May 5, 1850, the brothers sailed through Golden Gate Straits and into San Francisco Bay.
Fourteen-year-old James “Jim” Folger stood on the deck of the Pacific Mail steamer, the Isthmus, on that May morning awaiting his first look at San Francisco and its environs. As the steamer cruised along, he surveyed the hills on either side of the bay, including the one up ahead called Semaphore (now Telegraph) Hill. He noticed the black arms of the semaphore, positioned to signal the arrival of the Isthmus. As the steamer rounded the curve of that hill, Yerba Buena Cove came into view. The cove was filled with ships, both passenger and cargo. During the gold rush years, more than seven hundred ships would be docked in the cove at one point or another, and many would be abandoned there. Among them were countless Nantucket whale ships that were deserted there, left to rot in the cove’s tidelands alongside ships from around the world. Their passengers and crews had left them and their captains behind in their rush up to the gold fields.
Barely visible to Jim Folger through the forest of ships’ masts was the unprepossessing boomtown called San Francisco, with its straggly collection of old adobe buildings and hastily constructed wooden lean-tos. They were surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of tents that housed mostly bearded men who ranged in age from their teens to their forties. These aspiring miners had come to find their grand fortunes. Their first discovery was that small fortunes were needed in the local businesses that lined the muddy streets, as all goods and services, especially mining equipment and riverboat transport up to the gold fields, were fantastically expensive.
There was a saying at the time that the miners mined the mines and everyone else mined the miners. Local proprietors were keen to mine any and all successful miners for their gold dust (flakes). That was especially true of the many saloons, gambling houses and brothels that were concentrated around Portsmouth Plaza, then the heart of the growing city.
Each week brought more ships filled with eager adventurers bursting with golden dreams. The city was both a staging area and a beneficiary of the gold mines. It was noisy, chaotic and highly energized. That was the San Francisco that greeted the Folger brothers in 1850, and Jim Folger would call it home for the rest of his life.
Mining was expensive business, and the Folger brothers only had enough money to outfit two of them for gold-mining endeavors. The older brothers decided that Jim should remain in San Francisco and find some sort of work in the city. Jobs were abundant, as skilled labor was scarce. While his older brothers joined those heading off to the gold fields, Jim easily found well-paying work as a carpenter building a spice and coffee mill on Powell Street near Broadway Street. Broadway led directly to the cape known as Clarks Point (formerly the Punta Del Embarcadera) and the waterfront. The man who hired him, William Bovee, then twenty-seven years old, had established a coffee roasting business in New York City in the 1840s. When Bovee’s coffee business burned down in 1848, he decided to join the westbound stampede for gold, arriving in San Francisco in the summer of 1849. Bovee’s initial stint up in the gold mines was not particularly successful, and he returned to San Francisco. Noting that there weren’t any coffee bean importers in the bustling city, he turned to the business he knew best. With Jim Folger’s help, Bovee’s Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mills operation was officially established in May 1850. However, steam engines weren’t available in San Francisco in those early gold rush days. The drum that Bovee used to roast his coffee beans had to be slowly turned by hand, and Jim Folger did his share of the turning.
At the time, it was customary for people to roast their coffee beans at home, constantly stirring them for about twenty minutes in a stovetop skillet. But in 1850 San Francisco, few among the mostly male population had the inclination to roast their beans. It was even less likely that the miners would take the time to stir their green coffee beans over a campfire in the mining camps, particularly when the resulting roast tended to be rather uneven. Then there was the issue of grinding the beans. The reality was that whether up in the gold fields or down in the city, everyone was too busy trying to get rich to bother with coffee beans. Bovee saw a ready-made market for his roasted beans and took that a step further by inaugurating the process of selling coffee that was ready for the pot. He roasted and then ground the beans and packaged his already-ground coffee in small, easily portable aroma-tight tins. Each tin was labeled with Bovee’s Pioneer label, and he sold them as fast as he could produce them. This method of packaging his coffee was the key to his success. San Francisco residents and crusty miners alike would peel open those tins and be rewarded with the aroma of ready-to-brew coffee.
As business increased, Bovee found that he couldn’t keep up using only hand-cranked equipment. He and Jim Folger jerry-rigged a windmill, repurposing sails from nearby abandoned ships. However, the windmill would only turn when there was wind and was in the long run unreliable for increasing the roasting and grinding process. The only real answer to consistent output was a steam engine, and one finally arrived by ship in early 1851. Bovee heralded this important addition to his business by regularly running advertising in the Daily Alta California and Sacramento Daily Union newspapers, noting that his establishment was “the only place where pure Java coffee could be purchased,” adding that he had “by his perseverance and enterprise, perfected a complete and complicated steam apparatus for roasting and grinding the pure article.”[iii] Aimed at capturing the eye of gold miners, subsequent ads declared that the incorporation of a steam engine enhanced the coffee production process so that it was “capable of grinding sufficient coffee to supply the heaviest demands” and that the coffee was “INVARIABLY OF THE BEST QUALITY,” noting that “it will prove itself at all times [to be] unsurpassed by any brought to this market.”[iv] Growing production and increasing sales necessitated a bigger site and one that was closer to the waterfront. Bovee relocated his coffee production operation at the head of the bustling Broadway Wharf.
