Monday, November 26, 2012

Main Plaza, 1885: Part I. The White Elephant Saloon

This is the first of many installments intended to paint a portrait of life in San Antonio in 1885.

Between the 1880s and 1920s, San Antonio cultivated the second-largest red light district in the United States, stretching from Main Plaza west to Frio Street. The most infamous establishment during this time was the White Elephant Saloon. More complex than a basic gambling den, the White Elephant embodied the many dichotomies of San Antonio, serving both the vagrant rounder and the affluent businessman. Despite standing as the largest gambling establishment in Texas, it was only open for less than two years. In 1885, the state of Texas passed a bill outlawing gambling, making it a felony. Many saloons and gaming houses, including the White Elephant, packed up and left town, changing San Antonio forever.

"The stranger on coming to San Antonio is usually told that the sights worth seeing are the Alamo, San Pedro Springs, the Missions and the garrison grounds, and invariably he is counselled not to think of departing until he has seen the Elephant."1

Figure 1: The White Elephant Saloon, 1883
The White Elephant Saloon opened its doors on August 7, 1883. The proprietors, Sam Berliner and Edward Fowler, selected a cramped lot at 315 W. Commerce Street, in between two department stores, along the north side of Main Plaza (see figure 2). Located just two doors down was Max Samuel's saloon, the Revolving Light; not far away from that was the infamous Vaudeville Theater, where Ben Thompson and King Fisher were killed in a shootout in March of 1884. The location of the Elephant indeed contributed to its success.

The Elephant's setting in Main Plaza, San Antonio's early commercial district, coupled with its proximity to city hall and the stock yards, provided the White Elephant with a healthy lunch crowd during the day. Its shear size, furnishings, and location made the Elephant the premier attraction at night. Main Plaza was arguably busier in the evening than during the day. Food vendors and Chili Queens operated their stands from dusk until dawn and were never without customer.

Scuffles, skirmishes, and shootings were commonplace along the north side of the plaza. In the 1880s, there were no less than sixteen saloons in the immediate area. Main Plaza was a dusty, hustling, bustling mess with the White Elephant Saloon as its rough and rowdy center. "It is, Perhaps, the largest place of its kind in the United States. At night its exterior is as bright as midday, made so by electric lights, while streaming out from within come dazzling beams of splendor projecting their rays completely across the spacious plaza."2 The White Elephant was likely the first saloon in San Antonio to utilize electric lighting. The San Antonio Electric Company had only been established the year previous. Electricity enhanced visibility in shadowy corridors, extended gaming time, and served as an oasis for customers yearning to escape San Antonio's dark and dusty streets.

Figure 2: Augustus Koch Map of Main Plaza, 1886
The bright lighting of the Elephant was complemented by its mahogany and marble interior. The floors were "tessellated with alternating black and white marble and would have made a fit floor for Solomon's temple."3 A mahogany cigar stand stood in the vestibule and the massive bar at the rear was crafted out of mahogany and redwood.

Above the bar, mahogany-framed mirrors reflected the eight billiard tables at the center of the room, "on which no cloth is permitted to be worn longer than six months."4 Adjacent to the bar, stood the restaurant and lunch counter (see figure 3). The menu offered the finest delicacies, including turtle soup, oysters, and champagne, all imported from outside the state. James French, then mayor of San Antonio, often frequented the lunch counter at the Elephant weekday afternoons, entertaining county judges, commissioners, and the like. "Both restaurant and lunch counter equal to any in the country. French cooking. Perfect attendance. Choicest of meats, game, oysters, fish, salads, and rarities."Berliner and Fowler intended to fashion the Elephant into an exotic spectacle, luring customers in with finery offered no where else in Texas.

"It is beyond doubt the finest and most convenient saloon south of Chicago, and San Antonians are in ecstasy about its beauty. The best liquors and the finest cigars in the city are obtainable at the White Elephant."Inside, Berliner and Fowler ran mostly billiards, faro, and poker. "Up the broad stairways are four elegant, comfortably furnished club rooms for gentlemen to while away their leisure."Outside, bookies took bets on horse races over at the "Old Fairgrounds" racetrack, later known as Riverside Park. Gamblers placed their bets and then a hack cart pulled around front and transported them to the racetrack southwest of town. The Blanchette hack line departed from Main Plaza every twenty minutes, with a livery located near the stockyards on Dolorosa.

