Sinsheimer Collection, MS 036
The Sinsheimer Collection contains nineteenth- and early twentieth-century business, personal, and political papers of the Sinsheimers, a prominent and pioneering mercantile family of San Luis Obispo, California. Of German-Jewish extraction, Sinsheimer brothers Bernhard and Henry and half-brother A. Z. migrated to California following the Civil War, starting a general merchandise store in San Luis Obispo in 1876. One of A.Z.'s sons, Louis F. Sinsheimer, served as mayor of San Luis Obispo from 1919-1939, a period of great advances in the city's infrastructure. Spanning four generations, this is an unusually rich collection, documenting the family's business, political, and personal interests. The collection is comprised of roughly 105 linear feet of family correspondence and memorabilia; business correspondence and ledgers; financial records and invoices; business, personal and political ephemera; personal diaries, daybooks, notebooks and calendars; photographic prints and negatives; newspapers, bluepri nts, maps, and artifacts. The collection was donated by the Sinsheimer heirs in 1987.
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- Title: Sinsheimer Collection, 1868-1997 (1876-1959 bulk)
- Collection Number: MS 036
- Creator: Sinsheimer, Aron Zacharias (A.Z.), 1837-1919; Sinsheimer, Bernhard, 1848-1928; Sinsheimer, Gertrude, 1871-1960; Sinsheimer, Henry, 1854-1932; Sinsheimer, Jeanette "Nettie" Weil, 1847-1926; Sinsheimer, Louis F., 1869-1951; Sinsheimer, May, 1873-1948; Sinsheimer, Paul A., 1879-1956; Sinsheimer, Warren A., 1885-1952; Sinsheimer, Warren A., Jr., 1923-1968
- Extent: 124 boxes
- Languages: English, Spanish, German, Portuguese
The Sinsheimer Brothers
The Sinsheimer brothers, Bernhard, Henry, and half-brother A. Z. (Aron Zacharias), were a pioneering mercantile family in 19th century San Luis Obispo County, California. Of German-Jewish background, they came to post-Civil War California separately after previously living in New York and Mississippi.
Bernhard first appears in an 1875 San Luis Obispo directory with his occupation listed as a clerk. In 1876, Bernhard and Henry purchased from Bartolo Brizzolara his "stock of general merchandise including one iron safe, platform and counter scales, [and] lamps now used in my store located on Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo" to furbish their own store. This starting date of the family business was a continuing source of pride and was prominently noted in early, as well as more contemporary, store advertisements and logos. The following year, the brothers completed another purchase from Brizzolara – this time of land at the corner of Monterey and Chorro, bounded by Rose Alley.
By 1878, Aron, known for most of his life as A. Z., with his growing family of six children and wife Jeanette, had joined Bernhard in San Luis Obispo. According to the family papers, A. Z. was a Civil War veteran and through the years maintained contact with many of his comrades from the 120th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Along with Henry, who was based in San Francisco as an agent for the Koshland wool merchants, the brothers operated a general merchandise store; acted as commissioners in beans and grain; ran cattle; developed land; and supplied farmers and ranchers with goods, equipment, and loans. Supplies came from such venerable firms as Folger's Coffee, Levi Strauss, and Baker & Hamilton. Customers resided in several counties up and down the Central Coast and east into the San Joaquin Valley. During the 1880s, partner M. Fleisher managed a Santa Maria branch of the store.
With a population of 2,243 in 1880, San Luis Obispo was the largest "city" between Monterey (population 1,396 in 1880), Santa Barbara (population 3,460 in 1880) and Bakersfield (population 2,626 in 1890) and served as the regional market center for an isolated, agricultural area. Beginning in 1861 and continuing into the 1870s, stage lines transported passengers between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The first passenger train from San Francisco arrived in 1894, though the railway link from San Francisco to Los Angeles was not completed until 1901. Before the arrival of the railroad, regular vessels of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company loaded with cargo – including dry goods, grain or beans for the Sinsheimer Bros. store – landed at Port Harford (now Avila Bay). Goods were then hauled some ten miles northeast to San Luis Obispo on the Pacific Coast Railway, a local narrow-gauge rail system.
Despite the rural character of the area, the Sinsheimers' customers represented a diversity of ethnic groups who were ranching and farming in the region at the turn of the century. Letters and customer orders were written in Spanish, German, and occasionally Portuguese, as well as English. Local Chinese settlers and merchants were also part of the customer base.
