Ye Olde Curiosity Shop
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Ye Olde Curiosity Shop is a store on the Central Waterfront of Seattle, Washington, United States, founded in 1899. It has moved several times, mainly within the waterfront area, and is now located on Pier 54. Best known today as a souvenir shop, it also has aspects of a dime museum, and was for many years an important supplier of Northwest Coast art to museums. As of 2008, the store has been owned by four generations of the same family.
In 1933, the Seattle Star named Ye Olde Curiosity Shop one of the "Seven Wonders of Seattle", the only shop on the list. The other six Wonders were the harbor, the Ballard Locks, the Boeing airplane factory, the Seattle Art Museum, the Pike Place Market and the University District's Edmond Meany Hotel (now Hotel Deca).
The shop was founded in 1899 by J. E. "Daddy" Standley (born February 24, 1854, in Steubenville, Ohio). He had already traded somewhat in curios and Indian goods as a grocer in Denver, Colorado. When he moved to Seattle in 1899 because his wife's health required a lower altitude, he encountered a boom town supplying and benefitting from the Klondike Gold Rush. He founded the business in 1899. An exhibit at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P Exposition) in Seattle drew tourists, scholars, anthropologists and collectors and was enormous publicity for his already somewhat famous shop. It also won Standley a gold medal in the category of ethnological collections.
Standley's shop presented a jumbled mix of curiosities and significant art objects. He collected and sold what came his way, but also had local Native American artists make objects to his specifications. He sold genuine Tlingit totem poles, but also replicas by carvers descended from the Vancouver Island-based Nuu-chah-nulth tribe, who were living in Seattle, and even inexpensive souvenir totem poles made in Japan. A flair for the bizarre and grotesque led him to include items such as shrunken heads from the Amazon (some of them definitely genuine, others probably not).
In addition to the shop, Standley built a home he called "Totem Place" on a 1-acre (4,000 m2) estate in West Seattle. The estate's collection of totem poles, whale bones, and other curiosities replete with a Japanese-style teahouse and a miniature log cabin drew sightseeing tourists in its own right.
In 1937 Standley, at the age of 83, was hit by a car on Alaskan Way, the road along the Seattle waterfront, and his leg was broken. He never fully recovered, although he remained active in the business to within 4 days of his death on October 25, 1940. Standley's son Edward joined the shop in 1907 and worked there until his death in 1945. Russell James first joined the business in 1912 and eventually married Standley's daughter. Except for his service in World War I, James worked there until 1952. Standley's grandson Joe James began working in the shop in 1946, and operated the business for over 50 years. Joe James's son Andy and daughter Debbie were also involved in running the business from at least the 1980s.
The shop's current owners, the aforementioned Andy James and his wife Tammy, also owned Market Street Traders (founded 2007 closed 2010) in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Market Street Traders specialized in fair trade goods. Prior to that, for about 25 years, the Jameses operated a second waterfront store on Pier 55, known at various times as Waterfront Landmark and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop Too. Ye Olde Curiosity Shop Too closed around the same time Market Street Traders opened.
Name and location
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop began in late 1899 as Standley's Free Museum and Curio on Second Avenue at Pike Street. It moved in November 1901 to 82 W. Madison, across from the old Rainier Grand Hotel on Front Street (now First Avenue). At that time the store was called The Curio; it soon became Standley's Curio. In June 1904 Standley moved his store to the waterfront, renamed it after Charles Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop, and adopted the motto "Beats the Dickens."
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Indian Curio—the latter portion of the name was dropped around 1907—settled in at 813 on Railroad Avenue on Colman Dock. It would reside on Colman Dock for over 50 years, occupying several different locations on the dock and leaving briefly during periods when the dock was being remodeled. From February 7, 1916, to January 1, 1917, the shop operated on Second Avenue near Virginia Street. From some time in January 1937 to June 1, 1937, operated from 814 First Avenue near Columbia Street.
In 1963, as the Washington State Ferries system was taking over and completely reworking Colman Dock, the shop moved to the next pier north, Pier 51 (now also part of the ferry terminal). The Pier 51 store was designed by Paul Thiry and modeled after a longhouse. In April 1988, the shop moved to Pier 54 next to Ivar's Acres of Clams. Over a million objects were moved.
In September of 2014, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop closed for nine months due to the rebuilding of the seawall on the Seattle central waterfront. It reopened on July 1st, 2015. Six months later, in January 2016, the shop closed for 2 months to move to their current location, at the back of Pier 54. They reopened in March of 2016 in their newly-built store.
