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The real 10 oldest photos of San Francisco

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A sepia-toned trip down memory lane

On Wednesday, the history blog Only In Your State posted what it calls the ten oldest photos ever taken in San Francisco.

It’s quite a treat to peer into the sepia-toned past, starting with the famous 1850 snap of ships full of eager would-be Gold Rush millionaires filling Yerba Buena Cove, an inlet which no longer exists.

The only problem with Only In Your State’s photos: They’re not actually the ten oldest images of San Francisco. Some are even as recent as the 1906 earthquake.

The blog still deserves points for digging up some great material, but a few historical hijinks seem to be going on here.

So, what are the real ten oldest photographs of San Francisco? It’s difficult to say with any binding authority, because who knows what obscure older images may be tucked away in a dusty archive?

And there’s some room for disagreement; do historical photos from the gold fields count, or is that too remote from what was then San Francisco itself? And what about images without any date but which appear likely to be one range of years or another?

The local history site SF Museum does feature at least one photo from 1847 (shrunk to the size of a postage stamp), the very year the city changed its name from “Yerba Buena.”

Beyond that, the San Francisco Public Library’s photo archive is the standard go-to for a window into the past. Are these selections from the library vaults the true oldest photographs of the city?

Hard to say. But it would take quite an expedition to uncover any older ancestors that may still exist.

  • “Abandoned ships, 1849.”
  • “Stockton Street,” likely 1849.
  • Titled “The Oldest Photograph of San Francisco,” although of course it’s not. (1850.)
  • “Bella Union Theater,” 1850.
  • “Yerba Buena Cove,” 1850.
  • “Portsmouth Square,” 1851.
  • “Abandoned ships,” 1851.
  • “North Beach,” 1851.
  • “San Francisco From Rincon Hill,” 1850.