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Schmidt Lithographic Co. Clock tower as seen in 1935 The Schmidt Lithography Co. clock tower, at Second and Bryant streets in San Francisco, is a well-known landmark to people who travel the Bay Bridge, or live or work in the Multimedia Gulch or South Beach districts.

Schmidt Lithography Co. was once the largest printing company on the West Coast, and the two-square-block plant, at one time, boasted handball and volleyball courts, a hospital and roof gardens.

The company is gone from San Francisco, but the tower and surrounding Schmidt buildings are still there to give one the sense and scale of the industrial grandeur that was once seen South of Market and around Rincon Hill.

The tower was nearly demolished when the Bay Bridge viaduct was constructed in the 1930s.

This 1930 profile of founder Max Schmidt tells of the 1921 construction of the clock tower and surrounding buildings.


The Schmidt Lithography Company

This might be called "A Cabin Boy's Dream Come True," were it not for the fact that the hero of the story was never one to day dream. If actual achievement exceeded fondest expectations it was due to his painstaking thoroughness coupled with the will to succeed and the optimism which all successful men must possess. A corporation or a firm is just as strong as its founder or founders. If the men who start a business have not the vision, fighting spirit and optimism, the ultimate success is never attained. Stronger men must take their places, for the old law of the survival of the fittest applies just as much to modern business as to the primeval days when men and beasts fought for supremacy.

Painting of Max SchmidtHere is the romance of a California pioneer, a man who believed in himself and who was not afraid to pay the price of success. Had he followed the wishes of his parents he would have been a physician. His family were prosperous German folk of the professional class. A rut had been made for him and he was expected to step into it. But Max Schmidt, when the time for decision came, decided otherwise. Fate had ordained a career far different from that of his parent's choosing. He was to live to see his name become famous and to assist in spreading the fame of his beloved California throughout the globe. His name was to be found on canned gods and labels everywhere, on ships sailing the seven seas, on railway trains and street cars, on camel caravans of the desert, and on the dog teams of the Far North.

And so, when approaching manhood, Max broke with his family, said good-bye to his friends in Schoenbaum, near Dantzig, Germany, and shipped as a cabin boy on a lugger. For seven years he sailed the seas, acquiring experience and robust health, but not riches. One thing he did as a sailor that seemed an omen of future success. He kept a log. Not a log in rude, scrawly writing, such as most sailors keep, but a long that was a work of art. Max had a trick of lettering that in after years was to bring him fortune. Every letter was perfectly made. Here is the key to the character of the man, a forerunner of what today is recognized as Schmidt quality.

In that log, which Schmidt treasures to this day, it was recounted that on December 9, 1871, after a voyage from Hamburg, lasting 170 days, the German bark Emily sailed through the Golden Gate. Able Seaman Max Schmidt, future captain of industry, for the first time beheld the new land that, after many vicissitudes, was to enrich him. The first milestone of young Max's life journey was at that point where he parted from his family, his friends, and his Fatherland, and went to sea. The second milestone on the road to fame was that gray December day when he landed in San Francisco and decided to remain.

Max was not one to quit a job, however, until he had another. As an able bodies seaman he had been earning the insignificant wage of ten dollars a month. Earning it, not drawing it. When the good ship Emily tied up at the wharf at the foot of Broadway, Max had coming to him six months' pay -- sixty dollars. As a matter of fact he never collected this money, for in order to do so he would have to return to Hamburg.

The young German boy, bright faced, clear eyed, ruddy cheeked, and sturdily built, though penniless and friendless in a new land, decided against this course, after a talk with the skipper of the Emily. Max had heard the call of the New World where men had more freedom and were better paid than in the old country. Not so well paid as they are today, it is true, but when Max was offered a job at twenty-five dollars a month he accepted it.

The work was far from easy. His employers were Saulman and Lauenstein who operated a German bakery-restaurant at California and Montgomery Streets. Max, whose bedroom was in a stable at Post and Hyde Streets, rose each day at five o'clock in the morning, harnessed a horse to a delivery wagon, drove downtown to the bakery and delivered bread and rolls to the homes of the various customers. After that he washed napkins, cooked, waited on table, groomed horses, fed the chickens, learned to speak English and made himself generally useful until bedtime at none o'clock. At the end of the first month Saulman was so pleased with his hard working, tireless German boy, that he paid him an extra twenty-five dollars. But at the end of the second month Max found himself jobless. The man whose place he had taken suddenly returned and resumed his duties. The third milestone had been reached.

