Joseph Atwill & San Francisco’s First Music Store

Born in Boston, Mass. on June 4, 1811, Joseph Fairfield Atwill moved to New York City in his twenties to engage in the music-publishing business and the selling of musical instruments, eventually coming to own a music store at 201 Broadway. Despite establishing this business, with gold fever rampant in the northeastern United States, on Sept. 15, 1849 a 38-year-old Joe Atwill boarded the steamer Crescent City for Chagres, Panama. At Chagres, Atwill crossed the Isthmus of Panama in eight days and on the Pacific side boarded the steamer Panama for San Francisco. According to the papers, Atwill would have arrived in San Francisco on Halloween 1849; however, the Society of California Pioneers has him (as well as Theodore Payne, who traveled alongside him) arriving on Oct. 28, 1849. (S. F. Call, Jan. 11, 1891, p. 12, c. 4; Bailey Millard, History of the San Francisco Bay Region, Volume III (The American Historical Society, 1924), pp. 282-284; Weekly Alta, Nov. 1, 1849, p. 2, c. 4; Constitution and By-Laws of the Society of California Pioneers (SF, Dec. 1912 revision), pp. 92 & 143)

Plunging into the chaos of the gold rush city, Atwill made moves to establish San Francisco’s first music enterprise: Atwill’s Music Store, located on Washington Street, “above the Custom House.” (In today terms this was near the SE corner of Washington and Grant (originally Dupont) in the heart of today’s Chinatown.) Opening in November of 1849, “in addition to a large stock of music, musical instruments, and musical merchandise,” Atwill’s operated as an agency for furniture sales, stoves, hardware, rubber goods, etc. However, by early 1850, Atwill’s was focused solely on music and instrument sales. (Weekly Alta, Nov. 29, 1849, p. 3, c. 1)

Atwill & Co. advertisement from January 1850 Daily Alta.
Atwill’s Music Store advertisement from the Daily Alta, January 1850.

In February 1850, Atwill started renting out his store however, determined to see the gold mines for himself. That spring, numerous reports of Atwill’s presence in Gold Country appeared in the papers, like this one from Sacramento: “The celebrated music seller of Broadway, Mr. Atwill, took us quite by surprise yesterday morning. As we entered our sanctum, there he sat, perfectly at home, occupying in a most presumptuous manner our chair, with legs cocked up upon our table . . . We hardly recognized him at first . . . He has just returned from the mines, with his ‘pocket full of rocks.’ We think the fair mademoiselles of Broadway would scarcely recognize their old friend in his rough mining garb. Pray what has become of his little musical nook in Washington street, San Francisco?” And this from a humorous take on a society column using comical then-new Wild-West-vernacular, a style Mark Twain later transformed: “Atwill, the Late Musick deeler of New York of the Atlan ick, has just returned from thee minds, with his large bag filled with dust, I saw it.” (Daily Alta, Feb. 12, 1850, p. 3, c. 1; Sacramento Transcript, April 18, 1850, p. 2, c. 5; Placer Times, May 8, 1850, p. 4, c. 1)

By September 1850, Atwill was back in San Francisco, reopening his music store in an “iron building on the Grand Plaza” (a building known in later years as the Old Zinc Building) that became music central for the city in 1850, located on Portsmouth Square, at the NW corner of Clay and Brenham (today Brenham Place is Walter U. Lum Place). “Our old friend Atwill of New York,” reported the Sacramento Transcript, “has once more made his appearance in the musical line in San Francisco. We are happy to recognize again his familiar name in the advertising columns. He has taken unto himself a partner —- what will ‘the better half’ at home say? — and holds out on the ‘Grand Plaza,’ San Francisco, under the style of Atwill & Co., where his friends, desirous of music or musical instruments, are requested to give him a call.” (Sacramento Transcript, Sept. 28, 1850, p. 2, c. 4)

