Casa de Estudillo. The Estudillo family hosted all wedding receptions in the largest room of their house in Old Town.
  • Casa de Estudillo. The Estudillo family hosted all wedding receptions in the largest room of their house in Old Town.
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Adelaide Serrano Hayes and Rosa Serrano Cassidy, c. 1867. “Even the Spanish ladies smoked cigaritas between dances."

San Diego Historical Society

Let’s say you live in San Diego between 1850 and 1870. What do you do for fun?

San Diegans created excuses to celebrate: fiestas, gala balls, horse races, bullfights, the christening of a child, even funerals, “since music and firecrackers accompanied the body as the cortege went to the cemetery." And they danced at each occasion. The waltz was most popular, though if you didn't know how to fandango — “to cascarones and California music” — your dance card would have empty slots.

Everyone smoked at the balls of the 1860s, Knott writes, “even the Spanish ladies smoked cigaritas between dances. All dressed extravagantly ... Age was no ladies 60 and 70 years of age would dance gracefully. Indians were not excluded from the balls but allowed to sit on the floor in the corners of the rooms and crowd at the windows."

If you don't count Fourth of July celebrations —exploding firecrackers and popping guns and rifles made Old Town feel like a besieged fort — the largest fetes were weddings. In the 1850s and ’60s, the Estudillo family hosted all wedding receptions in the largest room of their house in Old Town. Mary Morse remembers: “The bride would be dressed in white silk, if the groom could afford it; if not, in some other white material. In an ante-room, before dancing began, it was common to find the bride and her attendants each with a cigarita between her white gloved fingers."

Wedding receptions lasted until daylight, and the dancing continued “sometimes several nights in succession."

If you had the time, and it took all day, you could picnic at La Hoya, 12 miles of bumpy dirt road up the coast. There wasn’t much for townfolk to do inland, save for hunting firewood and dodging rattlesnakes (today's Mission Valley was notorious for its irritable bull rattlers).

One of the biggest events, between 1853 and 1865, was the arrival of a Spanish circus. Mary Morse remembers: “It exhibited in the evening in a corral with high adobe walls, the company having no tents. The place was lighted by strips of cloth laid in cans of lard and set on fire. These primitive lanterns were set on high posts and at best furnished a poor light. Spectators included [anyone] who could pay the admission fee of 50 cents. The performances on the high trapeze and tightrope looked especially weird and fantastic in the smoky light of those primitive lanterns."

Appearances by professional companies, however, were rare, and San Diegans went indoors for amusement. Hotels in Old Town, such as the Franklin House, offered upscale entertainment. Rosita Stewart and Serafino Serrano loved to wear evening dresses to the Franklin, which also hosted banquets and celebrations by Masonic San Diego Lodge 35.

“In 1858, an advertisement in the San Diego Herald reported that the billiard table at Franklin House had been refurbished." Card games pool or billiards and gambling became prevalent in every saloon and most hotels. The earliest minutes of the Common Council in 1850 made an ordinance that anyone with a monte bank, fan bank, roulette table, or other table “at which any game of hazard, chance, or skill, are or shall be played, whether with cards, dice, or another invention,” had to purchase a license costing $35 a month.

“The ordinances engendered so much protest that the Common Council had to repeal them at a special meeting. [They] tried again in 1852, this time setting the license fee at $20 per month for all games of chance." No one attempted to repeal the ordinance.

Soldiers from Company D, Third Artillery, formed the American Dramatic Club and performed the first “theatricals" in 1858. Officers’ wives and “local senoritas" played the female parts. Shows included The Lady of Lyons, The Idiot Witness, and The Death of Rollo. “These military presentations all took place at the Mission, making it San Diego's first playhouse."

Alonzo Horton built Horton’s Hall in 1869. It became the “nearest thing to a real theater." It had a 16- by 32-foot stage and could seat 400 (“but 200 more could be added"). The Hall offered various entertainments, as Horton announced: “lectures theatres, concerts, all respectable public exhibitions, at reasonable rates." Among the shows were The Warlock of the Glen and Ten Nights in a Barroom. “A two-headed marvel was advertised, which turned out to be two midgets” There were also elocutionary recitations revival meetings church meetings, and lectures on “The Result of Intemperance.”


  1. Augusta Barrett Sherman remembers a bullfight: “The Plaza was fenced in for the arena, the animals turned loose in the enclosure, and then the fun began — if fun it could be called. This generally lasted two or three days. One could hear the violin and guitar in all directions.”
  2. The first play written in San Diego was The Smiths and the Browns, a comedy set in the Franklin House in Old Town” (playwright not named].
  3. Augusta Sherman gave a birthday for her niece in March 1869. She invited eight guests. One little girl told her, “I've come all around the work) to get here!” Sherman said it must seem “a very long way from Union and B Streets to 19th and J Streets." There was no direct road. Although the streets had been surveyed, they were not much traveled and remained, indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. Walking was not easy. This was one of the first recorded social events in San Diego held specifically for the younger set.
  4. There had always been saloons, boarding houses, gambling, and brothels near the waterfront to "satisfy sailors on shore leave. The activity became concentrated from the waterfront north to H (Market) Street between First and Fifth Streets. There were about 100 houses of prostitution in the area (called the Stingaree District). They were looked upon as inevitable and best kept to one area where police could keep an eye on them. In fact, it was said that the City Hall at Fifth and G Streets overlooked the Stingaree in more ways than one.
  5. Lt. George H. Derby, an Army engineer who diverted the San Diego River into False Bay (now known as Mission Bay), wrote humor under the pseudonym John Phoenix. Among his articles was a mock-preview of an upcoming play. “The pieces selected for this grand occasion exhibit the exquisite taste of manager Nom-de-dum. Hiescoto’s grand and sublime tragedy in 25 acts of ’No-you-don't' or ‘Yes-l-did,’ will be performed for the first time in any country. Cast includes Madam Squawessetta as No-you-don't. Dancer Mademoiselle Manyarstoeshow will perform the Tareandstepoff. Monsieur Legsin will make his first appearance in his original character of No-cupons."
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