The Life & Times of Jack London

We will be displaying our collection at the Martinez Historic Home Tour on Saturday October 13th.  Tickets are available at: tinyurl.com/MHHT2018

The following are little vignettes of posed materials from what is an approximate 20-foot long table-display, when arranged along with 8×10 framed images depicting his life and works.  Images include pictures of Jack and his experiences along with images taken by Jack as a traveller and early photojournalist.  The purpose is to illustrate the life of a complex and influential man, and to provide an interactive context especially for young people.

Most of the table items are authentic to the period of 1890 to 1916, when he died.  With the exception of a couple of later-date curiosity books, all the books and periodicals on display were printed within his lifetime, and many are first editions.  Along with his works, we have examples of books written by authors who influenced Jack: Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Karl Marx, and others.

We also have an extensive collection of postcards from places which he visited and vessels on which he travelled, mostly from the first two decades of the 20th Century.

Along with the visual experience, people will be encouraged to play with an 1890s glass plate camera and experiment with a sailor’s sextant from the era.  A copy of the recent book, Jack London, Photographer, will be on the table for people to look through.

Camera and Binnoculars Vignette - Better

A 1900 Kodak Cartridge No. 4 camera, the model that Jack used to photograph the 1904 Rose Bowl Parade, and one of the camera types that he took with him to Japan and Korea in 1904 to cover the Russo-Japanese War.  The navigational chart backdrop is circa 1900, updated with depth sounding data from a US government project.

The binoculars are a French made Galilean binoculars, as were most lightweight binoculars prior to 1900, when German companies began to dominate the optics field.  These are likely from the 1890s, but nearly identical models were used in the US Civil War and Spanish American War.  These early glasses had no offset, like later designs, and were simply linked telescopes, with little depth perspective, compared to later offset designs.

The Galilean design was very simple with lenses at both ends of the barrel.  The second lens reverses the reversal of the first lens, so that the image appears upright and with a correct horizontal direction.

Folmer Schwing on Tripod

This is a mid-1890s Folmer Schwing glass plate camera.   In 1895, Jack’s friend Fred Jacobs introduced him to Bessie Maddern who was Fred’s finance and became Jack’s math tutor, helping him to get into Cal Berkeley.  She was also a photography enthusiast and introduced Jack to the art and the processes of glass plate photography.  Fred died in 1997 and in 1900 Bessie became Mrs. London.

In our display this will be available for people to play with and experience how photographers got under a black-hood and focused the image on a ground-glass screen, before putting the chemically treated plates in for exposure.   It’s especially fun for kids.

For the time, this was a light-weight camera, which was self-casing, which means that it folded up and the sensitive components were then encased in a wooden case.  These were frequently called “bicycle cameras”, because they could be strapped on a bike, for afternoons in the country.

Typewriter Vignette

This type of 1897 Remington Standard No 7 belonged to the Londons and they took theirs with them on the Cruise of the Snark in 1907/08.  It’s not clear whether they brought it back to the US when they abandoned the Circumnavigation, and sold the Snark in Australia in 1909.  We found this in a midwestern junk store and semi restored it with a careful balance between preserving patina and removing crusted-rust.

This is a great chance for younger people to experience life before computers on this 19th Century word processor.  This is called a”blind-writer” since the typing is not visible to the typist.

Kodak 2 3As and goodies

Left side, early Kodak 3A camera, postcard, and binoculars circa Russo-Japanese War, 1904/05, when Jack was in Korea as a correspondent, for Hearst, with Japanese Troops.

Right side, later model Kodak 3A circa 1914 when Jack was covering the US Invasion of Mexico at Veracruz, along with a postcard from the invasion and US Army 1914 model EE Bausch and Lomb binoculars.  Prior to 1914, the US Army was buying German-made field glasses from Zeiss and Hensoldt (later merged), but WWI blockades interrupted the supply.  These had prisms to offset the objective lenses, giving a superior depth perception.  Bausch and Lomb significantly copied the German designs.

Polynesian Artifacts 3-20-18 ii white background

I visited the Londons’ Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, and Charmian’s House of Happy Walls, the home which she built after Jack’s death.  I noticed many Polynesian souvenirs from their travels in the Pacific, some on display and some worked into the architectural details (banister posts, lighting fixtures, etc.).  I feel that our display should reflect the path of the Snark from Hawaii across the sea to Guadalcanal, where the voyage ended, with a few primitive carvings from the islands along the route.

The McClure’s Magazine is dated May 1901 and contains Jack’s short story, The God of His Fathers,  considered to be among the best of his early stories.  This issue also contains several chapters of Kipling’s novel Kim which was first published in a serialized form a couple of chapters each month (10/00 – 11/01).  Jack was an ardent admirer of Kipling, who influenced Jack’s work.

