Tag Archives: San Francisco

The Wolfinger Brothers

William Penn and Herman Wolfinger mid-1880s

Found this pair of attractive young men in a local antique shop waiting to be taken home. The names scrawled on the back are W.P. and H. Wolfinger and they appear to be brothers to me. The picture, taken about 1885, was taken in San Francisco by William Shew (1820-1903), a fairly well-known photographer whose story was told previously.

At first glance, I am drawn to the casual stance of the young man on the left, leaning on the column. He looks completely comfortable while his brother on the right is trying very hard to appear distinguished, using a popular pose for gentlemen of the day. Some folks believe it was an imitation of Napoleon’s  famous pose but in reality people had a hard time keeping still while waiting during the long exposure times. For those who had trouble keeping their hands still, they held them inside their coats. This was to prevent the picture from being blurred in case they moved their hands during the exposure time. The long exposure times are also why it appears as if our ancestors were permanently depressed in their photographs. They weren’t depressed, it was just easier to hold a relaxed face then a constantly smiling one. You try smiling for 15 minutes…. I bet your jaws will be aching  afterwards!

They were brothers and both were born in Pennsylvania to Mary Wolfinger. Their father’s name is currently unknown as it appears he died soon after William was born. The 1860 US Federal Census shows the boys living with their 30-year-old mother and 10-year-old sister Louisa in Pennsylvania. Herman was 8 and William Penn was 7. The mother’s  birthplace is listed as Baden, which confirms later census reports.

It appears young William caught the gold fever rush. In 1870, at the age of 17, William is listed as Penn Wolfinger and is found living in Little York Township in the county of Nevada, California on his own. He is living in a hotel ran by Peter Drunzer and his wife, Mary, and his occupation is recorded as a miner.  Nevada County was the home of the second-largest gold-mining district in California. First discovered in 1850, for the next 100 years, the county produced over 68.4 tonnes of gold.

Born in February 1852, 28-year-old Herman, a cabinet maker, was residing in San Francisco, California along with his 24-year-old wife Julia, a long way away from her home state of New York in 1880. Also living in the home were son Herman M. Wolfinger, aged 4 and Julia’s mother, 60-year-old Catherine Smucker and her 27-year-old sister, also named Catherine. By 1880, William, who was born in May 1853, seems to have given up on prospecting and is living in the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Louisa and Theodore Erdin, in San Francisco, along with their four young daughters, Emma 8, Mary 6, Clara 4 and Julia 1. His occupation is listed as a cabinet maker.

In 1900,  at the age of 47, William was married to a 27-year-old Irish wife named Georgina. They had four children living at home – stepdaughter Margaret Stelling 7, daughter Eva 15, son Fred 13 and 11-year-old Elsie. He was still a cabinet maker and worked at Sterling Furniture Co., located at 1107 Treat Ave. and did quite well for himself. The company made educational furniture, such as the combination school desk and chair. The family was living at 5 Oak St., San Francisco, CA. Herman was living close by his brother at 786 1/2 Stevenson St. in a 3-storey flat. Herman was a widower, living with his children Herman M. 23, Raymond E. 16, Ethel T. 18 and Mabel J. 14.

Between 1900 and 1925, Herman and William moved residences quite a bit. One wonders if perhaps cabinet making wasn’t as lucrative as they had hoped. In 1904, Herman was living in room 13 on the 3rd floor of 100 Jones. In 1905, Herman marries again, a fellow Pennsylvanian named Bertha L.  and they are living at 152 Church Street in 1907. This is the second marriage for them both. William was living at 571 Duboce Ave in 1907. In 1912, records find William Penn living at 1751 Market Street. In 1916, he had moved once again to 20 12th Street. In 1923, he’s shown living at 2242 22nd Ave., still working as a cabinet maker.

In 1910, the federal census finds 58-year-old Herman and his wife of five years, living in Beaverdam, Hanover, Virginia. He has given up cabinet making and is recorded as working a home farm that he proudly owns. His 38-year0old wife, Bertha, tends to the home.

William Penn, 56, is living with his 23-year-old son Frederick at 1752 Market Street, which appears to be a boarding house in San Francisco. Both William and Frederick are listed as married, not widowed, but their wives are not recorded as living with them. The son doesn’t have an occupation listed but William is identified as a carpenter for the telephone service company.

Probably feeling lost without his old trade, 1920 finds Herman listed once again as a cabinet maker. At 67, he works from home to provide for his wife of 15 years. They are still living at their farm in Beaverdam, Va.

In 1920 William and Georgina, 66 and 47 years-old respectiviely, are living next to their son Frederick W., who also became a cabinet maker, and his family.  Fred is married to Catherine, and has two sons, William F., 9 and Raymond, 6 and a 4-year-old daughter, Delores.

