San Francisco Public Library

Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor

Image of Nat Schmulowitz
Nat Schmulowitz
Nat Schmulowitz, a nationally known attorney, civic leader and bibliophile, was born in New York City on March 29, 1889, and moved to San Francisco with his parents when he was nine years old. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1910; two years later he received his law degree from Hastings College of the Law.

Although he specialized in probate and corporate law, Mr. Schmulowitz earned a national reputation in 1921 with his successful defense of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in one of the most sensational murder trials of the 1920s. He became the senior partner in the firm of Gavin McNab, Schmulowitz, Sommer and Wyman when Mr. McNab died in 1927.

Mr. Schmulowitz was a member of the Library Commission of San Francisco for seven years and served as president of that body in 1944. On April Fool’s Day, 1947, as a measure of his interest in the Library, he donated ninety-three volumes, including an edition of the Hundred Merry Tales, towards the establishment of the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor (SCOWAH).

Through the years he continued to add to the collection with donations of books, sometimes at the rate of one hundred items per month. In his diligent and far-reaching search, Mr. Schmulowitz combed bookshops all over the world for suitable works. As a result, SCOWAH is one of the most extensive collections of its kind in the world, numbering at present over 20,000 volumes and 160 periodical titles, as well as a variety of other materials, in more than 35 languages and dialects, and spanning more than four centuries. In addition to such rarities as the Facetiae of Poggio, the works of Nasreddin Hoca, and Joe Miller joke books, the reader will also find the latest issues of periodicals such as Nebelspalter (Switzerland), Eulen-spiegel (Germany), Le Canard enchaîné (France), Lao Fu Tzu (Hong Kong) and, of course, Mad Magazine.

Following Mr. Schmulowitz’s death in 1966, Kay Schmulowitz, his sister, continued to support the collection with generous donations of funds, books and periodicals until her death in June 1984. Income from the combined bequests of both Nat and Kay Schmulowitz assists substantially in maintaining this outstanding collection.

SCOWAH comprises a wide range of wit and humor: readers will find international fairy tales and folklore, proverbs, national and ethnic humor, anecdotes, joke books, cartoons and comic books, political satire, biography, humorous essays, monologues, plays and novels, popular entertainments, movable books, and literary, historical and popular culture studies. The works of the The New Yorker and Punch writers and artists are well represented, with a full run of Punch (1841-2002) here as well. The collection also includes humorous ephemera and the correspondence and scrapbooks of Nat Schmulowitz.

SCOWAH serves all levels of interests, from the curious reader to serious scholar. Local speakers and humorists consult the collection for material, and it draws inquiries, researchers and visitors from all corners of the world. Housed in the Book Arts & Special Collections Center, SCOWAH is one of the Library’s truly unique research collections.

Access to this non-circulating collection is through the online catalog as well as the department’s card catalog. A book catalog, which is also available to readers, was published in 1962; Supplement One was published in 1972. The library is working to make the entire collection available to the public through the online catalog.

A vain man, a frightened man, a bigoted man, or an angry man, cannot laugh at himself or be laughed at; but the man who can laugh at himself or be laughed at has taken another step towards the perfect sanity which brings peace on earth and good will to men.

Credo of Nat Schmulowitz