Meanwhile, Jim’s two brothers returned from the mines rather disheartened. Their gold-mining ventures had proved unsuccessful. Henry C., the middle brother, returned to Nantucket, married and settled in New York City, where he and his wife, Eliza, had eight children. Their eldest son, Henry Jr., went to work for Standard Oil of New York, eventually becoming president and chairman of the board. He and his wife, Emily, would establish the Folger Shakespeare Library. It opened in 1932 and now houses the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare-related material, dating back to the sixteenth century.
Jim’s older brother, Edward P., remained in San Francisco and went back into the sperm whale-oil business, mainly concentrating on the whale-rich waters of the Pacific. Edward set up his offices next door to Bovee’s Pioneer Steam Coffee and Spice Mill business. However, sperm whale-oil usage declined in the United States by the late 1850s as kerosene, a cheaper, more efficient alternative, became more widely available. (Ironically for the Folgers, some Nantucket whaling ships were eventually repurposed to transport coffee beans to San Francisco from Central and South America.)
In 1851, Jim Folger decided to try his own luck up in the gold mines. He packed up mining tools and a trunk filled with coffee and spice samples, intending to generate orders from grocery stores in the mining camps. He spent two years traveling from camp to camp alternatively distributing samples, panning for gold and taking orders for Pioneer coffee and spices. In addition to hitting a strike, he also opened a store called Yankee Jim’s and did well on both counts. Folger sold his business at a handsome profit in 1853 and headed back to San Francisco. He turned eighteen that year.
Folger returned to an ever-changing, continuously growing city. He found that the old Yerba Buena Cove was being filled in with sand from nearby leveled hills and sunken, abandoned ships. Some of them were former whalers such as the Niantic. These sunken vessels created a graveyard of ships under today’s Financial District. New land was created over water lots, and paved streets were extended eastward, replacing the old wharves. Bovee moved his business from 116 Broadway to one of the newly created lots. Around the same time, one of his employees, Ira Marden, bought an interest in the business. It was renamed Bovee & Marden and did business at 521–23 Front Street.
Bovee sent Jim Folger back up to the gold fields on another selling trip in 1855. The Bovee & Marden brand remained very popular both in the city and up in the mining camps. In 1859, William Bovee used his profits to establish a large-scale hydraulic gold mining operation. Jim Folger then bought most of Bovee’s interest in the coffee business, which was renamed yet again. While remaining at the Front Street location, the business became known as Marden & Folger.
The green coffee beans that were shipped into San Francisco during the 1850s came from the island of Java (Indonesia), as well as from various parts of the Americas, such as Brazil, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and increasingly from the mountain slopes of Central America. The Central American commerce grew in part from the route of the ships that shuttled back and forth between San Francisco and Panama, making stops along the way. Many of these ships were cargo ships that were partially reconfigured to accommodate passengers. But mainly what they needed to carry to be profitable was cargo, and Central American coffee beans proved to be the perfect commodity. Coffee bushes had been planted there in the 1820s by English planters, and the crop was initially intended for the European markets. Most of it actually went there. But by the 1850s, coffee growers in Costa Rica, and later Guatemala, also saw additional markets for their beans along the northern Pacific coast, particularly in the booming city of San Francisco and its surrounding counties.
In 1861, Jim Folger married and began a family, building a home for them in the fashionable district surrounding Lake Merritt in Oakland. Due to a general economic slump that followed the Civil War, Marden and Folger found themselves overextended and were forced to declare bankruptcy in 1865. The partners began importing Manila coffee in the form of a less expensive Barako (Liberica) variety from the Philippines in place of more expensive coffee varieties. During 1865, half of the Philippines’ coffee export was shipped to San Francisco. The business recovered, and Folger was able to buy out his partner. The company was renamed J.A. Folger & Co. and relocated to 220 Front Street. In 1869, Jim received the news that his forty-year-old brother Edward had died in Nevada of injuries related to a stagecoach accident.