Later that year, Atwill published a lithograph of “The Grand Plaza” with his store prominent at bottom left, but the Alta reported the lithograph wasn’t reality, but a hope of what the Plaza could be: “It makes a very pretty picture indeed, but it does not exactly resemble the Plaza as it is, but as our friend Mayor Geary would have it. The fine row of buildings between the Post Office and Washington Street are not yet built, the square not graded, the fountain has not yet commenced playing, the bear in the center is not yet cubbed, the figure of Minerva not yet sprung from the brain of our city Jupiter, and Merchant Street is not yet opened. But perhaps before the publishers have worked off their entire edition, it will be a perfect facsimile.” Engaged in the promotion and booking of musical performances, operas, etc., selling tickets out of his store, when Jenny Lind came to the United States to perform for P. T. Barnum in the early 1850s, it was Atwill who tried to get her to San Francisco, and it was to Atwill that Barnum replied they were unable to visit California. (Daily Alta, Dec. 11, 1850, p. 2, c. 2; Sacramento Transcript, Feb. 3, 1851, p. 2, c. 5)

Atwill - Plaza- San Francisco - 1850
Atwill’s 1850 lithograph of the Grand Plaza (Portsmouth Square) showing Telegraph Hill in the distance.

Nominated by the Whig Party, Atwill entered the city’s political sphere in the spring of 1851, ultimately elected as Assistant Alderman of the Fourth Ward. Furthermore, Atwill was chosen by his colleagues to act as president of the Board of Assistant Alderman. On May 4, 1851, a fire exploded from a store on the south side of the Plaza, which went on to destroy three-fourths of the downtown area. While the Old Zinc Building was one of the buildings around the Plaza to survive the cataclysm, Atwill’s losses were listed at $7,000. Interestingly, Atwill ended up responsible for preserving the image of San Francisco before this fire, as he had another lithograph in production released later that month: “the largest and finest [lithograph] yet published. . . . taken from the foot of Telegraph Hill, and gives the best idea of San Francisco as it was before the fire . . . This lithograph would be an ornament to any house in San Francisco,” noted the Alta. [If anyone knows of the survival of this lithograph, please contact me.] (Daily Alta, April 11, 1851, p. 2, c. 3; Sacramento Transcript, May 1, 1851, p. 2, c. 4; Daily Alta, May 7, 1851, p. 2, c. 5; May 7, 1851, p. 2, c. 3; May 23, 1851, p. 2, c. 1)

In December 1851, Atwill resigned from the Board of Asst. Aldermen, boarded the Republic, and traveled back to the Eastern States for a spell: “Mr. Atwill has, for some time back, occupied with great credit the chair of the Board of Assistants. Clear-headed, prompt and faithful in the discharge of his duties, not only as chairman, but as a member of the Common Council, it will be difficult for his constituents fully to supply the place vacated by him.” While away, auctioneer and lawyer Theodore Payne, who had traveled alongside him to San Francisco ,and who had been conducting his own business out of the Old Zinc Building since the May fire, took charge of Atwill’s business concerns. (Daily Alta, Dec. 2, 1851, p. 2, c. 3Dec. 3, 1851, p. 3, c. 4)

After visiting Washington D. C., Atwill collected his family in New York City (it’s possible he somewhere caught one of the Jenny Lind performances as well). Back in San Francisco by the end of 1852, his family settled into a newly built home at the NE corner of Clay and Powell streets, that is the “up hill portion of the city” (today’s Nob Hill), which was witnessing a real estate boom surrounding the planking of Clay Street up the hill. Unfortunately for the Atwill family however, after settling in, their property was victim to Milo Hoadley’s grades (Milo Hoadley was the city engineer at the time). Clay and Powell streets were graded down into the hill leaving homes up on ledges above. Atwill’s house was “left thirty-five feet in the air, absolutely destroying its value as a family residence and forcing [Atwill] to [eventually] sell at a great sacrifice.” Effected families, like the Atwills, had to build staircases from their front door down to street level. On the west side of Powell Street, between Clay and Sacramento, there remains today one lot with visible scarring from this blasting and grading, bedrock exposed. (San Francisco Call, Jan. 11, 1891, p. 12, c. 4)

Powell Street and Its improvements

Powell Street Lot Nob Hill Wetmore Street
The one lot on Powell Street with bedrock exposed from the original blasting and grading of the street in the early 1850s.