Figure 3: The Lunch Counter at the White Elephant
"The White Elephant is doing such a trade in mixed drinks that it ordered a carload of straws." The Elephant was indeed rolling and business only increased as time past. Berliner and Fowler purchased six alligators and had them shipped from Florida by railcar. Presumably, the alligators simply hung out in a cage somewhere towards the back of the house. One could imagine how Berliner and Fowler invented different ways to use the alligators for gambling.

"The White Elephant Saloon, which everyone thought was too grand for San Antonio, is still booming, and is even doing better than its proprietors expected."9 Many organizations used the Elephant as a venue for gatherings and parties. Baseball clubs frequently held post-game celebrations at the White Elephant. Prior to the city organizing the longstanding San Antonio Missionaries baseball team, the San Antonio Blue Stockings reigned supreme. The Blue Stockings crossed bats with the likes of the Austin Red Stockings, the Dallas Brown Stockings, or the Houston Nationals at the San Pedro Park baseball diamond. Following the games, the teams shook hands and then shared drinks with their opponents at the White Elephant Saloon. Inspired by the Elephant's success, many of these other burgeoning cities erected cheap copies. White Elephant Saloons sprouted up in Waco, Lampasass, San Angelo, and Fort Worth; none of which compared to the original.

Figure 4: Drink Token from the White Elephant
Sadly, the end of the White Elephant occurred even before it began. In April 1883, five months before the White Elephant opened, City Alderman Joseph Dwyer motioned the submission of an ordinance to define and punish gambling in the city. The motion was briefly debated in city council because state law already prohibited gambling, but the law was vague on enforcement. In May 1883, an ordinance was passed that provided the City Marshall the authority to force-ably enter an establishment and make arrests for gambling violations. Gamblers were fined between $20 and $50 and gambling establishments were fined between $25 and $200 for each offence.10

The city held a unique relationship with gaming houses for the next two years. Gambling prohibition created an atmosphere much like alcohol prohibition did forty years later. Saloon proprietors hid illegal gambling practices and officials pretended not to notice. It must have been symbiotic. Kickbacks were likely if government officials, including the mayor, dined at the Elephant on a regular basis. Sam Berliner's name frequently adorned the docket of the court, but as long as he paid the fine, the Elephant was allowed to operate. That all changed in March of 1885 when the Texas Senate passed a bill that changed gambling from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by a two year term of imprisonment. Nicknamed the "Bucket Shop" bill, the new state law provided city law makers a reason to change the status quo in San Antonio. Gambling establishments in the city, including the White Elephant, were forced to pack up shop and move to a more remote location.

"The White Elephant, the largest gambling establishment in the state, closed its rooms permanently this morning. The place will be moved to Hot Springs, and will be backed there by the same large capital floating it in this city. The proprietors were forced to this step by the purpose of the grand jury to indict the management and employees separately for every ten hours of exhibition of games under the new law."11 Open gambling in San Antonio went belly up. Proprietors were forced to move outside the city or conceal the full extent of gambling ventures at their establishment. "It  is the opinion of the sporting fraternity that the operation of the new law will effectively suppress open gambling, which will however, bob up by the organization of alleged social clubs."12

Berliner and Fowler vacated their opulent building and far moved out to the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, near the Texas/Mexico border. Not much is known about their lives after they left San Antonio. Ironically, even they ended up running a cheap copy of the White Elephant somewhere.

"When the boys go to San Antone, they can not milk the elephant any more. The White Elephant has closed its gambling apartments. It was sore to tread on the toes of those who undertook to milk it."13

Bowser, David. West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem, and Vice in Old San Antonio. San Antonio: Maverick Publishing, 2003.
Waller, Randall Lionel. The Callaghan Machine and San Antonio Politics, 1885-1912. Texas Tech University: Master's Thesis in History, 1973.
Sanburn Fire insurance Maps, Morrison & Fourmy's Business Directory of San Antonio 1885
San Antonio Light, San Antonio Daily Express, Galveston Daily News

1. "The White Elephant," The San Antonio Light (20 Dec 1883), 1.5.
2. "White Elephant Restaurant and Lunch," The San Antonio Light (14 Jan 1884), 4.2.
3. "The White Elephant," The San Antonio Light (20 Dec 1883), 1.5.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. "Light Flashes," The San Antonio Light (31 Aug 1883), 4.1.
9. "Still Booming," The San Antonio Light (22 Oct 1883), 4.2.
10. E.P. Claudon, City Clerk, "An Ordinance: To Define and Punish Gaming," The San Antonio Light (12 Jun 1883), 3.2.
11. "Gamesters Must Go," Galveston Daily News (24 Apr 1885), 1.4.
12. Ibid.
13. "The Seguin Times says," Galveston Daily News (9 May 1885), 4.5.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ziegfeld Girl Burns to Death in Brackenridge Park, Thanksgiving 1923