He accepted the situation philosophically. he had made progress; could read and speak English; had saved a little money. At once he had put his newly acquired knowledge of English to practical use. Going to the office of the Alta California,across the street from the German restaurant, he scanned the want ads. The Daily Stock Report needed a transfer man. Max did not know exactly what a transfer man was, but decided to apply for the job. The Daily Stock Report building was on Montgomery Street, a site later to be occupied by the San Francisco Stock Exchange. It did not take Mr. Hiester, the Report's editor, proprietor and publisher, long to discover that Max was not a transfer man, but the boy was so eager for work that Hiester let him stay. Max worked one week without pay, but the second week he drew three dollars and after that was given steady employment driving a delivery wagon.

The Daily Stock Report had a lithograph department and it was here that Schmidt spent all his spare time. Soon he was an engraver. When the Report closed its lithograph department, Max had learned the business sufficiently well to take a job in the establishment of G.T. Brown and Company, at 520 Clay Street. Schmidt's boss was Otto Schoning, whose son was later to become chief executive of the Galloway Lithographing Company. Max stayed three months with Brown and Company, and then went to Korbel Bros., manufacturers of cigar boxes, labels and brands. He was paid $18.00 a week and he remained in their employ until October 2, 1872, when work gave out and Korbel Bros. closed their lithograph department. The brothers offered him a job on their ranch at Guerneville, but the young German turned his back on ranching as resolutely has he had parted from his homeland and had quit the sea. He decided to be his own boss.

Max had less than twenty-five dollars when he boldly hung out a sign bearing the name of M. Schmidt & Co., from the modest building at 353 Clay Street. Ten dollars of his capital was used to pay the first month's rent. The sign was neatly lettered and proved a magnet that drew customers. Max was sure of himself, but not over-confident. It was a quality of self-assurance, coupled with the ability to make quick, correct decisions at critical moments, and to choose the right kind of assistants, that was ultimately to send him to the top of his chosen profession.

He solemnly made an agreement with himself to put ten per cent of all his earnings in the bank and kept this covenant so well that within a short time his savings amounted to a snug sum.

About this time a distant relative in Vienna invented a process called zincography, designed to take the place of slow and expensive wood engraving. The three San Francisco wood engravers turned out work so slowly that newspapers found it well nigh impossible to keep pace with the news pictorially.

A brother of Max's sent from Germany a pamphlet describing the new process and Max, experimenting, was able to turn out rough zincographs quickly. Soon, he had more work than he could do. That was the real beginning of the largest lithographing business in the West. It put Max a jump a head of his competitors, an advantage he thereafter managed to maintain.

From that October day in 1872, when the former cabin boy started in business for himself in a 10 x 12 room on Clay Street, business grew rapidly. Gradually Max's work improved until he finally secured the newspapers as his regular customers. Early in the 80's branch offices were opened; the first in Los Angeles, and later in Portland and Seattle. Twice his San Francisco plant was razed by fire, but each time was quickly rebuilt. In 1899 the company incorporated under the name of Mutual Label & Lithographing Company.

In 1906 there came a serious setback, a catastrophe that was to put him to the severest test that he had ever faced in his business career. He work up one April morning, to find San Francisco in flames driving toward his plant at Second and Bryant Streets.

As this new milestone is reached it is well to recapitulate. The German cabin boy who landed in San Francisco without a pfennig in his pockets had had a remarkable career. In thirty-years he had become a captain of industry, being principal owner of the largest lithographing plant, with branch offices in three Pacific Coast cities.

Two years after coming to the New World, Max had established himself, learned the language of his adopted country, had learned a trade--had become a leader in his profession--and had gone into business for himself. In 1874 his brother, Richard Schmidt, Sr., followed him to America and became associated with the business.

Starting in one room, this business had expanded until by 1906, it occupied a three-story structure at Second and Bryant Streets. Then came the disaster. The fire and earthquake of 1906 did more than raze the Schmidt plant. It destroyed all the books and papers. Accounts receivable amounted to about $100,000, but the records were lost.

Max went to his home in Mill Valley to rest and think things over. When ready for action he came to Oakland and there found a paper box factory-- a modern building, owned by Wempe Brothers. After negotiations Schmidt offered $125,000 for the property. It is interesting to note that at the time he made his bid he had only some small change in his pockets.

Wempe agreed to accept a note. Max then went out, borrowed twenty dollars and within twenty-four hours presented a note for $124,980 signed by himself, his brother and four other representative business men. Wempe was frankly amazed. He had been only half-hearted in his desire to sell his plant and had deemed it impossible for Max to meet their terms. He was still further amazed when, at the end of the first week, he had handed a check for $10,000 as first payment.