In February 1853, Atwill’s & Co. left the Old Zinc Building, moving to 172 Washington St., between Kearny and Montgomery. And in the summer of 1853, Atwill was elected to the Board of Alderman (today known as the Board of Supervisors), again for the Fourth Ward, and on the Whig Party ticket. Furthermore, he acted as president pro tem of the Board. Alongside aldermen James Van Ness and Henry Meiggs, Atwill took part in the passage of an ordinance for the city wharf project, as well as updating the grades on the city’s original hills (Telegraph, Russian and Nob hills) before they were completely destroyed by the Hoadley grades. (Sacramento Union, Dec. 28, 1852, p. 3, c. 6; Daily Alta, Feb. 21, 1853, p. 3, c.; Aug. 14, 1853, p. 2, c. 2; Sept. 18, 1853, p. 1, c. 7; Oct. 3, 1853, p. 2, c. 1)

While 1854 proved a trying time for many families in San Francisco as the Post-Gold Rush Depression started to really dig in, it hit the Atwill home quite literally when their 44-year-old cook, Mary Brady, a native of Ireland, was found floating in the cistern in the back of their house. Apparently she drowned herself over $1000 she saved and loaned to someone that squandered it. On the business front, Atwill & Co. had expanded to Sacramento in January, opening a fresh, new store at 155 J St., but by late summer, it was sold to D. H. Dougliss and R. Dale. Politically, Atwill remained popular and was reelected to the Board of Alderman, and in early October was voted president of the Board once again. The next year however, following the Financial Panic of 1855, along with most Whigs, Atwill was ousted from the political arena by the Democrats and the Know Nothings. (Daily Alta, July 1, 1854, p. 7, c. 5; Sept. 8, 1854, p. 2, c. 2; July 10, 1855, p. 2, c. 2; Sacramento Union,Jan. 19, 1854, p. 3, c. 7; Sept. 22, 1854, p. 2, c. 6; Oct. 3, 1854, p. 2, c. 6; Jan. 19, 1854, p. 3, c. 7)


With San Francisco politics behind him, Atwill dove back into his music enterprise, and in early 1856 published the “first and only publications of sheet music ever made in California [comprising of] ballads and songs of peculiar sweetness, and a variety of polkas, waltzes and quadrilles.” With the Post-Gold Rush Depression however, Atwill’s business was hurting, and like everyone else, he first tried slashing prices. Like many others however, Atwill’s business eventually went bottom up, and he found himself the target of various lawsuits, and had to file for bankruptcy. While Atwill & Co. motored on at Washington Street, it was clearly a trying time for Atwill, and to make matters worse, on Dec. 13, 1857 his infant son Henry died. But it got worse. On Nov. 24, 1858, less than a year later, Atwill’s ten-year-old and only surviving son, Joseph, died as well. He and Eliza D., his wife, were crushed. (Daily Alta, Feb. 1, 1856, p. 2, c. 5; Wide West, April 27, 1856, p. 2, c. 7; Sacramento Union, July 29, 1857, p. 3, c. 1; Daily Alta, Dec. 15, 1857, p. 2, c. 9; Sacramento Union, Nov. 24, 1858, p. 2, c. 5)

The spring of 1860 brought new hope to the Atwills however, as following the marriage of their daughter Eliza (named for her mother) to Henry D. Reynolds, they sold the Washington Street music store,^ sold the Clay and Powell house and property, and following news over the past year of the silver in the Utah Territory [the Utah Territory encompassed most all of what is today the State of Nevada] joined the silver rush moving to Virginia City, where Joseph established Atwill & Co. Mining Agency for mining claims. In late October of that year, Atwill was commissioned by California Governor John G. Downey to be Commissioner of Deeds for Virginia City, Utah Territory. As well, before the year was out, Atwill was trustee of the newly established Mount Davidson Gold and Silver Mining Company. (Daily Alta, April 12, 1860, p. 2, c. 5; July 24, 1860, p. 4, c. 5; Sacramento Union, Oct. 25, 1860, p. 2, c. 6; Oct. 26, 1860, p. 2, c. 1; Dec. 18, 1860, p. 1, c. 7)

In 1860, most all of Nevada was part of Utah Territory.

