Steamer days

For years the Pacific Mail Steamships would depart San Francisco on the fifth and twentieth of every month. There would almost always be a large crowd on the wharf but not so vocal as on arrival. Instead of hotel runners there were fruit, nut and sweetmeat vendors. And instead of the loud hurrahs there was often sadness in seeing the departure of friends, relatives and many stalwart men whose strength and vigor had contributed much to the greatness of the land they were now to leave.

Pacific Mail docks at south beach 1880s

Adding to the serious tone was the large amount of money the outbound steamers carried, often as much as two million dollars in gold dust, bullion or coins intended to meet the bills, notes and favors of creditors on the east coast. It became a custom for the local merchants to make their own collections on the days just before the bimonthly steamship sailings and these days came to be called steamer days. To a great extent the sailings regulated the business of the city and the whole region. It was generally understood that payments were to be made by the next steamer day and became a point of honor for a businessman to do so. The more promptly and cheerfully a payer met his demands, the better his standing in the community.

Pacific Mail Steamer Golden City

Steamer days had a marked effect on business and the business community. It made them quick and fast, quick to figure things and fast in their conclusions. Dispatch was a special character of these people and their time, and nearly everything in the way of law or custom was a result of it. The extremely short periods between debt collections on steamer days, shorter than in any other state, were much more important than many knew at the time. The rapid market fluctuations caused by large irregularities in the supply and demand for goods and the peculiarities of the system of auctions helped to render steamer days a remarkable and interesting California institution whose influence was felt for many years.



  1. Hi John,

    Very interesting post about the steamships – you’re blog is so informative! Have you come across any stories about the steamer, Central America? – I read somewhere it left San Francisco in 1857 and sank with two million dollars worth of gold. By the way, I gave your blog a mention on twitter the other day. Cheers!

  2. Every son would excel to remember that all successful business stands about the reasons for morality.
    Stock values have been quoted in fractions for 2 centuries, based on a system descended from Spanish pieces of eight. Each dollar was cut into eight bits worth 12.5 cents each.

    • We could all use successful businesses built around morality. And how about the old song lyrics, “Shave and a haircut 2 bits?” You can’t get it for that price now days.

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