License to Drive

Inside front flyleaf and section tabs of an SFPD auto licenses ledger, 1903
The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) archives that are currently being processed here in the San Francisco History Center include two ledgers concerning vehicle licenses. One is labeled "Licenses for Vehicles, July 1886-June 1889;" the other has a typed spine label that reads "Auto Licenses (Cabs [sic], July 1, 1903-July 1, 1906. Central." Since their dates are in the midst of the technological shift from horse-drawn to motor-driven vehicle--and because there are only two of them, with no explanatory documents--these two ledgers can seem a bit cryptic to the contemporary reader. What does a single or double wagon, truck, wagonette, cart, hack, coupe, cart, or dray look like on the streets of 1880s San Francisco? Are the coaches, hacks, and cabs listed in the tabbed sections of the 1903 ledger marked "Central" (Central Station?) motor-powered or horse-drawn? What is the difference between a hack and a cab? This writer's sense of distinction between the terms remains muddled, even after the perfunctory Google search. What is clear is that coaches, hacks, and cabs were all for hire.

San Francisco Call, May 11, 1902

According to an ornately-illustrated article in the San Francisco Call for May 11, 1902, there were only seventeen automobiles owned by San Franciscans; and a mere six years before, "there was only one horseless vehicle in the city. It was a gasoline automobile owned by Charles I. Fair." The "Auto Licenses" ledger lists a total of 117 licenses in three classes, 98 of which are Class 2. So, the coaches, hacks, and cabs would appear to be horse-drawn, and despite the auto-specific spine label, the ledger contains a separate tab for automobiles.

1905-1906 entries for class 2 automobile licenses in San Francisco

From the point of view of archival practice, the aforementioned "Licenses for Vehicles, July 1886 - June 1889" ledger may not belong with the SFPD records at all. Although it was presumably received by the San Francisco History Center as part of the SFPD archive, it's actually issued from a different City department: the Office of the Collector of Licenses. The ledger lists  payments received by the Collector of Licenses for the Street Department Fund. In the example pictured below, Collector T.I. O'Brien replaced one M.C. Conroy as the Collector.

Licenses for Vehicles, 1886-1889

To throw another wrench into the bureaucracy of vehicle licenses, the San Francisco History Center recently received a gift of an automobile permit issued by the Office of the Park Commissioners in 1905. It belonged to a C.H. Morrell, and the fee for the permit and number was in the extravagant amount of $2.00.

License to drive in Golden Gate Park, 1905
License to drive in Golden Gate Park 1905
 Whether you travel by bicycle, skateboard, or hybrid, biodiesel, or gasoline-powered car, each of these vehicle license items is something to contemplate during your next drive across the forty-nine square miles of our city. To contemplate them in person, visit us via public transit-then-stairway-or-elevator on the 6th floor of the Main Library!

Because the San Francisco Police Department Records are still being processed, some volumes may not yet be available for public use. Please contact the San Francisco History Center with questions at 415-557-4567.

All images are courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.