In recent times, the shop has about 1 million visitors a year. The shop has had many notable customers over the years. Visitors have included Teddy Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Jack Dempsey, Charlie Chaplin, Red Skelton, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, James Van Der Beek, and Sylvester Stallone. Cartoonist Robert Ripley of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" bought totem poles and other crafts for his New York estate. The store's logs show that Queen Marie of Romania visited and "sat in the Chinese chair" and that Louis Tiffany bought "curios, idols and a mammoth tusk,"
Many museum collections include items purchased from the shop, mostly objects from the Arctic regions. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has several such items, including a Haida stone totem pole and a mammoth tusk engraved with scenes of Eskimo life in an Arctic village. George Gustav Heye made many purchases from the shop for his Museum of the American Indian which later formed the core collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Newark Museum in New Jersey also features a collection from the shop, including Tlingit tools and woven baskets. The shop also supplied museums in Cleveland, Ohio, Portland, Oregon and at the University of Washington. Standley normally gave museums a 35% discount, and occasionally donated items outright. It was a point of pride for him that his shop supplied such institutions.
As late as the period from 1976 though 1980, the shop auctioned off 2,000 pieces of Native American art.
Goods and exhibits
At least one of the shop's historic suppliers was of comparable fame to any of its visitors: Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle (after whom the city is named) made baskets which were later sold there.
In its early years, much of the shop's stock came from Alaska. Standley acquired both recent and older Alaskan works of art and craft, as well as natural history specimens, from whalers, traders, revenue cutter captains, Alaska Natives (always referred to at the time as "Eskimos") visiting Seattle, and Alaska shopkeepers functioning as middlemen. Some of those who brought him items, especially in the early years, are likely to have stolen those from their rightful owners in Alaska or to have dug them out of archaeological deposits. Native Alaskan Yup'iks and Inupiats, who had long been traders, were happy to find a market for items they considered "good for nothing" worn-out cast-off tools and implements.
From quite early times, Standley established what Kate Duncan calls the "scrim… [of] large and disparate natural history specimens and curios dangling from the ceiling and standing about" that dominates the shop visually and "transform[s] even the known into the curious".
Items for sale in recent times range from dime-store trinkets to a $10,000 totem pole. As of 2007, these included a $1.50 tailpipe whistle, bullwhips, jumping beans, matreshka dolls from Russia, first-rate vegetable ivory carvings, goatskin imitation shrunken heads from Ecuador, and the usual run of Seattle souvenirs. In the 1920s, the shop had at least six separate suppliers in Texas making sewing baskets from the shell of an armadillo, which would be lined with satin, and the tail fastened to the neck area to form a handle.
Nowadays, the most culturally significant items still in the store's collection are not for sale, though they are out to be viewed. Items on display but not for sale include an early 19th-century Russian samovar, dozens of totem poles, East Asian weapons, woven cedar mats and fir needle baskets, netsuke, jade carvings, narwhal tusks, and a walrus oosik. Also on display are two mummified human bodies, "Sylvester" and "Sylvia". "Sylvester" (acquired in 1955) functions as an informal symbol of the shop. For years, the general belief has been that he was the victim of a late 19th-century shooting in the Arizona desert, and that the extreme dryness of the desert naturally mummified the body. However, CT scans in 2001, 2005 and an MRI in 2005 suggest an embalmer injected an arsenic-based fluid shortly after death. The body is one of the best-preserved mummies known. Newly published information and a photograph from 1892 indicate that "Sylvester," originally named "McGinty," belonged to confidence man "Soapy" Smith until he sold it 1895 in Hillyard, Washington.
While Sylvester is almost certainly what the shop claims him to be, other artifacts are of far more dubious origins. The shop makes no claim of comparable pedigree for its taxidermically stuffed mermaid.
One of the store's several coin-operated attractions is Black Bart, a rather literal take on the phrase "one-armed bandit". It is a slot machine in the form of a one-armed 6-foot-5-inch (1.96 m) wood and cast-iron model of a Wild West bandit. In the mid-1980s, the state gambling commission had the Seattle police confiscate it as an illegal gambling device, even though the shop had converted it to dispense tokens with images of the Space Needle, Kingdome and other local attractions. A month later, the commission conceded that Black Bart did not meet the criteria for a gambling device, and Black Bart was back in the store with a sign saying "On parole. Out on good behavior."
Standley and his shop were instrumental in the world's perceiving Seattle as within the region associated strongly with totem poles, even though traditionally those had been associated with areas farther north. The cultural effect of the hybrid or imitative art fostered by Standley and the shop can be clearly seen as early as 1909, when anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon, in Seattle to lecture at the A-Y-P Exposition purchased 109 items from the shop for the Horniman Free Museum. Among the items purchased were a carved club in the shape of a seal made as a tourist item, and at least two masks that had been copied by local carvers from Boas's illustrations.
In the early 20th century, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop was, as author Kate Duncan wrote in 2001, "the most varied and visible Indian collection in the city" and "became a stop for visiting Indians and Eskimos, as it remains today." The shop's guest book showed visits from prominent Indians including chiefs of the Cheyenne and Lakota. Most notable in Standley's view, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce visited in 1902, two years before his death.
