Despite being painted “International Orange”—the same color as the Golden Gate Bridge—it’s somehow easy to miss California’s official historical society. Founded in San Francisco’s financial district in 1871, the California Historical Society, known as “CHS,” has survived many hurdles and was finally recognized by the state in 1979.
Now located in what was an E.M. Hundley hardware store in the Yerba Buena neighborhood, the diminutive society is eclipsed as a tourist attraction by its prominent neighbors, such as the giant San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But it shouldn’t be.
Beyond a small storefront and gallery, the historical society houses a collection befitting the most populous U.S. state, including thousands of rare publications and exceptional photographs, and—most delightfully—California ephemera. Postcards, posters, advertisements, and other glimpses of the past become treasures to behold in your own hands once you have navigated the card catalog of the North Baker Research Library, hidden in the rear of the society building.
If you love California and history but would rather not spend hours in a research library digging into the collection by yourself, you might prefer to stick to CHS’s storefront gallery and Ten Lions Bookstore for a curated experience. The bookstore features local and tourist-friendly selections of San Francisco and Golden State-themed books, clothes, and mementos. It hosts multiple book and art talks each month that can be attended for a small admission fee, which also gives you the opportunity to tour the current gallery exhibition.
Update: As of July 2020, CHS has closed its San Francisco storefront and gallery.
Know Before You Go
CHS is best visited by public transit, but there are paid parking garages in the area. Check the Society's website for admission fees and—most importantly—hours, as the operating hours are limited and are not every day of the week. The Society's North Baker Research Library is open to the public, but you'll need to bring a photo ID to access the collection.