Long before Silicon Valley became a thing, San Francisco was a hotbed of innovation. We’re not talking about just apps, social media platforms, and ways to get from point A to point B — the city’s need to create goes way back.
Basically, if there was something San Franciscans needed that didn’t exist yet, they simply created it. Whether it’s fashion, food, or other everyday items we can’t imagine life without, a lot of widely used and well-known items come from San Francisco.
Jeans, originally called “waist overalls,” were developed as rugged workwear for gold miners during the California Gold Rush. On May 20, 1873, San Francisco–based Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis filed a patent for denim pants reinforced with copper rivets to prevent ripping — and a fashion revolution began.
If you have a sweet tooth, you’ve probably had an It’s-It, a memorable chocolate-covered ice cream sandwich, and if you’re a local, you can probably picture the nondescript It’s-It building just east of the 101, south of SFO. This delicious dessert was created by George Whitney in San Francisco in 1928 and was served exclusively at Playland, an amusement park at Ocean Beach, for more than four decades. It’s-Its began with vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies and dipped in dark chocolate. Today, the treats are available in chocolate, green tea, cappuccino, mint, and pumpkin.
Sometimes deliciousness results from simply creating something on the fly with what you have on hand. Cioppino is one such San Francisco culinary staple. The fish stew was created in the late 1800s by Italian (often Genoese) fishermen from North Beach who didn’t want to waste the leftover seafood from the day’s catch. Inspired by the ciuppin of Genoa, the San Francisco variety includes fish, mussels, Dungeness crab, squid, scallops, and shrimp. These are cooked with tomato, wine, and garlic and served with sourdough or French bread for dipping. Frank Bazzurro is credited with introducing cioppino to the masses in 1852 via his schooner turned restaurant, the Tam O’Shanter.
Long before smartphones, San Francisco saw the creation of another world-changing piece of hardware: the television. On September 7, 1927, in a laboratory at 202 Green Street, Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first image from his image dissector camera tube. This led him to conduct the first electronic television demonstration in 1928, and in 1929, the first live TV transmission, featuring his wife, Elma.
If you live in a tiny San Francisco apartment, you know how crucial it is to have multifunctional furniture and space. In the late 19th century, William Lawrence Murphy was living in a San Francisco studio apartment. He wanted to be able to entertain his love interest, but social norms dictated that a lady should never enter a man’s bedroom. So Murphy created his version of a bed that could disappear into a closet, thus transforming his one-room apartment into a parlor that was societally fit for courtship.
San Francisco is home to some epic music festivals and has been immortalized in many songs — and it has another musical claim to fame as the birthplace of the jukebox. Louis Glass and William S. Arnold created the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph in San Francisco in 1890. It was installed on November 23, 1889, at the Palais Royale Saloon. Instead of speakers, the design featured several headphones, or “listening tubes,” for a group of listeners to wear as they crowded around the phonograph.
The historic Palace Hotel, which still stands at 2 New Montgomery Street, is where such culinary inventions as oysters Kirkpatrick, green goddess dressing, and chicken tetrazzini originated. Chef Ernest Arbogast is said to have created chicken tetrazzini, a dish that combines pasta with cheese, mushrooms, wine, milk, peas, breadcrumbs, and other ingredients, sometime between 1908 and 1910. It was in honor of Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini. She made her American debut as Gilda in Rigoletto in 1905 and was a guest at the Palace Hotel.
Imagine Las Vegas or Atlantic City without slot machines. We don’t have to, thanks to Charles Fey, who created the three-reel Liberty Bell slot machine in San Francisco in 1899. Before his invention, gambling payouts had to be given by an attendant. Fey upgraded that system with the easy payout of coins from the machine itself. The site of his now-gone workshop, at 406 Market Street, is designated as California Historical Landmark Number 937.
Although plastic straws are now banned in California restaurants (unless you request one), the bendy straw was actually invented right here in San Francisco. It was the creation of Joseph Friedman in 1937, who envisioned a straw with an accordion-like neck when he noticed that his daughter was struggling to drink with a regular, straight straw while at the Varsity Sweet Shop, at 200 19th Avenue.
Another tasty innovation we can thank San Francisco for — and the Palace Hotel specifically — is Green Goddess dressing. The verdant salad topping and dip is said to have been created in 1923 at the legendary Palace Hotel by Chef Phillip Roemer. He mixed chives, tarragon, egg yolks, oil, parsley, sour cream, lemon juice, and anchovies as an homage to actor George Arliss, who was staying at the hotel and starring in the play Green Goddess. You can read about the history and see the original recipe for Green Goddess salad dressing here.