Historic Sinsheimer Building
By 1884, the Sinsheimer Bros. firm was successful enough to commission the construction of a new building to house their general store. The two-story brick structure was designed by Veitch, Knowles, & Co. of Oakland and constructed by Alfred Walker at a cost of $8,647. A copy of the contract is found in the collection. This attractive cast-iron front building – more typical to New Orleans or San Francisco in style than the rural Central Coast – still graces the city's commercial center at 849 Monterey St. on Rose Alley. The Sinsheimer Bros. store continued under family operation until 1974. After that, new owners operated the 4,000-square-foot store in the city's historical downtown under the same name until 1977. Shoppers today will find a gift store on the first floor and professional offices on the second. The landmark building is still owned by family members.
Sinsheimer Family as Business Partners
In California, the 1880s were boom years for real estate promotion. Land development was important even on the remote Central Coast; the Sinsheimers were major landowners, acquiring properties in San Luis Obispo and adjacent counties.
As the Sinsheimer family's businesses grew and succeeded over the years, Bernhard permanently relocated to San Francisco, leaving A. Z., with his sons Otto and Louis, to run the diversified San Luis Obispo interests. On March 18, 1898, the local newspaper The Semi-Weekly Breeze, featured a front-page piece noting the new articles of incorporation being drawn up, with A. Z. and his son, Louis, as owners.
Mayor Louis Sinsheimer
Several of A. Z. and Jeanette's ten children became prominent members of the local community, most notably son Louis Felix Sinsheimer. He served as the mayor of San Luis Obispo for 20 years, from 1919–1939. The city saw many improvements in its infrastructure during that time: telephone and telegraph service, city sewer and gas works, street paving, installation of street lights, and an upgraded highway over the Cuesta Grade. His administration was called upon to lend emergency help with the tragic crash of U.S. Navy destroyers at Honda Point in 1923. Louis also was appointed to serve on the Board of Trustees for California Polytechnic School, now known as California Polytechnic State University. He filled an unfinished term beginning in 1915 and continued until the board was automatically dissolved by statute in 1921.
Sinsheimer Family Residences
A. Z. Sinsheimer's insurance policies, dated 1895 and 1896, refer to a one-story frame dwelling "on the north side of Monterey Street, between Broad and Nipomo" as his residence – only two blocks from the business. Later the family relocated to larger quarters at 1020 Marsh St., a four-block stroll from the general store. A two-story, Victorian wood-frame house with dormer windows, this second residence was situated on a wooded corner lot bordering San Luis Creek. The house was demolished in 1960 to make way for a Spanish-style office building that today houses a brokerage. Sycamores and eucalyptus, along with some old fruit trees from the Mission garden days were saved when the old house was razed.
Second Generation of Sinsheimers
The children of A. Z. and Jeanette ("Nettie") Sinsheimer considered San Luis Obispo their hometown, and upon their deaths choose to be buried alongside their parents in the old Jewish Cemetery, located on the grounds of the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery on lower Higuera Street. Three of the nine who lived to adulthood (Fernanda died at age nine) spent their lives in San Luis Obispo: Louis, Gertrude, and Otto. Of the other siblings, Sam, May, and Paul made San Francisco their permanent home. In this more sophisticated urban environment there were plenty of relatives – Uncles Henry and Bernhard and their families, as well as a maternal uncle, the musician Oscar Weil – to serve as business mentors and social companions. And mother Jeanette made regular trips from San Luis Obispo to the City for extended visits to her children, shopping needs, and medical consultation.
The Sinsheimer sons who worked outside the family enterprises were also highly successful in private industry. Samuel was an executive with the Bank of Italy. Sidney, a leader in the sugar beet industry, helped to organize the Holly Sugar Co., and served as President of the American Sugar Beet Co. Paul began his career as a news reporter, then concentrated on the investment business, serving as a vice-president of the American Trust Co., a consulting professor of business history at Stanford University, and operating his own investment advising firm. Irving worked for his older brother Sidney overseeing the building of sugar beet plants, then went into the construction business with various partners in Southern California.
A. Z.'s youngest son, Warren, was an executive in the oil industry. His son, Warren Jr., a successful Texas petroleum engineer, relocated to San Luis Obispo in order to take over management of the Sinsheimer Bros. family store in 1956 upon the death of his Uncle Louis. Warren Jr.'s widow Marion, sister Anne, and his son, Warren III, donated the collection of family papers to Cal Poly. The children of Bernhard and Henry Sinsheimer also carried on the family business traditions. This branch of the family eventually changed their surname to Sinton due to anti-German sentiments during World War I.
