One of Dorothea Lange’s most famous photographs, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, depicts a grizzled older man leaning over a railing and cradling an empty tin mug as he waits for food, surrounded by the backs of other unemployed men. The 1932 photograph starkly captures both the man’s lonely, stoic dignity and the shattering effects of the Great Depression.
It also marked a turning point in Lange’s career. After working as a portrait photographer in San Francisco for a decade, in 1928 she had opened a studio in a (still standing) pre–Civil War building at 802 Montgomery Street. When the Depression hit, she could look out her window and see unemployed men milling around. There was a vacant lot on the Embarcadero where they went to receive food handouts. Lange was told to avoid that tract and the men. But one day she decided to go anyway. She came upon a crowd of men waiting to get a hot meal. Her gaze fell on a man in a battered hat clutching a tin cup. She took his picture. It was the first time Lange had ever taken photographs on the street. The rest is documentary, and artistic, history.
Millions of people have seen White Angel Breadline. But few know the story of the camp where the photo was taken and of its remarkable founder, Lois Jordan.
STEWS, BEANS, AND SOUPS
Lois Jordan was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1883. She attended only grammar school before surrendering to the lure of the sea, working as a sailor and a ship’s steward for 17 years. When she retired from that occupation in 1917, she opened a little restaurant in Seattle, which prospered even though she routinely fed hungry wanderers free of charge, then two in Los Angeles. At some point, she had a son, Sydney, and a husband; what happened to her husband is unclear. She retired again and moved to San Francisco, where she rented a three-room apartment at 830 Bay Street. At the start of the Depression, she took in a family that would otherwise have been homeless and a widow whose fortune had been wiped out by the 1929 crash.
One day in January 1931, Jordan, Sydney, and a young sailor were driving past a junk-filled lot at Filbert and Battery Streets (the site of present-day Levi’s Plaza). “The sailor boy pointed out a group of men sitting upright against a mound of old anchor chains and told me they were starving,” Jordan later told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I went over to them and was shocked to find this was literally true.”
In another article by the same paper, Jordan revealed a soft spot for seamen. “My heart always goes out to sailors,” she told the reporter. “I sailed the seas for 17 years myself and I know those boys. Pretty helpless when they are shoreside. Do not know the ropes of city charity and too proud to ask.”
Sydney said, “Mother, let’s do something!” So she went home, cooked up a dish of beans and some other food on her three-burner stove, made a big pot of coffee, and drove it all to the lot. The grateful men devoured the meal. The next day, she did it again. And then again.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
As word got around that a kind woman was serving free hot meals on the waterfront, more and more hungry and often homeless men—not just sailors but men from all backgrounds, trades, and professions—began coming for aid. Soon there were 300 of them queued up for Jordan’s hearty stews and beans and soups—too many to cook for at home. So she built a camp-style stove on rocks with a sheet of tin on top. When the lines grew still longer, some soldiers lent her a field stove. By April, with a small number of volunteers helping with the cooking, she was serving 1,000 men a day or more. That number later grew to 2,000, who lined up at noon and 4:30 p.m. for the hot meals that Jordan dished out twice a day.
She soon began spending all day at her soup kitchen, taking up residence in a ship-like structure that some of the unemployed men built for her. (The lot was owned by Abe Ruef, the city’s onetime political boss who’d served close to five years in San Quentin after being convicted of bribery in the famous 1907 graft trials. Ruef allowed Jordan to use his land—an altruistic coda to a career characterized by self-dealing.) Jordan did not seek any publicity for herself and at first was simply called the White Angel, after the nurse-like white uniform and headgear she often wore. She disliked the nickname, saying, “I’ve only got two hands and two feet like anybody else.” Nonetheless, the area became known as the White Angel Jungle, the word jungle then being a term for a homeless encampment.
A HAPPY HOLIDAY
Jordan called the men she helped her “boys,” and she treated them as if they were her sons. All were welcome, regardless of their race or ethnicity. She not only fed the men who flocked to the jungle; she gave them clothing and shoes, lanced and dressed their wounds and blisters herself, and made sure they were bathed and shaved. She gave each of them individual attention, encouraging them, cajoling them, learning their stories.
“There is Texas Slim, 19, raised in an orphanage; says he never knew any mother but me,” she told the Chronicle as the men lined up for their meal. “The pals he started out with are all in Sing Sing but he kept straight. And there’s the bonus boy. Got his [army] bonus and went to Los Angeles to see his folks. They were about to lose their home so he gave them all his money and came back homeless himself to try to start over. That man over there needed a new glass eye. I went over to the wharf on payday and the longshoremen contributed a nickel apiece until I got the $15.”
