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May 9, 2016

Discovery of the Month: Foreign Fairy Tales (World War II era)

Presidio archaeologists discovered a book of Italian fairy tales while renovating a historic building.


As the sun goes down, many find a good book a comforting way to escape one’s thoughts and settle into sleep. This is why our Discovery of the Month is so special – it’s a book of fairy tales read long ago by a very unusual resident of the Presidio. There’s one thing that makes it unique: it’s written in Italian!

A book of Italian fairy tales, entitled Incantesimi delle Fate or “Spells of the Fairies,” was found in Building 104 when that former U.S. Army barracks on Montgomery Street was being transformed into the new home of the Walt Disney Family Museum. It was discovered in 2008 in a “soffit box,” a secret cubby hole of sorts resulting from the unusual way the building’s roof meets its outer walls. Each of the brick barracks buildings contain about 400 soffit boxes in the attic. Over the years, Presidio Trust archaeologists have made many discoveries here.

So how did a book of fairy stories written in Italian end up here? Towards the end of World War II when Italy surrendered to the Allied forces, many of the Italian prisoners of war held in the United States joined Italian Service Units, providing support to the U.S. military in exchange for some freedom and improved living quarters. One of these Italian Service Units was stationed at the Presidio and was housed in Building 104. Our book of fairy tales very likely belonged to an Italian soldier who lived in the Presidio during these months.

It’s not difficult to imagine a young man, far from home and in a strange land, reading this book of fairy tales at the end of the day to remind him of home, finding comfort in memories of a simpler time before the war.​

Make Your Own Discoveries

To witness archaeology in action, come visit our Live Archaeology Dig every Friday and Saturday, 10 am to 2 pm, May 6 through May 28 AND June 24 through October 15.

Guided tours of the Presidio Archaeology Lab are held every Wednesday from 1 to 2 pm.