The relocation appears to have suited Atwill in regard to political connections as well, for in 1861, following the establishment of the Nevada Territory, Governor of Nevada Territory James W. Nye – who’d just been appointed by President Lincoln – appointed Atwill as Justice of the Peace of Virginia City. While Atwill was prospering in Nevada, in January 1862 his old house in San Francisco was on the brink of collapse: “The large frame building formerly owned and occupied by J. F. Atwill, which stands on an elevation of fifteen feet, at the corner of Powell and Clay streets, is in what a Yankee would call ‘a ticklish situation.’ The wooden bulkhead under the house, or a considerable portion of it, has ‘clean gin out.’ The stairway leading to the front entrance is in ruins; but, fortunately, the inmates have means of egress at the rear of the premises. Should the storm continue through the night there is every reason to believe that the building will come down.” A devout Methodist, in November 1862, Atwill was elected president of the first Bible society in Nevada Territory. (Sacramento Union, Aug. 5, 1861, p. 2, c. 4; Jan. 20, 1862, p. 2, c. 5; Nov. 8, 1862, p. 4, c. 1)

In 1863, while the American Civil War raged in the Eastern States, Atwill wasn’t nominated by the Union Party for Police Judge, so he ran as an independent, but wasn’t elected. As for business, he established the Atwill Gold and Silver Mining Company and it was reported that “the shaft of the Atwill Company is being sunk down in the ledge, and, a week ago, we learn, was within thirty feet of the paying rock.” Likewise, the company opened an office in San Francisco at 621 Clay Street for the transferring of stocks. Interestingly though, just three months after losing the Police Judge election, Atwill was still operating as a judge. In 1864, the Daily Alta in San Francisco circulated an update on Atwill’s mining company: “Yesterday we were shown some very fine looking rock just taken from [the Atwill Company], Eliza ledge, Flowery District. . . . with a capital of $360,000, 1,800 shares, par value $260. Already a shaft of 70 feet has been sunk upon the ledge. A house has been erected on the claim for the workmen, and a contract for the further developing of the mine has been entered into with Messrs. Bouden & Co. . . . We are informed that the Atwill & Co.’s claim is upon the same ledge as the Lady Bryan, and in the immediate vicinity of the Adriatic, McClellan, Uncle Sam and other claims of well known repute. From the appearance of the rock, and the business character of the officers and the principal stockholders of the Atwill Company, it is probable that ere long the stock will command a good figure in the market.” (Sacramento Union, March 3, 1863, p. 3, c. 2; March 6, p. 2, c. 4; Daily Alta, March 29, 1863, p. 1, c. 1; April 21, 1863, p. 2, c. 2; Marysville Daily Appeal, June 14, 1863, p. 3, c. 2; Daily Alta, March 1, 1864, p. 1, c. 5; March 2, 1864, p. 1, c. 3)

Joseph F. Atwill

Atwill wasn’t so lucky however; he didn’t become a Silver King. Instead, paralleling the ending of the American Civil War across the continent, Atwill’s Nevada mining pursuits came to an end in 1865. While in 1866 Atwill was still in Nevada acting as a judge, by 1868 he was back in San Francisco working as proprietor of the S. F. Percussion Match Co. Their match manufacturing plant was on the east side of Ritch Street near Townsend, closs to Mission Bay, and their office was in the Financial District at the NW corner of Front and Clay streets. As for their home, Joseph and Eliza lived at 542 Bryant St., near South Park. (Red Bluff Independent, May 16, 1866, p. 3, c. 1; Langley’s City Directory of 1868, pp. 74 & 486; Daily Alta, July 22, 1870, p. 4, c. 3)

In February of 1872, Atwill’s sister, Elenora M. Plumb, died in Brooklyn, N. Y. Joseph and Eliza moved to Oakland, and in what appears to be a frenzy, Atwill jumped back into the mining business for one last go, not only establishing Atwill & Co.’s Western Mining Agency at 240 Montgomery St., across from the Russ House in San Francisco, but also he became involved with the Union Coal Company to mine coal in Kitsap County in Washington Territory, the California Iron Mining Co. to mine for iron in Nevada County, California, and the West Mountain Consolidated Gold and Silver Mining and Tunnel Company for mining in the West Mountain Mining District County of Salt Lake, Utah. (Daily Alta, March 21, 1872, p. 4, c. 4; Langley’s City Directory of 1872, p. 77; Daily Alta, July 3, 1872, p. 3, c. 6; Sacramento Union, Sept. 28, 1872, p. 5, c. 1; Daily Alta, Dec. 18, 1872, p. 1, c. 8; Dec. 21, 1872, p. 1, c. 3)