William  and his wife, Georgina, are shown on the San Diego County voter registration list for 1940. His occupation is still listed as cabinet maker, although by now, William would be 86 years-old. They are living at 1874 O’Ferrell St.

Although, I haven’t found out exactly when they died, it is deduced that Herman Wolfinger dies sometime between 1920 and 1930 and William Penn Wolfinger dies after 1940.


William Shew (1820-1903) – Photographer & Daguerreotype Innovator

W.P. & H. Wolfinger

I came across this picture of a pair of distinguished looking brothers named W.P & H. Wolfinger and wanted to research them to tell their story… but my ADHD kicked in and I was distracted by the photographer’s name on the back of the cabinet card instead… Wm Shew’s new Photographic Establishment, 145 Kearny Street, San Francisco. 

What caught my eye were the words Photographic Establishment. Normally, on cabinet cards, the photographer only has the word “photographer” after his name but William Shew went all out and that intrigued me. I had to know more about him.

I came across a blog by Michael Colbruno called Lives of the Dead: Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Michael has researched William Shew since he is buried in Mountain View Cemetery. I’ve taken the liberty to add a few pictures and some additional information… It’s a great story and history lesson.

William Shew was born on a farm in Waterton, New York on March 1820. At the age of 20 he read an article by the inventor Samuel F.B. Morse about the daguerrotype process and, along with his three brothers, moved to New York City to study with Morse. His brothers Jacob, Myron and Trueman were also photographers, but not attained the stature of William Shew. Morse would become more famous as the inventor of the telegraph.

After completing his studies, Shew worked briefly in upstate New York before becoming the supervisor at John Plumbe’s gallery in Boston. Three years later he opened John Shew and Company in Boston, where he manufactured his own dyes and created daguerrotypes with wooden frames, thin vaneer backings and embossed paper coverings. In 1846, Shew married Elizabeth Marie Studley and had a daughter they named Theodora Alice, born in Feb. 1848. He also became and active member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

William Shew's passport application applied for on Jan. 27, 1851

In 1851, he sold his business and sailed on the steamer Tennessee to San Francisco, where he joined his brother Jacob who arrived in 1849. It is believed that Shew set up a gallery shortly after arriving in San Francisco, which may have been destroyed by the 1851 fire that swept the city. After the fire he set up “Shew’s Daguerreian Saloon.”

The wagon drew the attention of the neighboring Alta California newspaper, which wrote, “A good deal of curiosity has been expressed in regard to the object and intention of the big wagon which fills up a large portion of the plaza, and which was yesterday being covered with a frame. Some suppose that ‘the elephant’ which so many people come here to see was to be caged up in it and exhibited to greenhorns at a quarter a sight. . .It seems, however, that it is to be a traveling daguerreotype establishment, with which the proprietor intends to travel around the city and country, taking views and portraits.” 

That same year, John Wesly Jones hired Jacob and William Shew to take dagurrotypes for the California portion of his moving panorama “Great Pantoscope of California, the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City, Nebraska and Kansas.” In 1852 the brothers expanded the business, selling portraits and pictures of buildings, as well as daguerrotype materials.

During this period he continued his interest in the anti-slavery movement and is believed to have hosted the first Free-Soil convention held in San Francisco on October 8, 1852. His interest in politics expanded beyond slavery and Shew went on to serve on the San Francisco Board of Education and he hosted meetings of the Temperance Society at his office. He also became an active member of a number of photographic associations and societies.

By 1854, he was operating his business at the corner of Montgomery and Sacramento in San Francisco, later moving to a “fire-proof building” at Clay and Montgomery. His brother, who had been his shop supervisor, opening a competing business named Hamilton & Shew located directly across the street. William Shew expanded his business to include photographs and ambrotypes (positive photographic images printed on glass).

In 1864, he entered a competition at the Mechanics’ Institute Exhibition where he displayed pictures of Thomas Starr King, Edwin Sumner, Gen. John Sutter and Sam Houston. In 1878, his only daughter, Theodora “Dora” married Calvert Meade.

On Oct. 11, 1889, Shew’s wife of approximately 43 years died of typhoid fever along with his youngest grand daughter, Edith Dora Meade. In 1892, at the age of 72, Shew married his second wife Annie Katherine. She was 26.

By 1902, the octagenarian was still operating his studio. A year later he died and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery. His wife continued to operate his studio after his death. Tragically, most of his work was destroyed in the 1906 fire and earthquake. However, many of his works can still be found in history books and major collections, including at the Smithsonian Institution, California Historical Society, Bancroft Library in Berkeley and the Wells Fargo Bank Historical Room.


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