San Francisco Remembers the Franco-Prussian War
by William Hyder
2019 Third Place
A description of the Medals and San Francisco's Commemoration
Drawn by the lure of gold and driven by the poverty of economic hard times, emigrants from France and Germany made the long journey to San Francisco in 1849. Many went on to the gold fields in search of fortune, while others saw promise in the mud and filth of the shanty town that sprang up around the abandoned schooners clogging the waterfront. Those who stayed behind or abandoned the hard labor in the Sierra foothills and returned to the growing community established the businesses and built the homes that would come to be known as San Francisco.
The Germans assimilated into the many neighborhoods that spread across the growing core of the city. The French tended to cluster into an area that would become known as the Paris of the West. Their names would become famous in the history of the city and their fledgling business endeavors would survive well into the Twentieth Century.
Comfortably settled into their new homes and adopted country, many immigrants retained the customs, culture, and ties with their homelands while becoming Californians in heart and San Franciscans in their souls. The onset of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War tested their weakened allegiance to their countries of origin and then rekindled bonds with the families they had left behind,
Two medals designed and struck in San Francisco recall the early history of the German and French expatriates who helped build San Francisco. France declared war against Prussia in a dispute over the succession to the Spanish throne. The specifics of the war are not of much interest here except for the details that relate to the purpose and symbolism of the two medals.
Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck inveigled France into declaring war believing it would bring the independent southern German states into the conflict on Prussia’s side. His instincts were correct, and the Prussian victory led to the unification of Germany. The French defeat sparked further internal upheaval leading to the creation of the Third French Republic, the loss of much of Alsace and Lorraine, and one billion dollars in war reparations to be paid in three years. The combatants ratified the Treaty of Frankfort formalizing the end of the war on May 21, 1871.
An article in the Daily Alta California asserted that:
The Germans in the United States cannot be indifferent to the great triumph of their countrymen in Europe without exposing themselves to the suspicion of lacking not only proper pride of race, but even the spirit of free men. He must be a degenerate peon of noble sires who takes no interest in the successful and final termination of a national contest that has been in progress for centuries. For more than a thousand years the Germans have been fighting at frequent intervals for the privilege of managing their own affairs without the interference of the Latin powers.
As one might expect, the German community in San Francisco was the first to react and celebrate the German victory. France capitulated to Prussia months before the treaty formally ending the war was signed. The princes of the German states convened outside Paris in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in celebration to proclaim William I of Prussia as German Emperor. The German army marched triumphant through Paris, the streets empty and draped in black flags. All in advance of the treaty.
San Francisco’s German community timed its celebration for the 74th birthday of William I. The Peace Festival was billed as a celebration of peace not victory, a hand extended to the French people arguably deluded by their defeated leaders. The San Francisco Examiner reported that the day before the celebration an unknown Frenchman circulated a flier reminding the new citizens of America that the country did not worship royalty such as the newly proclaimed emperor.
The San Francisco Chronicle noted that the German community prepared for the Peace Festival as Germany prepared for war, well in advance with attention to detail. The festival began with a parade through San Francisco to the City Gardens. A four-wagon float represented the Rhine with Germania sitting over the scene with shield and drawn sword. A banner read —fast and true, the watch on the Rhine— a German anthem to the ongoing conflict between France and Germany over the Rhineland.
15,000 celebrants assembled at the City Gardens for food, beer, and Rhine wine. Entry fees and proceeds were earmarked for the German Sanitary Fund (medical help for the war injured). Organizers originally intended on selling badges for entry and it seems participants did receive some sort of ribbon to indicate payment. But, the planned badge with attached medal was likely reserved for festival officials. Instead, the planning committee authorized selling the white metal badge elements for 25 cents each with a limited number of silver medals to be sold for one dollar each.
Figure 1. Silver German Peace medal (30.1mm)
Albert Kuner (George Ferdinand Albrect Kuner), an 1848 immigrant to San Francisco from Bavaria, engraved the medal. The obverse features Germania with a shield on her right, a sword in her right hand, and a laurel wreath of victory in her left hand, GERMANIA inscribed on the pedestal below. The flags of five German states and the United States are arrayed behind her. The inscription, “ZUR ERINNERUNG A.D. DEUTSCHE FRIEDENSFEIER / IN SAN FRANCISCO,” translates as “In memory of the German Peace Celebration in San Francisco.” The medal is signed “KUNER F.” below the pedestal.
