The Snail Family’s friend Mike the Falcon lent me a whole pack of vintage postcards of his to look at, which I figured you snail mail fans might like to see too. I’ll be posting selections from the pack over the next few posts.
I thought I’d start with a niche in Falcon’s collection I found unique–postcards of California observatories.
Hope you are fineWe are all well, guess you already knew that Betty + Ed Jr. were married Feb. 23rd in N.Y. + will be home with us soon. We brought our lunch + came to spend the day here
Love from all Lillie (?) + Ed.
All these observatories have interesting histories and scientific breakthroughs to their names. But the Lick Observatory is new to me, so I felt like going in depth here. Built between 1876 and 1887, Lick Observatory was the world’s first permanent, residential observatory. It was built with money left upon the death of James Lick, the wealthiest man in California at the time.
Lick, it turns out, was first a carpenter by trade who built up a thriving business making pianos. Though he was from the U.S. and didn’t speak Spanish, his business was based in Buenos Aires as pianos were in demand in South America. In 1825, the piano maker toured Europe. On the return trip to Argentina, his ship was captured by the Portuguese, and passengers and crew were taken as prisoners to Montevideo, Uruguay. Lick managed to escape and made it all the way home to Buenos Aires on foot.
Some years later, he moved shop to Chile, and then to Peru. In the mid-1840s, he decided to move again. The craftsman employed Mexican workers, and understood a Mexican-American War was coming. He knew where he wanted to be at that time–settled in California when it was annexed to the United States.
James Lick arrived in San Francisco in January 1848, bearing 600 pounds of South American chocolate to sell to start himself out in the new Territory. The chocolate sold so well, he convinced Domingo Ghirardelli, his friend and neighbor back in Lima, to move to San Francisco too.
Lick used his chocolate earnings to buy real estate. Lucky for him, a year later, the Gold Rush created a housing boom in San Francisco. The port town grew from about 1,000 residents in 1848, to over 20,000 by 1850. Lick built a hotel (unfortunately named Lick House) considered the finest west of the Mississippi. The dining room, based on one at Versailles, could seat 400. Also to feed the growing population, Lick bought farmland in and around San Jose, planting orchards and establishing the largest flour mill in the Territory.
By 1874, Lick was the wealthiest man in California, but he was not immortal. Weakened by a massive stroke, he wondered what to do with his fortune. The president of the California Academy of Sciences persuaded him to leave much of his money for the building of a mountaintop observatory with a telescope that would be the largest and most powerful there’d ever been. Lick’s second greatest trust was for a free public bathhouse for the working class men and women of San Francisco. (It was wisely named James Lick Baths, not just Lick Baths.) His entire estate went to social and scientific causes.
The richest man in California died in 1876. In 1887, his body was moved to the site of the great refractor telescope he made possible. Without family, Lick made a point of stipulating that there always be fresh flowers on his grave. Appropriately, he funded the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.