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1906 San Francisco Earthquake Cover

1906 San Francisco Earthquake cover
1906 San Francisco Earthquake cover

Letter written on the 17th by Bella Alten to Evelyn Phillips
Letter written on the 17th by Bella Alten to Evelyn Phillips

This San Francisco Earthquake cover (an envelope that has been sent through the post is called a cover by stamp collectors) was postmarked at 5 a.m. on April 18, 1906, and was franked by a horizontal pair of one cent Franklin stamps of the 1902-1903 regular issue series. The time shown on the postmark is significant because the earthquake was recorded as starting at 5:13 a.m. on April 18, 1906. Because of the timing and the condition of the cover it may be assumed that it was being processed in the post office during the earthquake and has become perhaps the earliest San Francisco earthquake cover known.

Mail that was in the post office during the earthquake and survived was later moved to one of San Francesco’s piers for safekeeping and evacuation by boat at the earliest possible opportunity. This cover eventually transited Long Island City, New York on April 25, 1906 and reached the destination post office, Englewood, New Jersey, also on that date.

Fire-gutted Palace Hotel
Fire-gutted Palace Hotel 

The cover contained a letter written on the 17th of April by Metropolitan Opera star Bella Alten to a young lady in New Jersey using stationery from the Palace Hotel where she, Enrico Caruso, and most of the opera company stayed. The Palace Hotel built in 1875 was famous in its own right and became the hotel of choice for many of the rich and famous of the time including traveling royalty. As with most of this part of San Francisco, fire completely destroyed the Palace.

What makes this cover even more interesting is its association with some of the most well-known entertainers of the time, the artists of the Metropolitan Opera Company. The Company was in San Francisco for a series of performances at the Grand Opera House. The evening of the 17th was the opening night of the Company’s San Francisco engagement. Enrico Caruso sang the part of Don José in Bizet’s Carmen at the Mission Opera House. On the 18th, the company was scheduled to give a matinee performance of the Marriage of Figaro. Soprano Bella Alten was to perform the role for which she was famous, Cherubino.

Historical Spider Press
Photograph of Bella Alten, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Company Archives

This matinee never was performed. The earthquake and ensuing fire destroyed the Grand Opera House as well as the sets, costumes and instruments of the opera company.

There is another San Francisco earthquake cover in the museum collection that was featured as an Object of the Month for October, 2011. Processed by the post office at 9 a.m. on April 24, 1906 the morning after the earthquake rescue phase was declared over and the restoration phase began. It is one of the earliest covers to be sent through the city’s reconstituted postal system.

References:

Randy Stehle. "Auxiliary Markings - "BURNED OUT" in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake & Fire,” La Posta 20, Dec-Jan, 1989-1990: 7-11.

Randy Stehle. "1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire - Recent Discoveries, Part 1." La Posta 32, 2001 Jun-Jul 2001: 47-51.

Arthur G. Fisk, Postmaster. “1906 Post Office Report,” San Francisco: April 26, 1906.

Sydney Tyler and Ralph Stockman Tarr. “San Francisco’s great disaster”, P. W. Ziegler and Co.  Philadelphia, 1906. F869.S3T9 1906

Enrico Caruso and the 1906 Earthquake, The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

Written by Marvin Murray
Assistant Curator of Philately
Smithsonian National Postal Museum
April 2014

Additional Imagery

  • Playbill for the Metropolitan Opera Company matinee on April 18
    Playbill for the Metropolitan Opera Company matinee on April 18, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Company Archives
  • Steam printing press
    Post card showing ruined Grand Opera, card postmarked in Oakland on May 12, 1906