Staples and Lick: Some antiracism from 1874

Endemic as racism has been to American culture and politics since its beginning, there have always been those who fought the engulfing tide, in large and small ways. This post recounts, in the words of the time, a minor incident where one man’s racism was countered with another one’s resistance.

David Jackson Staples (1824-1900) and his wife Mary Winslow Staples (1830-1895) are the namesakes for Staples Avenue in Sunnyside. They came from Massachusetts just after the Gold Rush, bringing with them an antipathy to slavery and a strong conviction of the importance of philanthropic work for the public good.

1887. Mary Winslow Staples and David Jackson Staples. Courtesy Society of California Pioneers.
1887. Mary Winslow Staples and David Jackson Staples. Courtesy Society of California Pioneers.

Mary established substantial charitable institutions to benefit the elderly and the destitute.[1] David oversaw Firemans’ Fund Insurance Company for many decades, with scrupulous fairness and honesty–a vital service in the frequently fire-ravaged city. When other companies wouldn’t, Firemans’ Fund insured Chinatown merchants and the transportation of immigrants’ remains being shipped back to China for burial. Staples actively supported Lincoln and even fought briefly for the Union side during the Civil War back East. After disasters like the Chicago Fire, he paid the claims of the insured dollar-for-dollar, while other companies shorted their customers. He never put profits over people.[2]

Wisdom vs Wealth

Although David Staples was proud of the culture of integrity he created and enforced at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, he considered his other great contribution to the public good to be his consulting relationship with the aging millionaire James Lick (1796-1876) during the last two years of that man’s life.

During that short time, he laboriously worked to get the self-involved and misanthropic Lick to leave a legacy that benefited the many, rather than Lick’s original short-sighted and self-important plan for his millions. It was a constant battle. Lick frequently insulted Staples, just as he did many other people in his life–believing, as many have, that others would put up with his slights because he was fabulously rich.

Due to Staples’ efforts, Lick changed his will—instead of leaving his money to build giant vanity monuments to himself and his family members, Staples got him to endow a great number of truly worthy projects, benefiting or creating institutions, many of which even today are still with us: the Lick Observatory, Lick-Wilmerding High School, the Conservatory of Flowers, Lick Old Ladies Home, the Society for the Protection of Animals, the Mechanics Institute, and other charitable causes.

But Mr Lick…

Staples wrote his memoirs about 1887, which are housed in the Bancroft Library and as yet unpublished.[3] In this document, he recorded in lively detail many conversations with Lick during the time he worked to shift Lick’s priorities for his estate.

1870. Portrait of David Jackson Staples. SF Fine Arts Museums.
1870. Portrait of David Jackson Staples, close to the time of the incident related below. SF Fine Arts Museums.
Portrait of James Lick by Hartwig Bornemann.
Portrait of James Lick by Hartwig Bornemann.

Some exchanges are humorous, often at Lick’s expense, but mostly they give a sense of Lick as a lonely old man–bigoted, childish, and stubborn–and Staples’ seemingly tireless attempts to get him to accept new ideas and take a view beyond his narrow self-regard. Staples won the day, and Lick changed his mind towards the many charitable causes that David and Mary Staples championed.

A Legacy Lost

The sad fact is, however successful, Staples’ efforts to urge Lick toward a more responsible dispersal of his mountain of money were too quiet and behind-the-scenes to go down in the celebrated annals of the city; he had a traditional New England disinclination for self-aggrandizement. His memoirs show he had a sense of his own worth, but his staunch upbringing kept him from blowing his own horn loudly. His account of Lick’s nasty opinions and unrelenting selfishness show Staples was generous in public behavior–that is, always polite–but not in his private judgments. He often found Lick’s behavior so obviously appalling he just recorded it for the page, sans comment.

At the time of Staples’ death in 1900, the Herculean work he carried out in his stewardship of Lick’s estate planning was barely acknowledged, and it is today largely forgotten. However, his own account of his experiences remains in the Bancroft Library, and it is stark. Staples’ blow-by-blow accounts of his exchanges with Lick show Lick’s infantile self-regard and bottomless pettiness. Does this taint our regard for those institutions Lick left?

The Bronzed and Stalwart King

In December 1874, David Staples asked James Lick to receive the King of Hawaii, David Kalakaua–only to meet Lick’s wall of mindless prejudice, which by then he knew all too well.

1875c. King David Kalakaua, of Hawaii.
1875c. King David Kalakaua, of Hawaii, about the time of his visit to San Francisco.

Staples knew better than to directly confront Lick’s bigotry, but instead wore him down by using his own vanity against him. It was a tactic for another century; I don’t look to history for examples for the present, but for flashes of spirit that speak to courage or virtue in times when a person could have done less, but instead did more than was asked of them without regard for their own comfort or status.

Here is the short excerpt from David Jackson Staples’ memoirs, transcribed from the Bancroft manuscript, which runs to about 15,000 words and which he wrote in the third person in the late 1880s. The conversations described took place in Lick House, where James Lick lived in rooms in the last years of his life. (I’ll be publishing more of both of the Staples’ memoirs in future.)

