California Fashion History: Davis Schonwasser Co.

Baby Bathrobe dated 1910-1920 from Davis Schonwasser & Co

I recently received some beautiful vintage baby clothes from a very dear friend, and one piece was a beautifully embroidered silk baby bathrobe bearing the label “Davis Schonwasser Co.” The sales tag suggests that the garment dates to 1910-1920, but I (of course), wanted to know more and couldn’t help diving in head-first to do a tertiary bit of research (this is by no means complete or exhaustive, but it is interesting).

Baby Bathrobe dated 1910-1920 from Davis Schonwasser & Co

As it turns out Davis Schonwasser & Co was a luxury department store, among the likes of City of Paris, I. Magnin, The White House, and a number of other long-time retail establishments of San Francisco. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted in 1996, “The city nourishes and cherishes traditions, celebrates the idiosyncratic and mourns casualties. And casualties there have been, even among classics: I. Magnin and Ernie’s have closed. So has the original Fly Trap, Winterland and Davis Schonwasser with its creaky wooden floors. We also miss the White House, the Fox Theater, Solari’s lentil soup and Townsend’s creamed spinach. The list goes on.” (Steger 1996)

L.E. Davis in 1903 via "Cloaks and Furs"

Several publications name different “Davis’s” and “Schonwasser’s” associated with the store. According to author Michael Zarchin, “Two Jews who combined their efforts to establish and run successfully a ladies’ and children’s ready-to-wear store known to San Franciscans for many generations were Samauel Schonwasser and Max Davis. Back in 1856, Mr. Schonwasser, an importer and dealer in dry goods, [first] established a small shop…. ” (Zarchin 1952, 47)

The Industry publication, Cloaks and Furs, suggested in 1903, that “L.E. Davis, of Davis, Schonwasser & Co., of San Francisco, is one of the new-idea men of the cloak an suit world. As long as two years ago Mr. Davis, in an interview with the writer, declared that such a thing as universal style had gone out of existence.” (Cloaks and Furs 1903, 46)

A newspaper clipping from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, dated Feb. 27, 1907, noted that Davis, Schonwasser, & Co was established in 1873 and it has been suggested that a “Schonwasser was independent of Davis at least before 1885.” (Carey 2014) Several San Francisco based city directories indicate that the store was in business as early as 1894. According to the 1902 Crocker-Langley San Francisco directory for the year, the store was run by “Max Davis and Emll G. Schonwasser” and sold “ladles’ and children’s furnishing goods.”

Davis Schonwasser Co, 1909 (Via Bancroft Library)

The San Francisco Evening Bulletin article mentioned above also explains that, “prior to the great fire was located at Post and Grant Avenue.  After the fire, and until removal to these new quarters, the firm’s business has been carried on at California st. and Van Ness Avenue.” The 1906 Earthquake and Fire prompted a move to their most famous location, opening there March 1, 1907. This was a time when, “Van Ness Avenue became a temporary downtown during the period that the real downtown rebuilt. Major dry goods and department stores such as the White House, the City of Paris, The Emporium, Davis-Schonwasser, D. Samuel’s Lace House . . . were some of the businesses that located here.” (Kostura 2010, 18)

"Looking down Sutter St. showing "The White House, Davis Schonwasser Co., and The Sloane Building, San Francisco, California, 1908"

This “new’ building had an elegant cache as well. “It was designed by George Adrian Applegarth, an Oakland native. He trained in Paris at the renowned École des Beaux-Arts, and in 1906 was in New York working on his graduate project. He stowed away on the next ship to Paris to collect his diploma, then returned to San Francisco. He ended up in a partnership with Kenneth MacDonald Jr., who may have been his collaborator on this building. The building is still a retail venue today, although the façade has changed somewhat.” (Time Shutter)

Made of painted satin ribbons laid vertically and horizontally with machine valenciennes lace trim top and bottom edges. Slot and stud front closure, laced back, large bow top front; whalebone stays. Seller: Davis Schonwasser, San Francisco (de Young Museum)

Several Bay Area museums hold costume examples within their collections. The de Young has a corset (c.1904-1908), described as being of French origin and donated by Mrs. Gordon H. True; and the Oakland Museum of California has a never-worn black “Geisha Waist” shirtwaist dating to between 1904-1910. Interestingly, the label of this piece has the former address of “128 to 134 Post St., San Francisco, Ca.” and was donated by Deanna Vickers.

One presumes that these two donors were the original owners and clients of the store, but that it completely unverified. In a letter to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was noted that Eleanor Maini Wollenberg was at some point, the accessories buyer for Davis- Schonwasser, and “with military precision, Admiral Nimitz would come see [her] twice yearly to pick out a purse for his wife.” (San Francisco Chronicle 2001, 2) Fashion shows were a common occurrence between 1900-1911, and were often held in cooperation with the surrounding department stores (as is described in a number of articles in the San Francisco Call).

The company appears to have had a conscience as well: In 1909, the store sold a doll to raise funds for the benefit of the California Women’s Hospital (San Francisco Call 1909), and in 1911, Davis Schonwasser supported the suffragette movement, but joining with other department stores by displaying yellow items in their windows (San Francisco Call 1911).

Little is documented of their children’s wear today, but the retailing journal The Corset and Underwear Review described a window display seen in 1918,  “Attractive clothing and nursery accessories for infants and young children formed a display in four windows at Davis, Schonwasser & Co., San Francisco, for the fall lines recently received by the various sections of the baby departments. The new and enlarged windows are in tones of cream, with pale blue and pink for the ribbons and other touches of color. The first window showed a nursery scene, with a mother in morning frock and apron, seated at the right, holding a baby in her arms.” (“Infants’ Wear” volume 12, 86)

Later years are even less well-documented in archives and history books, though it was active in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s at least. The company supported the San Francisco Opera’s 1950 season, and it was listed in the Bluebook of Leather and Shoe Businesses as late as 1958. By 1964, however, the location had become a Hibernia Bank office.

If you have information on Davis, Schonwasser, & Co, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Sources:

For another interesting tid-bit on a former employee of the Children’s department, check out this oral history from Harvard.

Carey, Thomas. 2014. Librarian, San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library, correspondence with the author. April 16.

Cloaks and Furs. 1903. Volume 33, 46

Kostura, William for the San Francisco Department of City Planning. 2010. Van Ness Auto Row Support Structures: A Survey of Automobile-Related Buildings along the Van Ness Avenue Coridor.

“Letters to the Editor.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 6, 2.

Perspectives in vernacular architecture, Volume 9, By Vernacular Architecture Forum, Edited by Alison K. Hoagland and Kenneth A. Breisch, 2003, University of Tennessee Press.

San Francisco Evening Bulletin, 1907. California Pioneer Society subject file. Feb. 27.

Steger, Pat. 1996. “Staying Power,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 21.

Zarchin, Michael Moses. 1952. Glimpses of Jewish Life in San Francisco: History of San Francisco Jewry. Distributed by the author.

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