About Adolph Sutro

Black and white photo of a man with large white mutton chop sideburns sitting in a chair next to a marble statue.

Background

Adolph Sutro came to San Francisco in 1850 at the height of the Gold Rush. He made his money as a mining engineer in Virginia City, Nevada — where the famous Comstock Lode was discovered. He came back to San Francisco in 1879 and began purchasing land — eventually owning around 1/12th of the real property in the city. Ever civic-minded, Sutro, among other ventures to improve the quality of life in San Francisco, wanted to provide its citizens a world-renowned research collection without equal.

To this end, Sutro began collecting items for his library in late 1870s and by the time of his death in 1898 had amassed a collection of 300,000 to 500,000 rare books including 4,000 incunabula (the first printed books), which according to contemporary news accounts was the seventh largest in the world. The works in the collection cover almost every subject: science and engineering, religion, natural history, philosophy, British history, Mexican history, and theater. When Sutro realized the magnitude of the task of building a research collection, he hired German and British experts to go to auctions and other book sales to make acquisitions.

Sutro as Book Collector

Historian Russ Davidson wrote, “it is quite possible that in the annals of American book collecting and library history, there is no collector who has received less recognition — in relation to the value and importance of his library than the San Francisco entrepreneur Adolph Sutro.” Indeed, there are numerous articles about Sutro’s library in contemporary newspapers throughout California, which describe his method of acquisition. And if there is any doubt as to his purposefulness and intent, one only need look at the context of his purchases in in light of making San Francisco a sophisticated urban center. As historian Kevin Starr explained, in San Francisco’s early years it experienced “instant urbanism” with a population explosion that saw 60 percent of the population of California situated in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet it was still described as having “a rapid, monstrous maturity.” As late as 1882, on a trip to the city, Oscar Wilde described it as having a “ramshackle, frontier quality.” Within this framework, Starr asserts, Sutro was intentionally investing his fortune in the development of San Francisco. Sutro Library was to be a major part of his contribution to the “next phase of San Francisco’s development.”

Sutro Library

“ I must confess that of all the amazing things on the Pacific Coast — and I encountered surprise after surprise — the most unexpected was the discovery of the Sutro Library, and of the fact that so few people in California knew anything about it.” (Editor, Christian Advocate, 1892)

The Sutro Library is the legacy collection of former San Francisco mayor, engineer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Adolph Sutro (1830–1898) and is located in the campus library of San Francisco State University. This special collection and educational research institution has over 125,000 rare books, antiquarian maps, and archival collections, as well as the largest genealogical library west of Salt Lake City. It was deeded to the California State Library in 1913 by Sutro’s heirs, and opened to the public in 1917. It was also the only library in San Francisco to survive the “Great Fire” after the 1906 earthquake.

The Wandering Library

The Sutro Library moved around several times in its hundred-plus year history. In 1895 Sutro, after negotiations with the University Regents, determined the library site was going to be on the campus of “Affiliated Colleges” of the University of California in San Francisco. However, this same year he became mayor of San Francisco, diverting his attention to politics. That, coupled with his declining health, prevented him from erecting a building to house the library. When Sutro passed away in 1898, the collection remained in limbo, housed in two warehouses in downtown San Francisco — one on the Montgomery block and the other on Battery Street.

It took Sutro’s heirs over a decade to decide to donate the library to the State of California. It finally opened to the public in 1917 in the Lane-Stanford Library, located at Sacramento and Webster streets in San Francisco. In 1922 the collection was moved to San Francisco Public Library; in 1960 it moved to University of San Francisco; and in 1983 it was relocated to a building behind San Francisco State University. In 2002, a bond measure was approved by the governor and state legislature to fund a joint-use facility, and finally in 2012 the Sutro Library moved to its permanent home in the J. Paul Leonard Library — Sutro Library.

About our Collections

The Sutro Library has many strengths. It houses an outstanding collection of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Yemenite Hebraica, as well as fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian notarial manuscripts. It is rich in Renaissance imprints, military science, astronomy, and philosophy; it also has resources from the Middle Ages, the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. There is heavy representation of British history, including the first British newspapers, resources on the English Civil War, the Commonwealth, and the Restoration. In addition, the library holds religious tracts and church documents, botany and natural history, medical science, science and technology, and has one of the most comprehensive collections on the Mexican Republic in the world.

Although not part of the original Adolph Sutro collection, the genealogy collection is the largest family and local history collection west of Salt Lake City. It consists of regional and county histories, directories, gazetteers, biographies, ship passenger lists, and periodicals. cemetery records, U.S. census records, and over 8,000 family histories. This part of the library occupies the open stacks found in the library’s reading room.

Notable Collections

Shakespeare

Sutro houses two copies of the famed First Folio, one bound, and the other in parts. We also have the Second, Third, and Fourth imprints of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies. Additionally, the library contains an extensive collection of items related to Shakespeare and his times (also known as Shakespeariana) as well as theater history, and Restoration drama.

