SIGNS HAVE BEEN used for centuries to advertise goods and services. They serve as important parts of the urban landscape, directing the public where to eat, drink and find a room for the night. From theater marquees to the fluorescent glow of an eye-catching billboard, they trigger nostalgia and add visual character to towns and cities across the world. In Seattle, the giant Rainier “R,” the Pike Place Market neon clock and the rotating Pink Elephant have become as iconic as the Space Needle.
Unknown to most people, though, is that a real-life Rosie the Riveter designed several of Seattle’s most revered signs, starting back in the 1940s. Her name was Beatrice Haverfield, and her creative work has helped shape Seattle’s metropolitan identity.
The origin of electric signs can be traced back to the early 20th century, when incandescent light bulbs were first used to brighten roadside signs for early motorists. In the mid-1920s, a new invention called the neon tube quickly became a popular phenomenon in the sign industry. The colors were bright, and the tubes could be modeled into any shape imaginable. The first neon signs were dubbed “liquid fire” and were so eye-catching that people would stop and stare at them even in the daytime.
As these new electric signs were illuminating the dawn of the 20th century, a local Finnish couple gave birth to a baby girl in 1913. Named Beatrice, the girl displayed incredible artistic talent from a young age. Bea also was raised with a very strong work ethic. Her mother worked tirelessly as a chef at the prestigious Olympic Hotel, while her dad, August Kivi, worked long hours at the Seattle Gas Light Company on a strip of Lake Union waterfront now known as Gas Works Park.
Despite their hectic work schedules, the Kivis always encouraged Bea’s creative endeavors, which were being shaped by the world around her, including the electric glow of Seattle’s new outdoor advertising, such as the famous Public Market Center clock sign that was hoisted over the entrance of Pike Place Market in 1928. A year later, the world’s largest neon sign was installed atop the Roosevelt Hotel, brightly telegraphing the hotel’s name to visitors all across the city.
WHILE IN HIGH SCHOOL, Bea became friends with Elden Fisler — another student with strong artistic skills — and the two began dating. They eventually married. After graduation, the young couple used their combined artistic talents and started their own sign business. Bea designed the signs, while Elden brought her sketches to life in his fabrication workshop.
As the young couple got their sign business up and running, the world around them was becoming more and more volatile. Once the United States entered World War II, in 1941, Elden enlisted in the Navy, and Bea entered the Rosie the Riveter phase of her life, working in an aviation factory at the Boeing airfield. With most of the men away fighting, more than 40% of Boeing’s workforce was women, who labored every day making parts for aircraft used in the war. These were perilous times for the couple: Elden saw plenty of maritime combat aboard the USS Cofer, a Navy destroyer in the Pacific Theater.
After the war, Elden returned home, and the couple resumed their sign business. At some point, they folded their small business into Campbell Neon, which, at the time, was the city’s largest sign company. It made sense to join such a well-established firm, and the Campbells welcomed them as important members of the family business.
Bea immediately became one of the lead designers, stationing herself at a large wooden drafting table, where she had ample room to draw her sketches. An airbrush was always nearby in order to add any important color elements. As before, Elden worked in the fabrication shop. It was a small, tight-knit business where everyone worked hard together. At the end of the workday, the entire crew would head over to a nearby greasy-spoon diner, The Dog House, for strong drinks and hearty food.
Overall, these were happy and productive times for the blue-collar artist, whose design work was starting to blossom. Indeed, Bea’s work at the time was almost certainly a reflection of Seattle itself, as the cityscape was undergoing exciting visual changes. New buildings were going up, and the downtown skyline was set aglow with striking new signage, including one of Seattle’s most famous neon landmarks, installed on the roof of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in November 1948: a three-part megalithic globe with an eagle perched on top and a rotating banner in the middle that read, “It’s in The P-I” in 8-foot-tall letters.
AROUND THE SAME TIME, Bea’s career had its official start when eccentric restaurateur Ivar Haglund hired Campbell Neon to create a sign for his waterfront fish-and-chips place on Pier 54. As the lead designer, Bea was tasked with the design work for this important client. The result was an eye-catching “Ivars” sign that still lights up the Elliott Bay boardwalk today.
Next up was a unique boomerang-shaped design she created for a new surplus supply store on Rainier Avenue. Named Chubby & Tubby, and opened in 1947, the Seattle institution eventually would become one of the city’s top shopping destinations for its working-class population. Bea’s family still has the original sketch for this sign, in which Bea’s emerging talent was on full display.
With Seattle enjoying a postwar boom, sign orders started pouring in for all the new businesses that were opening. Bea’s sketches from this period reflect a prolific output of sign design — everything from toy stores to pharmacies, many of which have long since gone out of business. This included the neon sign that once hung on the Hats ’n’ Boots gas station in South Seattle and a Sunny Jim sign that once graced Highway 99.
Despite this creative zenith, Bea’s marriage to Elden had come to an end, though they remained on amicable terms. In fact, the two of them continued to work together at Neon Campbell well into the 1950s. In the meantime, she married Robert Haverfield, and the two of them started a family, eventually having three children together.