Martha Mansfield was a silent film star shooting on location in Brackenridge Park, the week of Thanksgiving, 1923. When she attempted to light a cigarette, the match head broke off and accidentally lit her dress instead. Her clothing torched up and set the interior of her car on fire. Mansfield panicked, leaping out of the car and onto the ground. Her co-star, Wilfred Lytell, used his coat to put out the fire; but not before Mansfield suffered burns on over sixty percent of her body. Martha Mansfield died at the San Antonio Physicians and Surgeons Hospital the following morning.
Figure 1: Martha Mansfield c. 1923
"Beautiful Martha Mansfield was making a picture in San Antonio of Civil War times, and a pretty costume of that period was made for her, all filmy and fluffy, dainty as a portrait. Miss Mansfield lit a cigarette while working on location, the broken end of her match slipped from her hand and in a second her costume was a pillar of flame."1

Initially, the doctors thought Mansfield might recover.

"After being taken to the hospital, Miss Mansfield was removed to her hotel where she was under treatment by physicians, Thursday afternoon."2

The director of the film, Elmer Clifton, reassured the press that the show must go on and that Mansfield would indeed return.

"The filming of the picture will not be delayed as scenes in which Miss Mansfield does not appear will be shot until she recovers."3

But, Martha Mansfield did not recover.

"Her injuries were characterized as painful but of a minor nature and it was predicted she would rejoin the company in a week. Miss Mansfield, however, was not removed to her hotel. She remained at the hospital until death came at 11:50 Friday morning."4  Mansfield was just twenty-four.

Figure 2: Mansfield as "Dove of Peace," Ziegfeld Follies of 1919
Martha Mansfield was born Martha Ehrlich in New York City, 1899. Her father left when she was thirteen and her mother worked to support the family, so Mansfield quickly adapted to life on her own. She began auditioning as a chorus girl in low-budget Broadway productions. Sometime around 1916, Mansfield landed several supporting roles in shows at the Winter Garden, the New Amsterdam, and the Globe. In 1917, she co-starred opposite Max Linder in three short comedy films. Mansfield was on the map. 

Within a year, Florence Ziegfeld approached her to join the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918. Mansfield shared the stage with the likes of Eddie Cantor, the Fairbanks Twins, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Fannie Brice, and Bert Williams. Mansfield was quickly becoming a new "it" girl and stayed with the Follies for two seasons (see figure 2). 

Figure 3: Mansfield in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920

After making half-a-dozen more low-budget films, Mansfield moved to Hollywood where she immediately found success. In 1920, she starred opposite John Barrymore in the most popular silent film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (see figure 3). Mansfield signed a contract with Fox Studios in 1922. 

The Warrens of Virginia was a Civil War-era stage-play originally written by Cecile B. DeMille's younger brother, William. The DeMille brothers produced a film version 1915 but it is widely considered as one of Cecil B. DeMille's worst films. Fox studios decided to revive the story in 1923 and hired Elmer Clifton as director.

Figure 4: Mansfield featured in the San Antonio Light, 1933 5
The plot of The Warrens of Virginia is reminiscent of other Civil War movies of the time. The male lead, Southerner Ned Burton (played by Wilfred Lytell), enlists in the Union army and leaves his childhood sweetheart, Agatha Warren (played by Mansfield) behind at home. The Warrens side with the Confederacy and their love affair becomes complicated. At the end of the film, Ned faces hanging as a spy but Agatha asks Union soldiers to save him. They reconcile and marry.

...Or so that's how it was supposed to go.

Following Mansfield's death, the film needed to be reworked. Certain scenes were re-shot and Mansfield's role was taken down to a smaller supporting part. Elmer Clifton changed Ned's love interest to Agatha's sister, Betty, played by Rosemary Hill. The film opened in spring 1924.