Sextent Etc

This sextant is available for people to play with and learn how turn of the 20th Century sailors navigated.  Displayed here with authentic postcards from places he visited and vessels on which he travelled, is a replica of a 1910s sextant — one of the few replicas in our display — but an authentic one would be too valuable to hand-around.

Yearbook and Alaska book

In 1896 Jack completed high school and passed his entrance test to UC Berkeley, but by 1897 he was lured away to the gold fields of Alaska.  This 1896 Blue and Gold yearbook documents the campus and students in Jack’s era as a Bear.   When Jack left for Alaska, one of his few possessions was a copy of Alaska: Its History and Resources, Gold Fields, Routes and Scenery, by Miner Wait Bruce, published in 1895.  This first edition, is identical to Jack’s copy.

Along with whiskey and tobacco, Jack was a prodigious coffee drinker, who stayed up late at night working on his writing.  He kept a circa 1910 Thermos brand vacuum-flask like this by his desk.  The carvings and the tribal mask are from various South Pacific islands, the latter from his last stop in the Snark.   This is a hand carved Solomon Islands mask with mother of pearl inlays.

Pencil Sharpner etc

Jack mostly wrote longhand in pencil and Charmian typed from his notes.  This 1905 pencil sharpener was state-of-the-art, and the pencil box is from that era.  At the time, the finest graphite came from China and pencils with Chinese sounding names were painted yellow, the royal-color of the Chinese Imperial Family.

Jack London first experienced  socialism through the works of Karl Marx.  In an August 1896 letter to the Editor of the Oakland Times, Cal Berkeley Student Jack London made reference to Karl Marx’s Capital. Marx’s influence on London is most apparent in his collection of essays, “The War of the Classes” (1905).   His time working in the canneries and jute mills, his knowledge of child labor, and the horrendous working conditions in most factories, made Marx’s theories a viable alternative.


Circa 1903 Kodak 3A in the earliest configuration, with the square upper opening (curved later).  Each of these magazines (1914 and 1913) contain his writing.  He and his wife were collectors of Polynesian carvings; her home in Glen Ellen is full of them.

Jack London once said, ““As for myself, there is no end of Kipling in my work, . . . I would never have possibly written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been.” My 1903 edition of Traffic and Discoveries, and the 1910 socialist pamphlet seem typical reading material for Jack.

Black Cat and Syringe

The Black Cat magazine is best known today was among the first to publish one of Jack London’s stories, “A Thousand Deaths” in the May 1899 issue (one issue before ours).  The Son of the Wolf, a collection of short stories, was in 1900 his first published book.

This circa 1905 syringe and kit-box is symbolic of his death from complications of morphine use.  These nineteen-teens tobacco tins are from two brands which he smoked.

The postcards are left to right:

  • A native hut in the Solomon Islands circa 1908 the time of Jack’s visit.
  • A souvenir from the Jack Johnson fight, where he took the Heavyweight Championship in December 1908, and Jack London was in Sydney covering the fight for Hearst,.
  • A colorized circa 1897 postcard from the Klondike River when Jack was there looking for gold.

Socialist Display - complex

Jack and Charmian were both socialists and in both 1901 and 1905 Jack ran for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket.   In the foreground are socialist publications from the era.

Among his earliest socialist writings was The People of the Abyss, based on his experiences in the slums of London in 1902.  This was one of the only books where Jack’s photography is used, including this background image taken at the the Salvation Army in London’s East End.  At that time, Jack was using a Kodak Cartridge No. 4 camera, which shot a 4″ x 5″ image onto size 104 roll-film.

The Iron Heel of 1908, is the novel in which Jack’s socialist views are most explicitly on display, in this chronicle of the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States.  His desire for a socialist revolution is clear in The Iron Heel.  This story is confused with the Bolshevik Revolution but this story is about the United States.

Whiskey Bottles.jpg

The large bottle is circa 1900s and the smaller one is circa 1890s.  Along with his well known writing, Jack London was a hard drinking, chain smoking, sailor who sailed across the Pacific in 1907/08, and collected many Polynesian carvings on this voyage. He later wrote the book, The Cruise of the Snark, the story of that sailing adventure.

Under the old brass pocket-compass are a few authentic south seas postcards from the 1900s decade.

Snark - Typee display

Jack and Charmian’s yacht the Snark was named for a fictional beast, the Snark, from a Lewis Carroll poem, The Hunting of the Snark.  Our copy is from a 1903 printing.

