SF police: Out of the gray and into the blue

Police uniforms in SF turned blue in 1878 because cops were being insulted as Southern sympathizers


By Robert O'Brien
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Frequently in research I have come across the phrase "wearing the Gray." It has always been applied to policemen, and has invariably carried with it the connotation of esteem or veneration.

In the newspaper stories of the 1890s, for instance, there occur numerous references like the following: "The strong-jawed, keen-eyed representative of the law knew whereof he was speaking: he had been a wearer of the gray."

It was not until the other day that I learned what was meant by "wearing the gray," or, "Sergeant Fogarty once wore the gray," and little wonder is it that the policeman of whom it could be said was once an object of respect, not to say awe, to his fellow patrolmen.

It seems that the uniforms of San Francisco policemen were not always blue. I cannot say what uniforms, if any, they wore prior to 1869, but in that year they bloomed resplendent in gray.

Some years ago, an aged veteran of the former recalled the uniform as follows: "The regulations called for gray pants and a long, gray frock coat - nine black buttons it had and a block collar and a gray vest that buttoned up to the neck to keep out the fog."

They wore no belts on the coat and were required to keep fastened only the coat's top button, so they could swiftly and easily get at their pistols in event of an emergency.

"There was no regulation at all about the hat," the old-timer continued; "we wore what we pleased. A few wore derbies, but most of us wore soft, black, military hats."

One unconventional policeman - identified as a patrolman named Cobb, whose beat was in the Pine-Montgomery street quarter - wore neither derby nor military hat with his uniform; he sported a silk top hat day and night, and, to present, a picture of absolute eccentricity, puffed away at all times upon a short-stemmed clay pipe.

The change from a gray uniform to a dark blue one designed by a police commissioner named Major Hammond came in 1878. Although it is a little difficult to believe, the old-timer, who had worn the gray himself, said that abandonment of the gray became necessary because policemen were constantly being insulted as Southern sympathizers.

"Feeling about that time was more rabid than just after the war," he said. "It was soon after the Kearny sandlot riots, too. Everything was stirred up."

In any event in that year San Francisco policemen began wearing blue uniforms and helmets and belted coats as well. And as the years passed, ranks of those who had known the old uniforms - "the wearers of the gray" - dwindled until in 1922 there were only five still on active duty. There can be none of them alive today.

As a sort of postscript to the Gourmet Guide that The Chronicle published a little while ago it might divert you to learn that the free lunch, once an institution in San Francisco saloons, was supplanted by a table d'hote affair, which generally comprised soup, salad, fish, entrée, a glass of wine, dessert and coffee. The standard price for this luncheon was 15 cents.

In the days immediately preceding the 1906 disaster, the institutions most noted for the quality of their saloon luncheons were Haquett's Palace of Art, Ottersen's, Duncan Nichol's, George Dabovich's, Bob Kern's, Lacey's, the Richelieu and the Hoffman. One aspect that rendered them unique in America was the fact that every noon they were heavily patronized by women - shoppers, mostly, who, in invading these masculine sanctuaries, demonstrated that they enjoyed a degree of emancipation granted their sex in no other city in the United States.

Two additional claims to uniqueness were advanced by restaurant-conscious San Franciscans of that day. One was Desmond's, said to be the largest restaurant in the world, and a two-wheeled itinerant lunch cart, whose boast was that it was the smallest restaurant in the world. The proprietor of this cart further maintained that his menus were the smallest bills of fare in the universe. They were printed in pen and ink, on the backs of his calling cards. {sbox}

Copyright 2010 San Francisco Chronicle
 

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