Photos from the Vault

Knife fights and Christmas cheer — stories from the 1870s

Max Pepperman stocked musical instruments at his store.
Max Pepperman stocked musical instruments at his store. The Tribune

In honor of Christmas, enjoy some random notes on the holiday, from The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s first decade.

In the 1800s, it was common for the grown-ups to attend a ball, festival or banquet. Churches held celebrations involving Santa Claus distributing presents placed in the branches of a tree. Either trees were bigger then or presents were smaller. Hard to hang a 70-inch flat-screen TV from a pine bough.

On Jan. 11, 1879, The Tribune said that a group of young men serenaded their lady friends on Christmas night. The singers “were treated at every place they visited — at one place they were treated with — silent contempt.”


Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men — not a tradition with everyone.

Jan. 4, 1873 — San Luis Obispo Tribune: “CUTTING AFFRAY. — A very serious if not fatal cutting affray took place at the American Exchange saloon, Cambria on christmas [sic] night between Wm. Crew and Frank Taylor. From what we can learn, there had been an ill-feeling existing between the parties for some time, and on the night in question had quite a long private conversation, it is surmised, on the subject of their differences. Shortly after this Crew started to go to the room of a friend to retire for the night, but not being able to find it in the dark, returned to the saloon for a light, the bar-tender procured a light and started to go with Crew to show him his friend’s room. As they were leaving Taylor called Crew harsh names and advanced, struck him and seized him by the throat, Crew immediately drew a knife and inflicted a dangerous wound in Taylor’s right breast, penetrating the lung, and cutting him badly on the hand. We are informed that Taylor’s recovery is doubtful. Crew has not been arrested, but we hear is anxious to have an investigation.”

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In the 1870s, Deadwood, South Dakota, was an ofttimes lawless mining town, famed as the place where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered while playing cards. By 1878, a no-nonsense sheriff had been hired, Seth Bullock, who would later be a leader with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. This probably apocryphal story was reprinted in newspapers as the town tried to reclaim a law-and-order reputation.

In the era before wire services, newspapers had varying standards. Tall tales and hyperbole were often printed for entertainment value without apology. Readers knew this was part of the package, and wild stories reprinted from other papers frequently carried the tag line “interesting if true.”

Feb. 1, 1879 — San Luis Obispo Tribune: They had a Christmas tree at Deadwood. There were only two or three limbs on the tree, and each one contained a man. The local papers say that as they didn’t have limbs enough to accommodate all who were entitled to presents, the committee having the matter in charge selected the most deserving; and promise to be better prepared next time.

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The artwork included here are detail images from an ad, originally in a single vertical column by Max Pepperman on Dec. 4, 1875. Pepperman was a Prussian native who advertised 22 years experience as a jeweler. He had lively sense of humor in his advertising and knew the value of visual engravings to draw in readers.

A previous article documented that Pepperman was the first person in San Luis Obispo County to advertise with the image of Santa Claus.

His ad from this issue included 11 engravings illustrating gifts found at his “House that Pep Built.” Pens, telescopes, pocket knives, pipes, tobacco, lamps, guitars, horns, clocks, watches and picture frames.

“Here comes old SANTA CLAUS out of the north and out of the frosts, who will distribute the gifts that lie in the House that ‘Pep’ built.

“This is the boy who tooted his horn when he got up and found in the morn the Christmas gifts that came from the House that ‘Pep’ built.”

The copy closes with:

“For the continuation of this interesting and exciting romance go to Max Pepperman’s, on the corner of Monterey and Morro streets, where you can find everything in the line of holiday goods from a diamond ring to a tin whistle.”

Best wishes to all this Christmas and holiday season.

Please abstain from “cutting affrays.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp