The Kahns were trailblazers in Congress, served the City well

by Meghan P. Briggs

Julius Kahn (1861-1924) led a life representative of San Francisco's early days. Before his 24 years of service as a Congressional representative for San Francisco's 5th District, Kahn was part of San Francisco's ever-expanding immigrant community.

Kahn's family relocated to California from Baden, Germany in 1866. After graduating from San Francisco's public school system, Kahn worked as a clerk and then briefly pursued an acting career before his election to Congress in 1898. During World War I, Kahn served as head of the House Committee on Military Affairs. He fathered the Selective Service Act of 1917 and witnessed the signing of the Versailles Treaty. He fought for and won San Francisco's candidacy for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition as part of a wider effort to help the City recover from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire. He proposed holding the Portola Festival in October 1909 as a celebration of the young City's capacity for survival.

Shortly after his death, the Presidio military reservation established a playground in his honor. San Franciscans can still visit the Julius Kahn Playground. It is located in the Presidio, adjacent to West Pacific Avenue and across from Spruce Street.

His wife, Florence Prag Kahn (1866-1948), succeeded her husband in 1925, becoming the first Jewish woman to serve in the U. S. Congress.

The Kahns represent an immigrant experience common to many of San Francisco's early inhabitants. Born in Utah to Polish immigrants, Florence's own family came to San Francisco in 1869. Young Florence Prag flourished in the San Francisco school system, and earned her degree at U.C. Berkeley. She became Mrs. Kahn in 1899 and immediately took a strong interest in her husband's political career, supporting and sometimes bolstering his projects. This early involvement prepared her for her own prominent political career, riddled with triumphs and historical firsts.

Besides being the first Jewish Congress­woman, she was the first woman appointed to the Military Affairs Committee and to the Appropriations Committee. She was named one of the "World's Outstanding Women of 1936" by the "New York Sun." The Nov. 17, 1948 issue of the "San Francisco Chronicle" lauded her devotion to her city, saying: "Her passion for San Francisco was such, and her dream of its future growth so limitless, that she was a major factor in persuading Congress to pass bills authorizing the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland and Golden Gate bridges."

She also worked on several other successful projects, including San Francisco's Marine Hospital, a new mint and improvements for the Presidio.

Florence Kahn concerned herself with social issues affecting her constituents, advocating for San Francisco's minority populations in various instances. As a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, she fought to reimburse Native Americans for lands taken. Though her bill failed, they did eventually receive some compensation. In 1930, she won marriage rights for Chinese immigrants through an amendment that passed on citizenship to children of American-born women living outside the United States, a right already given to men.

Florence Kahn's Congressional career went against the grain in more ways than one. Despite her membership in the Republican Party, she refused to vote based solely on partisanship. She took a strong stance against her party on the issues of movie censorship and Prohibition, which she refused to support due to the negative financial impact these measures had on her district.

Florence Kahn worked closely with the FBI, approving legislation working in the bureau's favor and prompting J. Edgar Hoover to dub her the "mother of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

During her time as a Congresswoman, Florence Kahn made quite a name for herself, both among her constituents and her Congressional colleagues. According to her November 1948 obituary in the "New York Times:" "When she took the floor the galleries were jammed with hundreds who wanted to hear the latest Kahn quips."

She had a widely recognized "genius for the unexpected," and, President Franklin Roosevelt's cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth described her as "shrewd, resourceful and witty … an all-around first-rate legislator, the equal of any man in Congress, and the superior of most."

In a characteristic incident, when charged by New York Representative Fiorello La Guardia with "following that reactionary, George H. Moses of New Hampshire," she shot back: "Why shouldn't I choose Moses as my leader? Haven't my people been following him for ages?"

The Presidio Trust is currently seeking further information regarding Florence Kahn's involvement with the Presidio and the Marine Hospital, specifically any relevant correspondence of hers. Contact Barbara Janis, Presidio Trust library and records manager, at (415) 561-5343 or by e-mail at [email protected]. Meghan P. Briggs is an intern at the Presidio Trust.