Curious Matters: Dirt, Granite, and Fine China

October 02, 2015 Posted by: HG - Museum Intern

Yosemite was once ruled by grit. In the 1870s and 1880s, only the hardiest, sturdiest of travelers braved the rumbling wagon-road and the twenty-mile mule or horseback trek into the Valley. Visitors were folk acclimated to the wild, people who had lived in mining towns or mountainscapes all their life, their bones calcified with California granite, limbs fortified with strong Sequoia. Yet, in the packs of some of these rugged, hardened, and thick-coated voyagers was beautiful, delicate china. Dainty artisan soaps, full-length mirrors, and fresh-puffed towels floated across the treacherous terrain strapped to scratchy mules that were led by employees of the Cosmopolitan Bathhouse &Saloon in a juxtaposition that defined the era.

Historic photograph of the Cosmopolitan Bath House and Saloon in Yosemite Valley.

While most of Yosemite's early visitors expected to “rough it” in the wilderness, many couldn't turn down the adventitious—and somewhat miraculous—amenities of the Cosmopolitan—amenities that traveled the same rough route they had crossed into the Valley. From 1873 to 1884, the Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Saloon provided urban luxuries in the middle of the Sierra. The owner and operator, C. E. Smith, proudly claimed that, “No pains or expense will deter the Proprietor from rendering it a Desirable and Favorite Place of Resort!”  After the back-breaking journey into the park, visitors could wash their dusty skin in a hot shower, warm their bones with a fully stocked bar. After days of stale water and bitter coffee that flavored a trip to Yosemite, the spirited menu of “'brandy-cocktails,' 'gin-slings,' 'barber's poles,' 'eye-openers,' 'mint juleps,' 'Samsons with the hair on,' 'corpse-revivers,' 'rattlesnakes,'” and other potent combinations was an exciting treat. There was a ladies' parlor, a gentleman's reading-room furnished with the latest newspapers of Eastern and Western cities, full-size billiard tables, carpeted baths, elegant glassware and a barber-shop—yes, a barber-shop. But perhaps the most interesting item at the Cosmopolitan was not a fine ware of china or a piece of fancy furniture, but a large guest register.

The Cosmopolitan guest register , part of the 2015 summer exhibit “Yosemite Viewed” in the museum gallery. The Guest Register of the Cosmopolitan Bathhouse & Saloon embodies the sturdy/delicate dichotomy that brought it and the Cosmopolitan's other furnishings to Yosemite. It's massive. The book, custom-made in San Francisco for the steep price of $500, measures 24 inches by 18 inches by 8 inches, and contains 800 pages. It is heavily morocco-bound and silver plated and sits in the Yosemite Museum propped only slightly open to keep the weight from its own pages from destroying its binding. And yet, within this behemoth object is flourishing black laceworks of signatures. The hefty book protects the dark gossamer marks made by the hands of 18,000 guests. In the January 1933 Yosemite Nature Notes, Park Naturalist C.A. Harwell emphatically describes the register when it was first loaned to the Yosemite Museum in that year. His words emphasize both its physical bulk and its hefty historical significance.

Indeed, the book is weighted by the weightless signatures of four U.S. Presidents: James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Theodore Roosevelt. Distinguished generals, foreign lords, counts, and dukes such as Duke Alex of Russia, the famous London actress Lily Langtry, and English writer Rudyard Kipling all graced its pages alongside American legends John Muir, Galen Clark, and Buffalo Bill Cody. Many left additional comments, ranging from personal musings to significant historical events. On May 15, 1875, while James Garfield was still a United States Congressman, he wrote of his astonishment with the park: “No one can thoughtfully study the valley and its surroundings without being broader minded thereafter. J.A.G.” John “T. McLean” inscribed on page 57, marked as June 18, 1874, “The first wagon road leading to Yosemite Valley (via Coulterville) was built by Mr. T. McLean and completed on June 18, 1874—on that day the builder and his family were the first persons to ride into the Great Valley on wheels. They with their friends named this list have ridden in carriages from Coulterville to Yosemite. The event—a memorable one for the valley—was celebrated by procession and orations, bonfire, firing of cannons and general rejoicing.” Like blades of grass these signatures curl and wisp across the pages, entwining the curious reader in Yosemite’s hearty history of saving a little space for everyone.

This juxtaposition of sturdy grit and untouchable fragility shows us two ways we come into contact with the past. As we feel the grain of the leather-bound register on our fingertips, we are in the presence of the physical past, of the rocky trails and the dusty leathery hands that brought this object to Yosemite. And as we read the curling names of the people who visited the Cosmopolitan, we experience the untouchable-ness of history, the stories and characters we can now only imagine. We are in the presence of the visceral history, the pride of an artful signature, the awe of the landscape, the comfort of familiarity that its first visitors must have experienced when they took their first sip of hot tea from a beautiful little cup.

Curious Matters

Last updated: October 2, 2015

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