Figure 5: Showing at the Princess Theater, 1924 6
Nationally, The Warrens of Virginia had a rather mediocre box office draw. In San Antonio, however, the film appears to have done rather well. The film ran at both, the Empire Theater on St. Mary's Street and the Princess Theater on Houston Street, through December of 1924. I think audiences delighted in spying the familiar landscape of Brackenridge Park but were also eager to see a film in which the heroine died in a freak accident.

Most of the film is likely lost today. The Library of Congress lists a finding number for a reel copy but no efforts have been made to restore it. In fact, upwards of ninety percent of silent films made during this era are lost forever.

Following her death, Martha Mansfield's body was transported back to New York City and buried in Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx. Fox Studios paid out $600 on her contract to her mother. The next film shot in San Antonio was Wings, the first silent film to win an Academy Award.

Internet Broadway Database, Silent Film Archive, San Antonio Express, San Antonio Light

1. "Martha Mansfield's Death," San Antonio Express (28 Sep 1924), 62.6.
1. "Movie Actress Catches Fire," San Antonio Express (30 Nov 1923), 10.3.
2. Ibid.
3. "Inquest Unlikely for Dead Actress," San Antonio Express (1 Dec 1923), 18.2.
4. "Ten and Twenty Years Ago: November 30, 1923," San Antonio Light (30 Nov 1933), 14.7.
5. "Warrens of Virginia on Princess Screen," San Antonio Express (14 Dec 1924), 66.2.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Buffalo in Brackenridge Park, 1910-1915

Last week, I led a teacher workshop entitled, "Connecting San Antonio History to the Making of Modern America." In one section, we explored the peculiar history of the buffalo in Brackenridge Park.

Brackenridge Park opened in early 1901. The land was donated by philanthropist and businessman George Brackenridge to be designated as San Antonio's largest public park. During the 1890s, Brackenridge used the land and the San Antonio River to develop the city's first pumphouse and waterworks company. Ludwig Mahncke, Brackenridge's longtime friend, urged him to donate the land to the city. Mahncke later served as San Antonio Parks Commissioner before abruptly succumbing to pneumonia in 1906. By the 1910s, Brackenridge Park was regarded as one of the most beautiful city parks in the nation and a prime location for conservation of the natural landscape. "Brackenridge park consists of 200 acres and is interwoven with a series of driveways, which are macadamized (gravel roads) and lead through a huge thicket of pecan and walnut trees. In this park is maintained a huge herd of deer, buffalo and elk."1

Figure 1: Herd of buffalo in Brackenridge Park, 1911
During the early 1900s, it was common for herds of deer, elk, antelope, peacocks, monkeys, bears, and other exotic animals to be brought into public spaces. Exotic animals provided certain status to a burgeoning metropolitan city. Many of these spaces, especially Brackenridge Park, set the tone for what would later become the San Antonio Zoo.

Prior to his death, Ludwig Mahncke drove five head of buffalo from the Texas Panhandle down to his property in San Antonio. Around 1910, the buffalo were transferred across Avenue C (now Broadway) into Brackenridge Park (see figure 1). The San Antonio Light later proclaimed that, "When the former monarchs of the continent were making their last stand against the advances of civilization, Mr. Mahncke had foresight enough to to perceive that the shaggy creatures could no longer have dominion in their old haunts and he secured a herd for San Antonio's big park."2

Brackenridge Park's groundskeeper, Louis Schunke, constructed a high-board fence around the buffalo's grazing area and fashioned several makeshift signs out of scrap boxcar siding, scrawling on them, "Danger, Keep Out!" Frequently, amateur photographers ventured over the fence to capture an image of the wild buffaloes, only to hurriedly claw their way back over the moment the herd moved.

At one time, buffalo were native to San Antonio. The prevalence of the buffalo, less commonly known as the American Bison, was quite strong in almost every part of the United States until the mid-nineteenth century. This is true also for Texas, with the exception of the Lower Pecos River Basin leading into the Sierra Madres near El Paso. Around 1860, several changes occurred that sealed the fate of the buffalo in Texas. The first was climate change. Around 1860, global temperature patterns changed as the earth shook off The Little Ice Age that lasted approximately 500 years. This caused the Texas Blackland Prairie, which in the 1860s included San Antonio, to recede to what is now present day Austin. In its place, the Texas Thornbrush region grew in from the south, choking off any natural food source that the buffalo depended on. Also in the 1860s, the United States systematically mass-slaughtered large buffalo herd in efforts to destroy Native American food sources. This combination led to all but a mass extinction of the buffalo by the 1870s.

