Last summer I was wandering through my local flea market when I spotted this vintage photograph. I was immediately drawn to it, asked the price, and was told 3 dollars. Okay, first thing you need to know is I'm cheap. Very cheap. I put the photo back down and told the woman I'd have to think about it. I wandered around unable to concentrate on anything else I was seeing. Three dollars. I was stupid to not grab it. But then I kept thinking where will I hang it? It measures 12" x 14". Not huge, but just not sure what to do with it. Obviously I went back and said "I'll take it!" Had a bit of a scare because the woman had hidden it behind a stack of cheezy paintings and I immediately was mentally hitting myself upside my head thinking "FOOL! It was only 3 bucks!" She'd hidden it for me so nobody else would buy it. Nice lady. Anyway, enough about how I found this and a little bit about the photo.

mervyn silberstein_tatteredandlost

The photographer was Mervyn D. Silberstein and this hand tinted photo has a date of 1914 beneath his name.

Mr. Silberstein was born in 1885 in San Francisco. However, he was raised in Healdsburg, California, north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. His father owned a dry goods store. While attending college in Healdsburg he took up photography. He was already a cartoonist and a writer for a local paper, the Sotoyome Sun. Eventually he opened his own photography store where he sold supplies and did photography work for the local community.

In around 1909 the Silberstein family moved back to San Francisco. Mervyn got a job at an advertising agency where he did graphic design, then called commercial art. He is responsible for the FTD Mercury symbol used by the florist industry.

He was fascinated by Chinatown and it is here that he took this photo. His work around Chinatown, mostly photographing children, covered this part of San Francisco following the great earthquake of 1906. He took mostly snapshots, though some photos were posed with costumes.

His photos were marketed as both postcards and, as he called them, Chinee-Graphs which were sold in wooden frames like shown surrounding the photo above. The frame on mine is original. He claims that his work had been shown in art galleries around the country. I do have one review written by C. S. James, Critic Picture Department of the high end SF department store S. & G. Gumps stating, "...Mr. Silberstein's pictures...belong to an entriely higher class, being worthy of being classed both in photography and painting as art works."


Mr. Silberstein died in 1956. Currently the Healdsburg Museum is the repository of much of Mr. Silbersteins work, including his cameras. They can be reached at P.O Box 952, Healdsburg, CA, 95448. Phone number is 707.431.3325.

That three dollars was worth every penny because looking at this smiling "grandfather" with the child always makes me smile. I get drawn in wondering about the people, if their relatives are still alive living in the SF/Bay Area. I wish there was more information online about Mr. Silberstein. You can find more examples of his work at the Online Archive of California located at Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Do a search of the page and about 3/4 of the way down you'll find a list of Silberstein's photographs, one of which is of this same elderly man and child, but a slightly different shot.

To see either of the images above larger simply click on the image.


  1. Anonymous1/29/2009

    I am trying to think of something new I can share with you about the picture of proud grandfather.

    As a proud teacher, I sent Fengting a red envelope this year.
    (yes I put money in it)

    and , uh.. Richard Burton was born in a year of the Ox.

  2. Neat photo and a great story. Did you know about the photographer when you bought the photo or did you learn about him after?

  3. Nope, didn't know a thing about the photographer. One of those deals where you start really examining the photo after you've been with it awhile. I googled the name and little pieces started to show up. One of these days I'll make the trip to the Healdsburg Museum to show them what I found. I think they'll appreciate it.

    Thanks for stopping in.

  4. This is fabulous -- I am very jealous of that photo you found. And I have been looking at it for years in the postcard folder I sent Christine. I am a photographer (and mail artist) fascinated with Chinatown and working on a Chinatown artist book with photos, collages, joss papers, etc so this right up my alley. Nice to "meet" you. I am signing on as a follower (thanks for sharing Christine H).

  5. How fortuitous that this all came together!

    I can tell you when I bought the photo it had two sharp nails sticking out of the top. I couldn't figure out what they were for until I did my research and saw I was missing the upper horizontal piece of the frame. I cut the nails down to flush with the frame. The happy grandfather and child are one of the first things I see every morning.

    You will occasionally see one of these photos for sale on ebay. The most expensive was a bit over $100. I know I got a steal at 3.

  6. Thank you so much for the article. I saved "Lantern Girl" from the trash when in 1982. It is in it's original gold and black wooden from with Jade plastic beads.

    I was in highschool and my grandmother received the print from a estimate in Oakland, CA. She thought it was ugly.

    1. I'm glad you managed to save it. Your frame is certainly in better condition than mine. I do not have the beads, just two nails sticking out of the top that I cut off.