The reverse design features a sword and the German flag crossed over a wreath of oak and laurel. The inscription, “EINIGKEIT MACHT STARK. DURCH KAMPF ZUM SIEG,” translates as “In Union is Strength. Through Strife to Victory.” The date, “D. 22. MAERZ / 1871,” (March 22, 1871) appears in exergue.
Figure 2. White metal German Peace medal (30.2mm)
White metal examples were struck with an integrated loop and were likely struck after the silver medals as the Kuner signature is nearly gone on the obverse.
The French response was necessarily subdued. After all, the war was a disaster for France. The government had collapsed, and no one wanted to form a new government lest they carry the stigma of defeat.
Alexander Weill, one of the early leaders of the French and Jewish community in San Francisco, immigrated from Phalsbourg near the German border in northern France. The onset of the Franco-Prussian War hit close to home and his brother, Leon, returned to France to fight for their homeland. His brother Raphael became prominent in the dry goods business, while Alexander rose in the banking business. The brothers helped organize the French Benevolent Society in 1860 and Alexander became president and treasurer in 1866. The end of the Franco-Prussian War prompted many French Jews in Alsace-Lorraine to immigrate to America rather than become citizens of Germany. The loss to Germany struck deep at the heart of the Paris of the West.
The San Francisco Examiner reported that many in the French community met on March 7, 1872 at the call of the French National Subscription Fund to launch an effort to help pay off the French war debt. The Weill’s were among those stepping forward to contribute and help raise funds for the effort. The president of the fund encouraged generosity from the crowd:
History will judge that she will grant at the same time rewards to those who have been devoted to their country, and she will leave to the execution of posterity the traitors and the cowards who have caused these disasters.
Alexander Weill assumed the role of president of the National League of Deliverance with the aim of assisting the patriots of Alsace and Lorraine. Under the motto, “All for the Fatherland,” they raised funds to aid those displaced. In time, the organization transformed itself into the French National League working for the good of all French citizens and immigrants to California. Similar groups formed throughout California to help raise funds to alleviate the financial burden placed on France.
The French Ladies of San Francisco held the Grand National Fair in Union Hall from May 6 to May 11, 1872. Billed as “Tout Pour la Patrie,” the six-day event was held for the benefit of the French Ransom Fund. Mrs. Alexander Weill, the president of the fair, received a gift of the pen used by the natives of Alsace and Lorraine to sign a statement of their allegiance to their homeland in the San Francisco office of the French Consul. A donor paid $500 in auction for the privilege of presenting the pen to Mrs. Weill in commemoration of the event.
In keeping with practices of the time, a medal was struck as a thank you to donors. I have not found actual records of who authorized or ordered the medal, but it is signed V & CO, the hallmark of the W. K. Vanderslice & Co., a silver manufacturing firm in San Francisco. Founded in 1860, Shreve & Co. acquired the firm in 1908.
Figure 3. French National Subscription medal (30.1mm)
The obverse of the medal features the head of Ceres, the symbol of liberty in the Third French Republic. “CONCO” on her head band stands for Concordia symbolizing harmony among the people, nourished by peace. The legend, “TOUT POUR LA PATRIE,” translates as “All for the Fatherland,” the motto of the National League of Deliverance. The year “1872.” appears below the bust.
The reverse wreath of laurel and oak encloses the text, “QUI DONNE / A LA FRANCE / PRETE / A DIEU.” or “Who gives to France, will be repaid by God.” The legend above, “SON NALE DE CALIFORNIA” translates as the “National Subscription of California,” which suggests the medal was commissioned and awarded by the Central Committee of the National Subscription in San Francisco. The coordinating group collected the proceeds from Ransom Fund events held around the state for transmission to the French government. The hallmark “V & CO” appears at the bottom.
Other “Tout Pour la Patrie” events were held, usually in coordination with the Central Committee itself, so I cannot attach the medal to any specific event. Most likely, it was presented to those making significant donations or committing to monthly donations.
Gold drew immigrants to San Francisco from around the world. Some made their fortune and returned home. Others made new lives in their adopted home land, while their devotion remained true to the nationality of their birth. The two medals presented here are testaments to the ties that bound the early residents of San Francisco to the homes they left behind.
Adams, E.H., “A San Francisco German Peace Medal,” The Numismatist, April, 1910, p. 107.
Chalmers, Claudine, Images of America: French San Francisco, Arcadia Publishing, San Francisco, 2007.
And contemporary articles in:
- Daily Alta California
- San Francisco Examiner
- San Francisco Chronicle