Even with her new familial obligations, Bea continued to break new ground with her design work, including for one of Seattle’s most cherished burger joints. A new drive-in-style diner was scheduled to open in the Wallingford neighborhood, and the owner, Dick Spady, hired Campbell Neon to make a sign. The result was the famous yellow and orange “Dick’s Hamburgers” that now welcomes visitors to all its local franchises. The cursive fonts used in the Ivar’s and Dick’s Drive-In signs are both Bea’s own elegant handwriting. As her daughter, Kathleen, recalls, “She had beautiful penmanship, and the lettering in some of her signs was simply her own natural writing.”
Bea created her pièce de résistance in the mid-1950s, when she was put in charge of designing a sign for a local car-washing business: Elephant Car Wash. The business was one of the country’s first semi-automated car washes, and it wanted a sign that was both spectacular and memorable for passing motorists. Bea went right to work on this new custom order, pouring herself into creating one of her best designs: a masterpiece of motion, light and kitsch. Installed on Battery Street in 1956, the rotating sign is comprised of bent neon with 380 blinking lights, and is unarguably one of the city’s crown jewels. This piece was important to Bea not just on a professional level, but on a deeply personal one, too. The four smaller elephants at the base of the sign are a tribute to her four children: two of them with blue bows on their heads, for her two sons, and two of them with pink bows, for her two daughters. Since it was unveiled, the sign has become one of the most-recognizable and -photographed landmarks in Seattle, appearing in commercials, TV shows and even a few movies.
BEA’S OLDEST DAUGHTER, Barbara, joined the company when she was in her 20s, doing design work alongside her mother, whose work continued well into the next decade.
In 1963, Bea helped design the first sign for the Cinerama movie theater in the Belltown neighborhood. She was especially proud of that sign, always pointing it out to her children when they passed by. A few years after the unveiling of the Cinerama sign, Bea’s career as a sign artist was abruptly cut short when her car was rear-ended on Rainier Avenue by a large semitruck. The impact was so strong that her car was pushed all the way across the intersection, and Bea suffered several injuries, including some vision loss, according to her daughter Kathleen.
Afterward, Bea was not able to do the fine design work necessary for her job and eventually decided to resign from Campbell Neon in 1968. That same year, her former husband, Elden, passed away from cancer.
In 1969, she accepted an executive secretarial position at South Seattle Community College, where she became a much-beloved faculty member. As Kathleen recalls, “She was super-well-liked by the students there. They would go to her for advice, and I know she felt proud that she could assist young people that way.” This was during the Vietnam War, and Bea had become active in anti-war protests. She even joined some of the students in a cross-country train ride for a large march in Washington, D.C. She felt strongly that injustice was being done, Kathleen says, and this social activism felt gratifying and provided her with a much-needed sense of purpose.
Sadly, this period of contentment came to an unfortunate end on Nov. 4, 1975, when police discovered two bodies inside a popular bar in South Seattle. Bea was on her way to work when she heard on the car radio about a double homicide. Her heart sank when it was announced the bodies had been found at The Bear Cave, a well-known strip club. Her daughter Barbara was engaged to the owner of the club and spent quite a bit of time there.
Barbara and her fiancé, Frank Hinkley, had been shot with a .45-caliber handgun, and police had no immediate suspects. In fact, the deaths remained unsolved for almost 30 years, until 2003, when the cold case was reopened, eventually leading to an arrest. It was a particularly brutal murder, with suspected but ultimately unproved connections to local organized crime figures who viewed Hinkley as a business rival in the strip-club business.
Bea never fully recovered from the loss and, afterward, was prone to anxiety, worrying excessively over unanswered phone calls or a family member’s tardiness for a scheduled gathering. She became more reclusive but still enjoyed doodling and sketching with visiting grandchildren, several of whom are now local artists. This includes Barbara’s two surviving daughters, Susan Rosenfield and Lori Rudolph, and pop surrealist Eli Wolff, who recently completed a painting of the famous car-wash sign as a tribute to his late grandmother. As Susan proudly points out, “She passed along her artistic DNA to all of us.”
Bea died in 1996, just as Seattle was making the transformation from a blue-collar town to the technopolis it is today. She was 83.
NOW, LIKE THE city itself, the sign industry is rapidly changing. Neon signs require expensive upkeep and maintenance; many businesses are switching to more affordable ones that use LED lighting. As a result, neon signage has become something of a lost art, evocative of another era, when Seattle was still a working-class town known as “Jet City.”
Unfortunately, like so many of Seattle’s old landmarks, the fate of the Elephant Car Wash sign currently is in jeopardy. The property it sits on is for sale, with its location and land use possibilities marketed toward real estate developers. Despite the unknown fate of Bea’s famous neon elephant, many of her signs are still on prominent display, helping to provide illuminated comfort during the dark winter months while auspiciously serving as symbols of the city’s past.
Reflecting on Bea’s legacy, her grandson, Eli, says, “Grandma Bea’s art and designs have been part of the Seattle skyline my whole life. Every time I see one of her signs, I feel like she is alive and watching over my own artistic journey that she inspired in me.”