1870s. Lick House, one of the finest hotels in the city then.
1870s. Lick House, one of the finest hotels in the city then.

[David J Staples writes:] The following incident may give some insight into Lick’s character. Before Kalakaua was made king [in February 1874], he used to frequent the Pioneers’ Hall [in San Francisco], and when he came back here as King of the Sandwich Islands, Staples was acting President of the Pioneer Society.

The King expressed a desire through the Consul to visit Pioneers’ Hall, and Staples got up a banquet in his honor, welcoming him in a speech, to which Kalakaua replied. He knew that Staples was with Lick at that time, trying to dispose of his property, and he expressed a desire to see Lick, the man who was doing so much for the State, and for humanity. He wanted to visit him and thank him on behalf of society.

Staples said to Mr Lick, ‘The King of the Sandwich Islands has expressed a desire to visit you and thank you for what you have done for the people of this Coast.’

‘The King of the Cannibal Islands?’ said Lick. ‘He is a n—-r, ain’t he? Well, I don’t want any n—-rs.’ [Derogatory word is spelled out in original memoirs.]

‘Well,’ said Staples, ‘Mr Lick, if you don’t want to see him it is all right, but he is a gentleman and he is King of the Islands and he wants to pay homage to you for what you propose to do for the people of the Pacific Coast.’

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I don’t want any n—-rs near me.’

When Staples saw him [Lick] again the next day, he said: ‘What is the name of the King you mentioned? Do you really think he wants to see me? Well, he can come if he likes.’

Lick had evidently been thinking of the King coming to see him, and the idea gratified his vanity. Staples accordingly, arranged with Kalakaua to come and see him. He then went to Lick and told him to have his wig fixed and his whiskers dyed—Lick was in the habit of dying his whiskers—and make himself presentable as the King would be there at one o’clock.

The following day, Staples went to the Grand Hotel, where the King was stopping, and found his Majesty, and the different members of his suite, all ready to go over and see Lick.

Staples asked Kalakaua, ‘Have you a photograph of yourself?’ He said he had one, at which Staples said, ‘I think Mr Lick would be very much pleased if you were to present him with one; and if your Majesty would put your autograph on it, I am sure he would prize it still more highly.’

Staples walked with the King into the room and said, ‘Mr Lick, I have the honor to present to you his Majesty, Kalakaua, the King of the Sandwich Islands.’

Then that magnificent type of a man, a stalwart fellow with black hair, splendid features and bronzed complexion, stood before Mr Lick, and said that he had heard what Mr Lick had done, and what he proposed to do for the State, and he thanked him on behalf of humanity.

All Lick could do was to hold onto the King’s hand with a tight grip; yet it was only two days before this scene that Lick had said he did not want to see a n—-r.

Kalakaua then spoke to his secretary, who handed him the photograph. The King asked Lick if he would accept it, and Lick gripped hold of it. When the interview was over, the King backed out of the apartment in courtly style, and Lick said to Staples, ‘Ain’t you going to give these people any lunch?’

Mr Staples replied, ‘Yes, Mr Lick, I have arranged with Schoenwald [chef at Lick House] to prepare a first-class lunch for the party.’

‘Well,’ said Lick, ‘Give them the best there is, give them all there is in the house.’

Staples, accordingly, took them down, and gave them a royal lunch.

1870s. The dining room at Lick House.
1870s. The dining room at Lick House.

Later, in 1883, Mary Staples and her daughter travelled to Hawaii for an extended visit, and then Princess Likelike came to San Francisco the following May. In her honor, the Staples household hosted a big lunch for the princess, complete with the presentation of flower leis, “composed of hawthorn and sweet semyrna.”[4] Mrs Staples gave a short talk at the lunch, “Social Life in Hawaii.”

1885c. Princess Like-Like. Photo: James J WIlliams.
1885c. Princess Like-Like, about the time of her visit to San Francisco. Photo: James J WIlliams.

The years between 1874, when King Kalakaua was elected, and 1893, when Queen Liliuokalani was illegally overthrown by a conspiracy of western business interests, were a unique time of self-determination and cultural exchange for the islands.

Read an account of how James Lick brought the Conservatory of Flowers to San Francisco here (SF Standard) .


  1. Historic Preservation Commission, SF Planning Dept, Landmark Designation Report, University Mound Old Ladies Home, 2015; “Her Life Work is Ended: Mrs DJ Staples Passes Away,” SF Call, 29 Apr 1895; Frank Elliott, “Our Colonial Dames,” Overland Monthly, January 1896, pp116-117. and David Jackson Staples recollections : and biographical material, [ca. 1880-1890], BANC MSS C-D 288; BANC MSS C-D 276-290 FILM ; BANC MSS C-D 288, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley (hereafter Staples Recollections).
  2. William Bronson, Still Flying and Nailed to the Mast, The Extraordinary Story of Americas’ Boldest Insurance Company, Doubleday and Co, 1963; and Staples Recollections.
  3. Staples Recollections.
  4. “The Social World: Mrs Staples Lunch Party,” SF Examiner, 11 May 1884, p3.


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