The boat was built in Oakland in 1906/07, from a design influenced by Jack’s experience and preferences.  Jack is shown in the background photographing the construction with his Kodak 3A camera.

Some of the motivation for a South Seas adventure came from the novel Typee, the first book by Herman Melville, published in 1846.  It was based on the author’s experience in the  Marquesas Islands in 1842.  Our copy is from a 1903 printing.

South Sea Carvings.jpg

The Ebb-Tide (1894) is a short novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, and published the year Stevenson died.   This was, along with Typee by Melville, one of the novels that inspired Jack and Chamian to circumnavigate and spend time in the South Pacific.

In the novel, three rogues are stranded in the port of Papeete, Tahiti.  A failed English businessman; a disgraced American sea captain, and a dishonest Cockney jack of several trades.  One day a schooner carrying a cargo of champagne from San Francisco to Sydney arrives in port, its officers all dead from smallpox, and piloted by three native survivors.  The three rogues are hired to complete the voyage, with the native crew, but have other plans.

Jack London was great Stevenson enthusiast; he once wrote: “But I do join with you, and heartily, in admiration of Robert Louis Stevenson. What an example he was of application and self-development!  As a storyteller there isn’t his equal; the same thing might almost be said of his essays.  While the fascination of his other works is simply irresistible, to me, the most powerful of all is his Ebb-Tide.”

In London’s novel Martin Eden (1907), two characters praise Stevenson but are “appalled at the quantities of rubbish written about Stevenson and his work” by critics who do not measure up to his stature. In 1908 he visited Stevenson’s grave in Samoa, during his Cruise of the Snark.

pen & books

A few items together that are explained individually below:


Somebody suggested that we should have a fountain pen from the era.  I found this 1903 Moore’s Non-Leakable Safety Pen, in need of a little cleaning and restoration.  These are made of a very hard rubber dyed in various colors.  This one began black, but all the surface except the area covered by the cap had faded to an army olive drab.  After careful cleaning with alcohol and ammonia, I redyed the rubber.

Victory Joseph Conrad

On June 4, 1915, Jack London wrote a famous letter to contemporary writer Joseph Conrad.  In it he explained the long history of his admiration in general and of the recently published novel, Victory, of which we have a first edition to display.

“I had just begun to write when I read your first early work. I have merely madly appreciated you and communicated my appreciation to my friends through all these years. I never wrote to you. I never dreamed to write you. But Victory has swept me off my feet…”

London explains to Conrad that as further proof of his admiration, he has included a carbon copy of a letter written to his friend Cloudesley Johns, describing his impressions of Victory.

This tragic melodrama is set in the Dutch Indies, and includes the rescue of a maiden by a complex hero, and in the end her death and his suicide.  It draws inspiration from Hamlet and The Tempest, and inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  The novel has been adapted to film multiple times: 1919, 1930, 1940, and 1995.  With performances by Lon Chaney, Wallace Beery, Fredric March, Cedric Hardwicke, Sam Neill, and Willem Dafoe.

First Principles 1888 Spencer

In 1899 Jack London wrote, Herbert Spencer’s First Principles “has done more for mankind , and through the ages will have done far more for mankind, than a thousand books.”  London was highly influenced by Spencer, with a fascination that lasted throughout his life.

It was Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who first coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, in his 1867 volumes, Principles of Biology (1864 – 1867). Spencer wrote, “The survival of the fittest which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called “natural selection, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.”  Spencer’s writings were particularly responsible for the rise of Social Darwinism in the late 19th century.


Some of my favorite items are these binoculars from the era — a must for sailors navigating treacherous waters. Left to right US Army 1914 Bausch & Lomb, French field glasses circa 1880 – 1900, and German Zeiss glasses from 1897 to 1906.

As a photographer I love optics, as a sailor binoculars are an everyday tool. So these pieces are fascinating to me and they still work. My favorites are the French model in the center, the the magnification is low, but these are very comfortable and easy to focus.

The French dominated binocular production from around the time of the US Civil War to about 1900, when the Germans came up with superior designs and optics, giving mor magnification, a better sense of dimension/depth, and all in a smaller size.  When WWI blocked access to German products, Bausch & Lomb which had been a US partner with German Zeiss adapted the first US binoculars from the Zeiss design.

Sextant Overlay

Jack London circa 1907 navigating on the Snark somewhere in the Pacific.  When he left San Francisco Bay, he didn’t know how to navigate with a sextant, but neither did the navigation “expert” he had brought with him on the voyage.  Fortunately Jack had brought several books on navigation.  Using these and the sextant, Jack navigated the Snark to Hawaii.

Navigation by Sextant