At the end of the second week another payment of $10,000 was made and a third similar payment the week after. The astonished holder of the note accepted a fourth $10,000 check under protest and notified Schmidt that no more payents would be received by him until the note fell due.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," Max proposed, "if you'll reduce the rate of interest I won't pay you another dime until the six months are up."

To this Wempe reluctantly agreed.

Max negotiated for the purchase of the Oakland plant on Monday. On Tuesday the company took possession and by Wednesday morning the employees were at work. They worked long hours cheerfully and at the end of the day retired to rooms their employer had rented for them in the neighborhood.

A number of the company's old customers, hearing that the concern had started production again began to mail checks to cover bills outstanding. Business rapidly increased. At the end of two years the San Francisco plant had been rebuilt on the site of the one destroyed and was again running full blast.

One thing that had aided Max in his business career was liberal bank backing. Schmidt Lithograph Company was the oldest depositor in the First National Bank, now the Crocker First National Bank, and neither party has ever regretted that connection. The bank extended liberal credit in times of emergency.These included the fires of June 6, 1884, and August 12, 1886, and the disaster of 1906.

After the company had recovered from the effects of the last named disaster it grew fast. Business increased, and in 1917 the realty holdings of R.R. Thompson, Max's first and only landlord, were purchased. When this land had been acquired the expansion of the plant began.

In 1921 a six-story structure, surmounted by a clock tower, which has since become the official time piece of Rincon Hill, was erected adjoining the older structure on the north, the plant now covering an area of 181 feet on Second Street by 252 feet, extending through the block to Silver Street [now Stillman Street].

A third structure four stories in height and occupying an area of 137 1/2 x 260 at the southeast corner of Second and Bryant streets, was dedicated on Armistice Day, 1925. In this building the Schmidt Company grinds its own inks and coats its own paper under the supervision of experts and chemists.

The consistent quality of Schmidt labels, and other products as well, is assured by the fact that the company tests all materials used in its many processes. The concern, however, did not start to do its own ink grinding and paper coating until chemists, after considerable experimentation, had evolved satisfactory formulae.

Since its inception the Schmidt Lithograph Company has operated under various names, including Schmidt and Buehler, M. Schmidt & Co., Mutual Label and Lithograph Company and the Schmidt Label and Lithograph Company.

From time to time, competing companies have been absorbed. These absorptions, in chronological order, are as follows: Edward Fletcher & Co., 1874; Dettmar & Co., 1877; Whiele & Parker, 1878; California Label Press, Pettit & Russ, Rosenthal, Saalburg & Co., 1879; Robert Renshaw & Co., Los Angeles, 1887; A.S. Bancroft & Co, 1889; H.S. Crocker & Co. (lithograph department), Dickman, Jones & Co., Los Angeles Litho. Co., of Los Angeles, and Western Litho., in 1899, and Wempe Bros., Oakland, in 1906.

In 1929 there was effected a merger which, from the standpoint of enhanced production possibilities, eclipsed all previous Schmidt business unions. This was the tie-up with the Galloway Lithographing Company of San Francisco.

This latter concern, also a pioneer of lithography in the West, stands as one of the country's leading designers and manufacturers of seed bags.

From a humble beginning, with only two hand presses with a capacity of 480 sheets, cap size, daily, the establishment has grown until today its press capacity alone is more than 300,000 impressions per day of a sheet approximately twelve times as large as the old hand press size, while the variety of its products has increased from letter heads and plain labels to include labels, cartons, cutouts, countercards, window trims, hangers, billboard posters, car cards, program covers, menus, show cards, and all forms of lithographed advertising.

Through all these years, through all the expansions, vicissitudes and triumphs of the company, Max had remained at the helm. The policies carried out and adhered to are his policies.

Max, who started in the business more than a half century ago with himself and an office boy as a staff, today commands an army of more than five hundred efficient men and women employees.

No similar plant in the country has more conveniences for its employees. On the roof of the new building are a roof garden, handball, basketball and volley ball courts. There are also a large cafeteria lunch room, a rest room and a hospital, the latter in charge of a graduate nurse.

In Max's playroom at his home, which is one way of saying he spends many of his off-duty hours in his carpenter shop, there is a sun dial. Above the sun dial is a motto. Both motto and sun dial are typical of the man. The dial is made of a billiard cue connecting the north star with the center of the earth and the motto, worked in Germany lettering, is a glittering example of the Schmidt optimism. It says simply: "Count only the pleasant hours."

From: California Journal of Development
Vol. XX, No. 4, April 1930

Published by the California State Chamber of Commerce

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