In June of 1912, San Antonio celebrated the birth of a baby buffalo in captivity at Brackenridge Park. The birth was rather unexpected since even Louis Schunke had not noticed. The herd was well hidden among the dense tree covering of the park and it was not uncommon for them to go unseen for days at a time. City Alderman Wickeland proclaimed the baby as the "sweetest" buffalo he had ever seen (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Arrival of a Baby Buffalo in Brackenridge, 1912
The San Antonio Light highlighted the importance of the new arrival since there were only 500 buffalo at the time nationwide. The June 1912 birth was actually the third recorded birth within the herd since its transfer to San Antonio. "In having a herd of buffaloes, San Antonio enjoys a distinction not given to many American cities, for the species has become more and more rare with the passing of the years."3

In 1914, the fate of the Brackenridge buffalo began to change. In October, San Antonio police officer Robert Underwood shot one of the buffaloes after it had broken its leg some weeks prior. Louis Schunke delayed killing the buffalo until he was sure that the fracture was untreatable and then Underwood put it out of its misery.4 The open grazing of Brackenridge Park needed more control. Later that year, the city designated an old rock quarry, that butted up against the edge of Brackenridge Park, as the future cite of a zoological garden. The quarry, formerly the cite of Alamo Cement's first manufacturing facility, in turn butted up against the back of the Koehler estate. In 1915, Emma Koehler donated her property west of the river in honor of her late husband and Pearl Brewery magnate, Otto Koehler. Shortly thereafter, the Brackenridge buffalo were transferred to a new facility on the other side of the river.

Sources: City of San Antonio, Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio Light

1. "Beautiful, Picturesque, and Healthy San Antonio, Texas," San Antonio Light (14 Feb 1908), 13.4.
2. "Buffalo Herd at Park has New Arrival," San Antonio Light (28 Jul 1912), 17.2.
3. Ibid.
4. "Kills Crippled Buffalo," San Antonio Light (9 Oct 1914), 13.7.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

San Antonio Female College, 1898-1918

San Antonio Female College was a boarding school that offered formal education for girls. It was once one of the largest all-girl schools in Texas. More than likely, you've never heard of it.

Mrs. Maude White Zachas, graduating class of 1898, later recalled her time spent at the school. "The girls of the school then were called 'guineas,' because of the uniforms we were compelled to wear. We were never permitted to have young men callers. We rarely saw boys except at a distance!"1

In 1890, The West End Town Company (Woodlawn Lake area today) set aside a tract of land, located in what was formerly the Asbury Place neighborhood, for the specific purpose of establishing a future women's college. The West Texas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church agreed to sponsor the venture. Soon after, Dr. J.E. Harrison was appointed president and business manager of the school. Harrison obtained the charter for the school in 1898 and broke ground in September of 1899 (figure 1). Harrison was a great orator, he held a doctorate in Theology, and often occupied the pulpit at Madison Square Presbyterian Church on Camden street.

Figure 1: San Antonio Female College, c.1909
San Antonio Female College (SAFC) granted degrees in Literature, Music, History, Elocution (how to speak beautifully), and Latin. The coursework was common among female colleges of the day and reflects the popular sentiment of what were acceptable subjects of study for women. This should not discount the achievements of these women, however. While many women of the time were learning trades or toiling away in a factory, students at SAFC were classically trained, learning how to play Mendelssohn concertos, or how to converse in Latin.

The degrees conferred, not being formally accredited until 1916, were slightly different than today. The lower degree, presumably the close equivalent of an Associates, was entitled "Mistress" and was the most common academic award among graduates; these included Mistress of Elocution, Mistress of English Literature, etc. SAFC also awarded Baccalaureate degrees and Graduate Certificates. At its height, around 1910, SAFC supported over two-hundred students from all over the state. In 1911, SAFC erected a new administration building. "The new building is needed to meet the rapid growth of the school. It is to be built of brick and absolutely fireproof."2 This bit about the building being fireproof is likely in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist fires, which occurred in New York merely eight months prior. The first floor was entirely devoted to classrooms. The second and third floors housed an auditorium, library, meeting spaces for art and literary groups.

Figure 2: San Antonio Light (19 August 1900), 2.1.
Streetcars were one of the key elements in the making of modern San Antonio. Students at SAFC received a tuition credit for using the West End streetcar line for transportation (see figure 2). This was likely an agreement between the school and the West End Town Company. Here we see a newspaper print ad informing young women of both the quality and affordability of the new school.