Mexicana Collection

One of the most exciting collections in the Sutro Library is the Mexicana Collection. It was purchased during a trip that Sutro made in 1889 to Mexico and Cuba. One of the oldest bookstores and printing houses in Mexico City, the Librería Abadiano, just happened to be for sale during Sutro’s trip. The finding aid for the collection states, “At a single stroke, Sutro succeeded in acquiring the most important and complete collection of nineteenth century Mexican political, religious and related imprints and ephemera to be found anywhere in the world.” It includes thousands of titles published in Mexico from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, among them exemplars of the earliest printing presses in America, colonial manuscripts, and early chronicles of the Spanish conquest and colonization. It also includes rare periodicals and government publications, and approximately 35,000 pamphlets, broadsides, and flyers produced during the first half of the nineteenth century, documenting the Mexican War of Independence and the country’s subsequent political turmoil.

Hebraica, 1200s–1800s

Adolph Sutro acquired this part of his collection in 1884 from the estate of Moses W. Shapira, a Jerusalem bookseller and antiquities dealer. This collection is primarily Yemenite in origin and has the potential to shed light on the intellectual and religious life of Jewish Yemenites. There are approximately 167 items including scrolls, books, and scroll fragments with subjects ranging from Bible commentaries to hermeneutics, lexicons, prayerbooks, philosophy, Cabalistic works, poetry, and medicine. Many of the items are undated and in fragile condition.

Pamphlet collections, English

The collection of English pamphlets at the Sutro Library consists of over 12,000 tracts relating to British politics, religion, and culture from the 1500s through the 1800s. Many pertain to the Poor Laws and the Corn Laws, as well as the English Civil War, the Commonwealth, and the Restoration. In addition to this there are pamphlets relating to the American Revolution.

Mexican

The Mexican pamphlets date from 1623 through the 1800s. There are approximately 30,000 pamphlets in the collection and it is especially rich in the political history of Mexico during the outbreak of the revolution against Spain (1810, 1811), the promulgation of the Constitution of Cadiz (1812), its reaffirmation (1820), and the establishment of the Mexican Republic (1821–1823). These pamphlets are highly under-researched, especially given their value to Mexico’s tumultuous history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Although many of the authors are anonymous, amateurs, or priests, the collection contains works by some astute political writers. One example is Fernández de Lizardi, best known for The Mangy Parrot: The Life and Times of Periquillo Sarniento, 1816 (considered Latin America’s first novel) is well represented in Sutro’s Mexican pamphlet collection. Lizardi, described by one scholar as “the greatest pamphleteer in the history of the Western Hemisphere,” has not received the close study he deserves.

In addition to Lizardi, two other Mexican political pamphleteers are well represented in the collection: Rafael Dávila and Pablo de Villavicencio (pen name: El Payo del Rosario). Both were disciples of Lizardi, and are similarly under-represented in their importance to the writing of the history of Mexico’s struggles for political independence.

Paul Radin, cataloger of the Mexican pamphlets for the WPA’s Sutro Library Project, reflected on these pamphleteers, saying, “it is almost inconceivable that historians of Mexico and of intellectual currents of the War of Independence should have so completely forgotten them. The only possible excuse that can be offered is that their writings were either not generally available, or not available at all.” Only a handful of other libraries contain representative collections of Villavicencio, but none have the staggering 70 percent that Sutro Library houses. Many of the pamphlets in the collection are unique copies, not available anywhere else.

German

There are approximately 150 sixteenth century German Reformation pamphlets, and Martin Luther is well represented, as is Melanchthon (an intellectual leader and Luther collaborator). Thanks to the printing press, the spread of subversive ideas was possible, and Luther used this medium to print pamphlets that questioned the authority of the Catholic Church and inspired others to do so also. Those wishing to access this part of the collection should start with the card catalog in the reading room.

WPA Sutro Library Project

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded library projects throughout the United States and employed around 14,000 people during the Great Depression. The WPA provided cataloging and repair, but they also built 200 new libraries, 3,400 new reading rooms, as well as 5,800 traveling libraries to serve remote communities.

From 1938 to 1941, Dr. Paul Radin led the WPA’s Sutro Library Project (WPA project number 665-08-3-236), during which time thousands of items were cataloged, including the English Pamphlet collection and the Mexicana Pamphlets.

Sutro Library Librarians

Dates Librarian
1888–1898 George Moss
Dr. Solomon Roubin (Hebrew scholar)
Fred Beecher Perkins
1898–1911 Ellen Armstrong Weaver — Custodian
Will Irwin — Research Scholar/Library Assistant
1917–1923 Laura Steffens Suggett
1924–1946 William E. Parker
1924–1952 Helen M. Bruner
1950–1979 Richard H. Dillon
1958–1966 Dorothy E. Jones
1964–1987 Eleanor Capelle
1966–1981 Dorothy Geraldine (Gerry) Davis
1979–1980 Gary Kurutz
1981–2001 Frank Glover
1985–1986 Thomas Fante
1987–2003 Clyde Janes
1998–2011 Martha Whittaker
2006–2015 Haleh Motiey