Edgar, one of Henry's sons, had a law practice in San Francisco and was well-known as a philanthropist and leader in the Jewish community. Silas, son of Bernhard, was involved in another family business venture in San Francisco, Sinsheimer and Co., dealers in grain and beans. He also held an interest in ranching properties in eastern San Luis Obispo County near Shandon. Sinton descendants are still active ranchers and leaders in that community today.
While the bulk of the collection represents the business and political activities of the male family members of the family, the collection also documents the philanthropic and charitable leadership of two generations of Sinsheimer women. Their efforts on behalf of local and regional charities and non-profit organizations are notable.
Jeanette "Nettie" (Mrs. A.Z.) Weil Sinsheimer (1847–1926) was a model in this regard to her two daughters, May and Gertrude. Nettie was the first president of the San Luis Obispo Chapter of the Red Cross, founded in 1898. An early advocate for the local public library, she supported the successful drive for a Carnegie building grant and then served on the Board of Trustees for the new library. Nettie also chaired the San Luis Obispo County Woman's Board for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1914.
May (1873–1948) resided in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of San Francisco, living with her bachelor brother, Paul, a respected financier. In the 1920 federal census, May lists her occupation as "musician." Undoubtedly music genes ran in the family: Nettie Weil Sinsheimer's older brother was the well-known Oscar Weil, a composer and music teacher of international renown who also lived in San Francisco. Her diaries and daybooks show that May enjoyed regular concert-going and attended many cultural events; the milieu of San Francisco was a very different one from the small town quiet and rural ambiance of her hometown, San Luis Obispo.
In contrast, her sister Gertrude (1871–1960) was a life-long resident of San Luis Obispo, relishing her role as a member of a prominent pioneer family. With the onset of World War I, she continued in her mother's tradition by heading the SLO Chapter of the Red Cross and serving on the California Tuberculosis Association Board. And twenty-five years later, World War II saw Gertrude still active in supporting the troops and those in need, donating sheet music, instruments, flower seeds, chocolate, and cash contributions around the state.
With her brother, Mayor Louis Sinsheimer, Gertrude lived in the family home at 1020 Marsh St. Gardening was her avocation. She was active in the San Luis Obispo Garden Club and Wild Flower Association, distributing circulars to save the wildflowers and drafting a letter to the County Board of Supervisors arguing against unsightly highway signs when the new Cuesta Grade route was being built in 1937.
During World War I, May was also very involved with charitable efforts. As Musical Chair of the San Francisco War Camp Committee – which extended hospitality to the troops – she arranged musical performances for servicemen and civilians alike across - 13 - the Bay Area to entertain the men and keep spirits up. She also coordinated the donations of sheet music and instruments to hundreds of servicemen, and continued this latter role in a semi-official capacity during World War II through the auspices of the Red Cross and other service agencies. Many handwritten thank-you notes in the collection attest to her work. "You may be sure that more patients grow interested in playing when the music is fresh and new rather than ragged and thumbworn," wrote Miss Mary Elizabeth Knock, Assistant Field Director, after a donation of sheet music to Camp San Luis Obispo in 1945.
The Sinsheimer women of both generations were community-minded, active leaders in their respective environs of San Francisco and San Luis Obispo. They were generous with their time and energies, and put their talents and passions to work for the good of others.
Sinton, Thomas H. The Sinsheimer Brothers of San Luis Obispo and San Francisco:
Dry Goods Merchants and Grain & Bean Dealers. Unpublished manuscript, 2005.
Ninth Census of the United States
Twelfth Census of the United States
Thirteenth Census of the United States
Scope and Content
Scope and Content Note
Spanning four generations of Sinsheimers, the Sinsheimer Collection contains the business, personal, and political papers of this prominent pioneering mercantile family of San Luis Obispo, California. It is an unusually rich collection, documenting the family in several spheres, as well as across multiple generations.
The collection is comprised of 124 boxes of family correspondence and memorabilia; business correspondence and ledgers; financial records and invoices; business, personal and political ephemera; personal diaries, daybooks, notebooks and calendars; photographic prints and negatives; newspapers, blueprints, maps, and artifacts. In addition, about two-dozen monographs have been cataloged with MARC records.
The Sinsheimer Collection is divided into nine series:
- Series 1: Personal Papers, 1890-1997
- Series 2: Business Records, 1869-1970s
- Series 3: Business Ledgers, 1976-1960
- Series 4: Political Papers, 1901-1936
- Series 5: Cal Poly Papers, 1901-1936
- Series 6: Volunteer Service Agency Records, 1898-1957
- Series 7: Newspapers, 1868-1971
- Series 8: Visual Media, 1891-1961
- Series 9: Oversized Materials, 1874-1966