When you have records going back to 1874 — there are 20,000 boxes containing the equivalent of 60 million pieces of paper documents in the city of Seattle archives — you’re bound to come across some very unusual items.
With the perspective of history, many make you ask, “What?!”
Let others make their end-of-the-year or end-of-the-decade lists. Staff at the Seattle Municipal Archives take a longer view. Consider that Seattle was officially incorporated 150 years ago.
In between sifting through less-than-compelling committee reports from some city agency, the staff sets aside the interesting stuff for its “Find of the Month” section, which is posted on its website at www.seattle.gov/cityarchives.
Here you find the documents from 1956 when the city banned Elvis Presley from performing at the publicly owned Civic Auditorium.
Or the 1934 Seattle Parks Board deliberations that finally legalized the wearing of white swimsuits by women. That’s correct.
Or the letters that various Seattle mayors have received from an irate citizenry, such as the 1970 letter to then-Mayor Wes Uhlman that began, “Seattle got so bad with hippies, I just had to get out of that city.” The writer went on label Pike Place Market “a rat’s nest of hippies …”
The archives are the repository of Seattle’s history, although most of it from after 1889, the year the Great Seattle Fire burned the earlier records. It’s where you find 1.5 million photos taken by various city departments, and 3,000 maps and drawings. The material is a public record, free for public use.
A vast number of the holdings are on the web. Also, anyone can visit the archives on the third floor of City Hall at 600 Fourth Avenue. You can’t check out material, but there is a research room where visitors can make copies. The staff of five full-time and one half-time archivist say they’re always glad to help.
The “Find of the Month” was started in 2007, and is continually updated on the web.
“There is no method to the madness. It’s pretty random,” says Julie Kerssen, processing archivist, about how a Find is chosen. “Usually it’s something that got my attention.”
There are plenty of nuggets in those finds, and each find depicts the attitudes and sentiments of the era it represents. Here is a selection.
City-owned elk herd goes rogue
In 1913, there was a herd of Olympic elk at Woodland Park (“Zoo” had yet to be added to its name), brought in as elk were vanishing from the Olympic Peninsula due to hunters.
But elk do what elk do when they’re not getting shot. They propagate.
The city decided there were too many elk at Woodland Park, and about a half-dozen were turned loose at Seward Park. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
However, in September of that year, according to records, the “unwieldy herd” decided to swim across Lake Washington to Mercer Island. They spent several days on “a small ranch” owned by a Mrs. Agnes Olds, where they proceeded to munch on and generally damage her garden and fruit orchard.
Mrs. Olds demanded compensation from the city, and on Jan. 9, 1914, Seattle Parks awarded her $125 (about $3,200 in today’s dollars).
For some reason, the board then considered shipping the elk to Australia in exchange for birds, although news stories at the time don’t specify what kind of birds. An April 28, 1914, Seattle Times story said the state game warden balked at that idea, saying he wasn’t shipping Olympic elk to a foreign country. The elk eventually found homes elsewhere in the state.
Women allowed to wear white swimsuits
On May 8, 1934, the Seattle Park Board voted to update regulations concerning attire at public beaches. The archives has a letter that the University Book Store’s sporting goods manager wrote to the board.
“It does seem absurd that we should be forced to conform to them,” meaning the regulations, he wrote, “when no one wants them.”
However, the board held the line at “bra” swimsuits, not allowing women to wear suits that showed skin between the tops and the bottoms.
As for men, the board rescinded the regulation that they had to wear tops along with their swimming trunks. Now they could go bare-chested.
Elvis banned in Seattle
In October 1956, a promoter wanted to book Elvis Presley for a show at the publicly owned Civic Auditorium, now the site of McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center. This was the year that Elvis rocketed to national fame with such singles as “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.”
But the assistant manager of the Civic Auditorium wasn’t having Elvis at the venue.
He said he feared a repeat of what had happened when rock’n’roll pioneers Bill Haley and His Comets performed at the venue that past June.
“The kids ran up and down the aisles, congregated around the stage, broke up some seats, tore down some decorations and got out of hand generally,” he told The Times. “It’s not the type of music we are objecting to. It’s the fact that there’s a very real opportunity for a riot with someone like Elvis Presley.”
Teen girls were upset, and in October 1956 took to writing the Seattle City Council about the injustice of it all, letters preserved in the archives.
Donna from Foster High in Tukwila wrote the council, “I am begging you … What did we teen-agers ever do to deserve this? (Nothing!) … this is our period of time and Elvis is our idol! … WE WANT ELVIS!”
But the City Council, perhaps wisely, refused to look into the matter.
Elvis did come to Seattle the following year, on Sept. 1, 1957, and played to more than 16,000 fans at the privately owned baseball park, Sicks’ Stadium.
The Seattle Times said the audience was composed of “90 per cent teen-age girls,” who responded with “crazed female shrieks” at Elvis’ “first quivering bump to his last vigorous grind. … Vulgar is the kindest way to describe Presley’s pulsating gyrations.”
The only damage that night at Sicks’ Stadium, said The Times story, “was the theft of a tail light from a convertible which somebody mistook for Presley’s.”
Letters that mayors get
The archives have compiled quite a collection of letters to Seattle’s mayors. Not surprisingly, the letters often reflect the era in which they were written.
That 1970 “hippies” letter to Mayor Uhlman was written in all capital letters, and, for emphasis, certain words and phrases were underlined.
“A Skid-Road with hippies” is how the writer described Pike Street as it led to the entrance of the Pike Place Market.
Sounding a refrain that might sound familiar in 2020, the letter writer said, “They all write their hippie friends to ‘come to Seattle and get on welfare. They’ll feed us in Seattle.’ ”
In May 1965, Mayor Dorm Braman was the recipient of a number of letters concerning “Identified Communist Pete Seeger.” The folk singer was going to perform at the Opera House.
The writer, a woman who signed her letter, cited city ordinance 91981 that prohibited “the rental or use of any city-owned buildings … to any subversive organization, or member thereof.”
She pleaded, “… communism is a conspiracy to destroy our free way of life under God … communism uses the arts – including music perhaps most of all – to destroy us.”
Braman replied to the letters with a measured tone.
“I don’t think I need to assure you that I have the greatest dislike for Communism …,” he wrote back.
But, he pointed out, there was the matter, you know, of needing “to protect the rights of an individual in an instance such as this, rather than some broad concept of political morality.”