Jordan’s boys worshipped the big, hearty, unfailingly cheerful woman in the white dress, famous for her two-handed ladling technique at mealtime. They called her Mother. On Christmas in 1931, they pooled their pennies and nickels and bought her a pink comb-and-brush set. She wept as she unwrapped the present.
Jordan had found her calling at the jungle after a physical and spiritual crisis. In the fall of 1930, she became gravely ill while in the hospital, with little chance of surviving. She vowed to dedicate her life to serving humanity if she lived. From that moment, she began to recover. Once back on her feet, she applied to a religious organization to become a missionary, but she was rejected because of her lack of education. She was disappointed. “But somewhere I knew there must be work for me to do,” she told the Chronicle. “It was not long until I found it here among my boys who need me so. I am mother to them.”
No city agency or organized charity helped Jordan. She convinced wholesale food dealers to donate wares. Individuals gave money. Spurred by appeals in the press, the women of San Francisco rummaged through their closets and donated their husbands’ old clothes and shoes. Jordan endeavored to make holidays festive: For Thanksgiving in 1931, the Chronicle reported, “a great barbecue feast of legs of pork has been donated to the jungle by the Butchers’ Board of Trade and will be cooked and served under the supervision of experts from the Butchers’ Unions. In addition a few turkeys have been sent there by individuals. Members of the State Harbor Commission have given 100 boxes of fresh grapes, and commission merchants and dealers have donated potatoes, jelly, candy and tobacco toward the holiday treat.”
Entertainers and artists volunteered their talents at the jungle. A San Francisco theater club presented skits and songs, using a piano donated by a downtown music store. A 30-piece orchestra played Respighi’s Pines of Rome and the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser to an appreciative audience. The head of the musicians’ union told the men that the organization sympathized with their plight and that many of their fellow musicians were also unemployed.
During the 25 months that she ran the White Angel Jungle, Jordan fed more than a million men. In early 1933, physically and mentally exhausted, she closed down the camp and opened a farm about 40 miles away, near Pleasanton, the White Angel Rancho, where a small colony of men could get back on their feet by working. “We feel that we are making a move to better ourselves,” Jordan said. “It will give the men a chance to get back to the land and be men again. It is better than subsisting upon charity.”
Meanwhile, some sailors from the jungle decided to show their appreciation to Jordan by building her a boat so she could go on a sea cruise. The 36-foot ketch, called the Kama (meaning “love” in Sanskrit), launched at Hunters Point in San Francisco. Jordan, Sydney, and three others later sailed the Kama to Tahiti, but Jordan cut short her trip after receiving word of problems at the farm.
The White Angel Rancho project lasted only a few years. As the Depression waned, Jordan found herself without a calling. She moved to Hunters Point and opened a grocery store, but her health soon declined. During World War II, she wept as she told the Chronicle that she wanted to help with the mobilization effort, driving a truck or caring for workers’ children. “They tell me I’m too old,” she said. “But I’m not.… I’m strong.”
A DEBT PAID
On April 19, 1949, Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote that Lois Jordan, the “White Angel of the Waterfront,” had just been released from the county hospital after two agonizing years. “Today, past 65, she lies ill and forgotten in a tiny cottage on Bacon st. in the Outer Mission.… ‘I feel so lonely and helpless, just lying here,’ she sighed the other day. ‘All I want to do is get well—so I can go around and help people again.’ ”
Caen’s column inspired a flood of letters and money from readers who remembered the White Angel’s work. But it was too late. Just two weeks after being discharged, she relapsed and was readmitted to the hospital. On April 28, 1949, Jordan died not knowing that the citizens for whom she had done so much remembered her.
Her legacy lives on in the city where more than 8,000 people today live without homes. Her approach to helping her boys—taking care of their immediate physical needs, recognizing that providing meaningful work was key to rebuilding self-esteem, and, above all, offering tough love—anticipated what are now often recognized as best practices in working with people who are homeless. Successful organizations like Downtown Streets Team and Project Homeless Connect use variants of the same approaches. Jordan’s boys were not as mentally and physically challenged as some of today’s homeless people are, but the principles remain the same.
Lois Jordan was once asked why she did what she did. “Just paying my debt in this world to humanity,” she answered. If the city of San Francisco ever erects a monument to its forgotten hero, those words should be inscribed on it. •