As the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love draws near, we're running a series of stories that look back at some of the people and places most associated with the countercultural movement.
As part of our Summer of Love 50th anniversary series, we are flashing back to the San Francisco Oracle, the underground newspaper known for weaving spirituality, poetry and progressive ideas with psychedelic imagery in the mid to late sixties.
The publication was only distributed for about two years (from September 1966 to January 1968), but it became well-known around the world for its countercultural vision and unique form during the social and political movements of the time.
The San Francisco Oracle was founded and edited by poet Allen Cohen, who was inspired by Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" to drive from New York to San Francisco. After Cohen arrived in North Beach, he got in on the Beat poet scene, developing friendships with Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and other artists before going to the Upper Haight, where the '60s counterculture was taking shape.
In September 1966, Cohen produced the newspaper’s first issue, called "P.O. Frisco," out of a storefront on Frederick Street. It was printed in black-and-white and featured local Beat writer and playwright Michael McClure, along with a review of his controversial play, "The Beard." The issue also advocated for LSD guru Timothy Leary’s message to “turn on, tune in, drop out."
The second issue of the newspaper was produced out of offices behind the Print Mint on Haight St., but once the publication developed a need for more space, the Oracle later moved to larger offices at 1371 Haight (near Masonic), where it was open 24 hours a day.
The first “truly psychedelic issue” of the Oracle was the "Human Be-In" (January 1967, issue 5), which marked a sharp increase in readership. It had a color front cover designed by Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley and Michael Bowen that announced “The Gathering of the Tribes" in Golden Gate Park. The event was an influential precursor to the Summer of Love, and credited with introducing the word "psychedelic" to suburbanites.
The worker-owned cooperative saw its heyday when Cohen and art director Michael Bowen were at the helm. They guided the Oracle to experiment with printing techniques using a four-unit offset press, which allowed the publication to create ornate, colorful images of mandalas, pyramids and other psychedelic designs.
At a Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council meeting on June 8th, longtime Haight area resident Arthur Round spoke about his experiences as a staff member at the Oracle in the '60s. He described how the newspaper's color artist Hetti McGee would stand in front of the giant presses, squirting colored ink onto the rollers with ketchup bottles.
“She would put cedar or patchouli oils in the ink so that when issue number six came out, it smelled different than other issues," he recalled. He added that if customers ordered bundles of newspapers, they would emit a strong scent of whatever oil was used on that day.
We also reached out to Richard Kuczynski, a collector of San Francisco vintage postcards, advertisements and mailers, who owns almost an entire collection of San Francisco Oracle newspapers, in addition to the Haight Ashbury Maverick, another newspaper created on the Haight around that time.
Kuczynski, who has lived in San Francisco since the mid-seventies, told us that “the world of journalism was changed by those 12 newspapers that were issued on the Haight.”
“Issues three through nine were the best ones because they gave you the entire visual impact,” he said, calling the the Oracle's evolving color scheme “amazing.”
Kuczynski said that he collects the newspapers because he likes to travel back through history as he reads them. “What the San Francisco Oracle did in a very short span of time changed the world,” he said.
Throughout the summer, the entire collection of the Oracle's cover artwork can be explored at the de Young Museum’s Summer of Love exhibit, which will run through August 20th.