Finney's Tusks, Abe Warner, & The Cobweb Palace

Original content by: Laura Nadelberg

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About This Artifact

At first glance, this pair of scrimshawed walrus tusks may look like any other piece of scrimshaw. However, this pair is incredibly unique in the sense that they have provenance.  While most scrimshaw was created by unknown sailors as personal keepsakes for themselves or loved ones, we know that this set of tusks was created by a scrimshander named N.S. Finney.  Additionally, there is photographic evidence that shows us where these tusks spent part of their life — sitting behind the bar at the Cobweb Palace with notorious San Francisco character Abe Warner.

Abe Warner, originally working as a butcher on the East coast, moved to San Francisco during the Gold Rush era.  There, he decided to leave his profession as a butcher and instead opened up a saloon at the very end of Meiggs' Wharf that soon became known as the Cobweb Palace.  As San Francisco grew and entered a bohemian era, the Cobweb Palace became known as a frequent stop for San Francisco's local colorful figures, sailors, and tourists.  Though the bar was known for its food and exotic liquors, it was most famous for its unusual décor.  Most noticeable was the thick layer of cobwebs and dust that covered all corners of the building (lending to the bar's name) that accumulated due to Warner's refusal to clean them away.  Under the layers of grime, the bar was almost a "cabinet of curiosities".  A collection of curios from around the world flanked the bar and adorned the walls.  Warner acquired most of his artifacts from sailors and visitors who came through his establishment.  Among these pieces were sawfish bills, deer antlers, coral, ethnographic carvings, shark teeth, and bird cages.  He also kept a menagerie of animals in his building, including monkeys, parrots, raccoons, and a fox.

Over time, San Francisco's waterfront began to change.  The bar, which had been at the far end of Meiggs' Wharf soon saw landfill pushing San Francisco's shoreline closer and closer.  The Cobweb palace eventually lost its appeal.  Abe Warner, bankrupt and alone, saw his bar sold at auction in 1893, nearly 40 years after he had first opened it.  In some ways, the closure of the Cobweb Palace can be seen as a precursor to the ultimate decline of San Francisco's Barbary Coast, and a start to the city that we know today.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why would Abe Warner choose to display so many curios in his bar?
  2. Why do you think people continued to visit the bar despite its seemingly filthy interior?
  3. Where do you think Warner would have acquired these walrus tusks from?