Consequently, Standley and his shop had an enormous influence on what was perceived as "authentic" to these cultures. While he always accurately presented (for example) ivory cribbage boards as tourist goods, he was probably himself not aware of the extent to which ivory miniatures and carved tusks from Alaska or Athapaskan beadwork were also hybrid goods produced for the tourist trade that had begun with the gold rush. Similarly, his exhibits in his store and elsewhere did not distinguish between pre-contact and post-contact artifacts.
Closer to home, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop also influenced local Seattle retailing of Indian artifacts. At the time Ye Olde Curiosity Shop was founded, the few existing Seattle shops selling Indian artifacts were focused mainly on baskets; such shops were mostly short-lived, although Emma M. Rhodes and her partner Fred B. Kendall operated at least from 1901 to 1914, offering a somewhat broader inventory. While Ye Olde Curiosity Shop was the unquestionable local leader in its field well beyond Standley's lifetime, its success brought some serious local rivals into the business. The Hudson Bay Fur Company (later Alaska Fur Company, no relation to the Hudson's Bay Company), founded in the 1880s, established a curio department in the 1900s with a stock similar to Standley's, though not as extensive. That department lasted into the 1940s; the business closed in the 1950s. Mack's Totem Shop was a smaller shop, very near Ye Olde Curiosity Shop along the raised pedestrian walkway that runs along Marion Street from Colman Dock to First Avenue. It operated from 1933 at least into the 1950s. All of these shops commissioned items from many of the same Nuu-chah-nulth carvers living in Seattle, as did several other less notable shops.
The shop was also influential, or at least ahead of its time, in welcoming people from all walks of life, including those for whom such a store was only ever likely to function as a museum, not as a retail outlet.
Further J. E. Standley influence in Seattle
Standley was a constant booster of Seattle, to the point of being described toward the end of his life as a "one-man-chamber-of-commerce". Not all of his influence in Seattle was through the shop itself. From 1904, he provided exhibits for the informal museum of the city's Alaska Club (merged in 1908 into the Arctic Club). He provided an ethnological exhibit for the 1909 A-Y-P Exposition's Alaska Building, as well as lending natural history specimens for the Washington State Building. His Alaskan ethnological exhibit won the exposition's gold medal in its category, and its contents were eventually purchased by George Gustav Heye for the Museum of the American Indian in New York.
Also at the time of the A-Y-P Exposition, he helped promote the then-private Ravenna Park not far north of the exposition grounds. At the time, the park still contained a considerable number of old growth trees, as well as various tourist amenities. Standley provided a set of six totem poles and a war canoe for the private park and played a role in the sale of the park to the city in 1911.
- Robert L. Jamieson, Jr., Ye Olde Curiosity Shop: Curiosities galore keep luring people to waterfront, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 7, 1999. Accessed online October 22, 2008.
- Duncan 2001, p. ix
- Jack Broom, From kitsch to culture: New book links curio shop to world museums, Seattle Times, April 1, 2001. Accessed online October 22, 2008.
- The over 100-year history of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (official site). Accessed online October 23, 2008.
- Jack Broom, Oh, Come All Ye Curious—100-Year-Olde Shop A Big Success, Definitely Not A Dowdy Centenarian, July 17, 1999. Accessed online October 23, 2008.
- John Hahn, Shop's Mummies & Mermaid to Make Monumental Move, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 4, 1988, p. B1. Accessed online October 23, 2008.
- Kathy Mulady, Retail Notebook: Couple in Ballard focus their curiosity on fair trade, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 17, 2007. Accessed online October 22, 2008.
- Gordy Holt, Short Trips: Store piles on the unusual in bits and pieces, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 19, 2007. Accessed online October 22, 2008.
- Duncan 2001, p. 94.
- Duncan 2001, p. 85 et. seq..
- Duncan 2001, p. 93.
- Duncan 2001, p. 41 et. seq.
- Duncan 2001, p. 57
- Janet I. Tu, Scanning reveals inside scoop on local mummies, Seattle Times, April 29, 2001. Accessed online October 23, 2008.
- Keith Ervin, CT tells mummy's secret: Preservation no accident, Seattle Times, November 20, 2005. Accessed online October 23, 2008.
- Smith, Jeff (2009). Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, Klondike Research. pp. 237–45, 395–96. ISBN 0-9819743-0-9
- Duncan 2001, pp. 21–22
- Duncan 2001, pp. 12–13
- Duncan 2001, p. 27
- Duncan 2001, pp. 62, 66
- Duncan 2001, p. 25
- Duncan 2001, pp. 33–34
- Duncan 2001, pp. 34–35
- Duncan 2001, pp. 41–43
- Duncan 2001 passim, especially p. 220 for the quotation.
- Duncan 2001, pp. 61–62
- Duncan 2001, pp. 64–65
- Duncan 2001, p. 66
- Duncan 2001, p. 83
- Duncan 2001, pp. 73–78
- Duncan, Kate C. (2001), 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art, University of Washington Press, ISBN 0-295-98010-9.
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