Jim Folger advertised his “Family Coffee” in the local Daily Dramatic Chronicle,[v] noting that it “cannot be excelled in this market.” In 1874, Folger & Co. moved to a new location at 104–12 California Street. Wanting to further expand the business, Folger took in partners, among them August Schilling, and the name of the company was changed yet again, this time to the Folger-Schilling Company in 1878.[vi]
Schilling broke away in 1881 and founded his own coffee roasting business in association with George Volkmann. In addition to coffee, these two German immigrants dealt in tea, spices, baking powder and extracts. A. Schilling & Company was located at Second and Harrison Streets.[vii]
San Francisco continued to grow and change. In the 1850s, the city’s western border, which had initially been at Larkin Street, was extended farther west to Divisadero, thanks to the city’s acquisition of a tract of land that became known as the Western Addition. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 linked the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, shortening travel from New York to San Francisco to about one week. More than one thousand acres in the unincorporated Outside Lands were targeted for a grand city park. This land extended all the way out to Ocean Beach and during the 1870s would be converted from uncompromising sand dunes to the verdancy of Golden Gate Park. And the city of more than forty hills was made more navigable by the development of the cable car. Using an invention of his family’s known as “wire rope,” Andrew Hallidie, an Englishman, developed a public transportation system that operated from below ground. Wire rope would be renamed cable, and the cable car system began operating in 1873. By the turn of the century, San Francisco would have thirty cable car lines climbing up and down its increasingly famous hills.
J.A. Folger & Co. grew and changed as well in the 1870s and ’80s. Folger’s salesmen “travelled all over the West, selling coffee, tea, spices, baking powder and extracts.”[viii] Jim Folger invested in mining activities and was co-owner, along with his cousin Robert Folger, of the Silver Mountain Chronicle (Alpine County). He was a member of the Bohemian and Pacific Union Clubs and also served on San Francisco’s Board of Trade. Across the bay in Oakland, he served on the City Council and the Board of Education. All was going well for Jim Folger, his family and his business until June 1889. Returning to San Francisco from a vacation in Monterey, Folger was taken ill. On June 25, he experienced sharp stomach pains. His doctor diagnosed it as acute gastritis, but Folger unexpectedly died the following morning of a coronary occlusion. He was fifty-four.
A year before his death, Jim Folger had written a letter to his eldest son James in which he stated his feelings about his company’s growth and success: “I am more than delighted that our sales keep up so grandly. I do not know how to account for it, except on the theory that we have struggled so long and so hard to show our customers that we wanted to deal squarely, and that money-making was always secondary to a good reputation.”[ix]
Jim Folger’s estate was divided among his three children, which included a daughter, Elizabeth. Each of the three inherited one-third-ownership in J.A. Folger & Co. The eldest son, James A. Folger II, then twenty-six, who had been working as both a clerk and a salesman for the company for seven years, stepped up to run it. James II’s younger brother, Ernest R., joined the business in 1895.
At the time, the company’s major product was bulk-roasted coffee beans that were delivered to grocery stores in sacks. The grocers emptied these sacks into bins, using scoops to fill smaller bags for their customers. J.A. Folger & Co. also continued to sell packaged ground coffee, the product that had been developed by William Bovee several decades earlier. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, different grades of ground coffee were sold under various labels. Folger’s most expensive blend was labeled as Folger’s Golden Gate Coffee and featured an image of a gold rush–era sailing ship in San Francisco Bay. Folger’s premium Golden Gate brand was a blend of Central American beans, and the company highlighted the virtues of those superior-tasting, mountain-grown beans, a fact not revealed by appearance alone. It was packaged in an attention-getting red can, a move that irked one of Folger’s local “red can” competitors.
[i]. In chapter 24, Melville referred to Mary Morrel Folger as “the ancestress to a long line of Folgers and harpooners.”
[ii]. Try-works was the means by which whale oil would be rendered from whale blubber on the decks of whaling ships, allowing them to stay out at sea much longer.
[iii]. Sacramento Daily Union, August 5, 1852 (advertising).
[iv]. Sacramento Daily Union, October 27, 1852 (advertising).
[v]. Daily Dramatic Chronicle, April 1–6, 1867 (advertising).
[vi]. The non-coffee portion of the business was sold to A. Schilling & Co. a half century later.
[vii]. It was acquired by McCormick & Company in 1946.
[viii]. Newhall, Ruth Waldo. The Folger Way: Coffee Pioneering Since 1850. San Francisco: J.A. Folger & Co., 1970s(?).
* Excerpt from Bay Area Coffee: A Stimulating History, derived from Part II. Waves of Beans—The First Wave: Green Beans. (The History Press, 2019).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A New York City native, Monika Trobits has lived in San Francisco for more than 36 years. She has studied local history since the mid-1980s. In addition to working in the corporate world, Monika was a docent/tour guide for historically-based organizations and local tour operators for more than 25 years. Nowadays, she teaches walking history classes for OLLI at SF State. Her article, "Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco in the 1920s," was published in the winter 2011 edition of The Argonaut, a local historical journal. The History Press published Monika’s first book: Antebellum and Civil War San Francisco: A Western Theater for Northern & Southern Politics in 2014 and her second book: Bay Area Coffee: A Stimulating History in February 2019.
Other works in this issue:
Urban Legend or Not: The Questionable Circumstances Surrounding the Death of a President in 1920s-Era San Francisco