Atwill’s involvement in the mining industry persisted throughout the 1870s. He became part of the South Star Gold and Silver Mining Company for mining the Devil’s Gate and Spring Valley Districts in Lyon County, Nevada, the East Ophir Silver Mining Company, for mining the Virginia Mining District in Storey County, Nevada, and also the Henrietta Gravel Mining Company for mining in Butte County, California, a company with an impressive $10M in capital. Atwill & Co. Mining Agency moved around a bit at the end of the decade, all within San Francisco’s Financial District, but at one point Atwill’s office was located in Pioneer Hall at 808 Montgomery St., as Atwill was becoming more involved in the Society of California Pioneers. In April of 1879, Atwill’s brother, Rev. William Atwill, died in San Antonio, Texas, and in February 1880, Eliza’s brother, Joseph W. Dugliss, died in New York City. It appears to have been later that year that Atwill finally retired from business, to where in 1881 letters for Atwill & Co. remained unclaimed at the San Francisco Post Office. (Daily Alta, Jan. 7, 1874, p. 1, c. 2; Sacramento Union, June 30, 1875, p. 3, c. 1; Daily Alta, Jan. 9, 1877, p. 1, c. 1; Daily Alta, Aug. 29, 1878, p. 2, c. 9; May 22, 1879, p. 4, c. 3; July 2, 1879, p. 2, c. 5; Langley’s City Directory of 1879, p. 99; 1880, p. 99; Daily Alta, Feb. 16, 1880, p. 4, c. 5; Nov. 28, 1881, p. 4, c. 5)

In January of 1891, the Call ran a sketch on Atwill, and mentioned his recent and long ago political involvement and leanings: “He is a member of the Veteran Tippecanoe Club, which took so active a part in Oakland during the last Presidential campaign [Benjamin Harrison]. It is composed of men who took part in the famous ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too’ campaign, nearly fifty years ago, and who voted for the grandson with the same zeal that had marked their vote for the grandsire [William Henry Harrison].” Living until he was 80 years old, Joseph F. Atwill died in Oakland on Nov. 29, 1891. Remembering Atwill in 1895, another forty-niner wrote, “I read an account of the old gentleman’s death not long ago. So they go, the founders of a great city, and the truth of the expression strikes me forcibly when I hear ‘There are only a few of us left.'” On July 25, 1903, Eliza, who was then the oldest member of the association of California women, died at their late residence, 907 Jackson St., in Oakland. Both are buried at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma. (S. F. Call, Jan. 11, 1891, p. 12, c. 4; Dec. 2, 1891, p. 8, c. 5; Oct. 7, 1895, p. 8, c. 1; July 26, 1903, p. 38, c. 6; L. A. Herald, July 28, 1903, p. 3, c. 5)




^ Following the demise of Atwill & Co.’s music store, Atwill’s clerk Matthias Gray became the city’s premier retailer of musical instruments, publisher of sheet music, etc. (Daily Alta, July 10, 1882, p. 1, c. 2; Langley’s City Directory of 1882, p. 447)






3 thoughts on “Joseph Atwill & San Francisco’s First Music Store

  1. Kristen, what a great article. The California historical library probably has some of his music.


    1. Thank you for reading. Though I am not sure who Kristen is 🙂

  2. I own Joseph Fairfield Awill’s Piano. A beautiful rosewood baby grand. It has the Original decal showing the Address of his store at 201 Broadway , New York. It shows the maker as Mundy & Pethic. The piano is listed is listed in the Pierce Piano Atlas as being made in 1832. It still works. If anyone is interested in it …call me at 310 508-1346. I’m Jeff Murphy
    I have a detailed history of the Piano.

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