In 1904, SAFC debuted a brand new natatorium, or indoor swimming facility. Natatoriums were common in affluent areas of San Antonio and were probably quite muggy since the only form of ventilation was an open window. Not to mention, bathing suits at the time were made from wool. The natatorium was likely intended for recreation and fitness. SAFC offered a wide curriculum in physical culture. Pictured here is the graduating class of 1904 (figure 3). This picture may support an argument that SAFC did not exclusively matriculate Anglo students but also Hispanic students. From the evidence I have seen however, this was not the common practice at SAFC. Most colleges of this type were restricted to white students. The graduate on the top row, second from the left was Anita Tafolla, possibly SAFC's only Hispanic student. Two other students in this photo appear to also be Hispanic but I can not confirm that at this time. I find it striking how confident Anita looked on that day. Miss Tafolla graduated with her Mistress in Elocution. She later married a stenographer and moved to 1020 West Houston street, near the present day location of La Prensa newspaper.
Figure 3: Class of 1904, Marfa Public Library

Throughout its existence, SAFC maintained a close relationship with the Methodist church. The presiding reverend of the Travis Park Methodist Church traditionally gave the keynote for the opening ceremony of the academic year. The campus contained its own church facility. Religion and music were an important part of everyday life at SAFC. The school frequently held classical recitals open to the public. The popularity of the school only increased with time. By 1911, SAFC provided the city of San Antonio with a $100,000 revenue. In 1916, the University of Texas recognized SAFC as an accredited junior college.

Figure 4: San Antonio Light (24 July 1907), 9.1.

San Antonio Female College changed its name to Westmooreland College in 1918. The reason for the name change is unclear but perhaps it added a slight cache. The school was rapidly growing in the late 1910s. During the 1916-1917 school year, SAFC boarded 82 students. In the next school year, the number jumped to 113. By 1918, the school had around 140 boarders and 60 commuters. Nearby homes in the neighborhood rented rooms to accommodate the overflow. SAFC was growing and so was San Antonio. The school thrived as Westmooreland College and was again renamed the University of San Antonio in 1937. In 1942, the Methodist Church cut ties with the school. Trinity University accepted all the remaining students and the facility was vacated shortly thereafter. The legacy of San Antonio Female College lives on not in name but in spirit. The school cranked out brilliant, talented, and well-educated ladies for the better part of thirty years. These women went on to influence San Antonio civics and politics, joining the likes of the San Antonio Junior League and the San Antonio Conservation Society. Perhaps someone you are related to attended San Antonio Female College all those years ago.

1. "Students of Old S.A. School Meet," San Antonio Light (23 October 1932), 36.6.
2. "New College Building," San Antonio Light (19 November 1911), 25.7.

Sources: Handbook of Texas; Portal to Texas History; San Antonio City Directory; San Antonio Light

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Día de Los Muertos, 1924

Feliz Dia de los Muertos. Today is a day of remembrance for those we have lost. Although seemingly dark, Dia de los Muertos, or "All Soul's Day,"is in fact a joyous celebration. Observed throughout Latin America and in southwestern regions of the United States, Dia de los Muertos provides opportunity to honor loved ones who have passed away. The occasion is marked by the erection of altars in homes and in front of Catholic churches (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Dia de los Muertos altar, San Fernando Cathedral, 2011
The altars are then populated with photos of loved ones and objects that held meaning for the deceased. Usually, these are consumer items or foods, ie: can of Ranch Style beans, can of Pearl Beer, favorite shirt, favorite cigarettes, etc. These items are said to be enjoyed by the deceased when their spirit returns for this one special day. Other trappings of the holiday include: pan de muerto, a special sweet bread with a cross-bone decoration; and calaveras de azucar, or molded sugar skulls, which are sometimes eaten but most times not. Sugar skulls are perhaps the most pervasive icon of the holiday and embody the core duality of death and rejoicing.

It is unclear how long San Antonians have been celebrating Dia de los Muertos the way we know it today. My best guess is initially sometime after 1850. The first wave of solidified Mexican nationalism gained footing only after the Mexican-American War. More than likely, though, widespread observance throughout the city occurred in the 1920s, following the Mexican Revolution. Below is the earliest evidence of widespread observance that I have found. The mention of class as a component of observance is interesting. Enjoy!

Figure 2: San Antonio Light (4 November 1924), 8.1.