2012 Find of the Month Archive

Municipal Band and Orchestra

In 1926, the Chief of Police wrote a lengthy letter to City Council requesting that Seattle establish a Municipal Band and Orchestra "which will function on call for Federal, State, and Municipal celebrations or entertainments." At that point, a Seattle Police Band had been in existence for eleven years, but the Chief argued for its promotion and funding as an official city group, saying, "It is my thought that this city is large enough and important enough to afford a Municipal Band."

The existing Police Band consisted of 25 members of the Police Department as well as five members of the Fire Department. The letter highlighted the accomplishments of the band, noting that at many civic events, "without our own music, the occasion loses its gaiety and enthusiasm." The group performed for a variety of audiences, including veterans, children, hospital patients, and shut-ins, and appeared at civic events from flag raisings to picnics to bridge dedications.

The letter went on to quote at length many testimonials and letters of thanks from groups who appreciated the band's performances. The Red Cross stated that concerts "seem to be one of the most beneficial forms of entertainment for the men [at the Veterans Hospital], and it is very apparent to all that the music puts life into them as nothing else can." The manager of the Pantages Theatre, noting the amount of applause they received there, hoped "that arrangements can be made whereby we may play the Band for a return engagement."

After noting all the praise the group had received, the letter went on to make its pitch: "The Band has done all in its power to inspire the community and for this reason the community should in turn encourage the Band." A suggested ordinance included an extra $15 per month for each band member and an extra $60 per month for the band director, as well as a provision that band engagements be considered a day's work for its members. Despite the lengthy and carefully crafted argument, it appears that the Council simply put the letter on file and no action was taken to create an official Municipal Band.


WAAC 1 of 2
WAAC 2 of 2

In the midst of World War II, Seattle's Civil Service Commission struggled with how to classify women who were serving in the WAAC (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps), WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, otherwise known as the Navy Women's Reserve), and SPAR (Coast Guard Women's Reserve). All three reserve units were meant to free men to fight overseas by allowing women to fill their roles at home, but their noncombatant status led to a gray area as to how to categorize them.

In 1940, the City passed Ordinance 69816, which granted leaves of absence to City employees who were in active military service. The Civil Service Commission was unsure whether this ordinance should apply to women serving in the reserve units, and wrote a memo to the Law Department in 1943 looking for guidance.

Corporation Counsel A.C. Van Soelen went back to the federal laws authorizing the women's units to determine their status. In the case of the WAAC, he cited parts of the act providing that "the Corps shall not be a part of the Army,but it shall be the only women's organization authorized to serve with the Army, exclusive of the Army Nurse Corps" and that "the Corps shall be administered by the Secretary [of War] through the channels of command of the Army."

Van Soelen also noted that the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act was amended to include the WAAC in its list of those in military service. As to WAVE and SPAR, he noted that the law established them as branches of the Navy and Coast Guard. Given this legal framework, Van Soelen found that members of these units "are in the 'active military service' of the United States and therefore within the provisions of Ordinance No. 69816, and you are so advised." Based on this decision, the City's female employees in military service were granted the same benefits as their male counterparts.

McMahon's New York Circus

McMahon's New York Circus

In preparation for what would be his third summer setting up shop in Seattle, John McMahon purchased a circus license from the city for $50. The license gave him permission for two performances of his McMahon's New York Circus, on May 14 and 15, 1892.

From what we can tell, the May 14 performance went off as expected. However, according to a letter McMahon wrote to the Mayor and Common Council, the city's "authorized officials prevented said exhibition" on the 15th. He claimed this cost him several hundred dollars, and asked that his $50 license fee be returned to him. The Committee on Police, License, and Revenue considered his request, but stated that since the circus "gave part of a performance on May 15th and did not return money collected," they advised against granting the petition.

Two weeks after the shortened performance, the Council considered the following resolution: "Resolved, By the City Council that the license heretofore issued to McMahon's Circus, be and is hereby directed to be revoked, and that the license officer be directed to collect the amount provided by ordinance for a circus license, to wit - one thousand dollars per day + fine said circus company." The resolution was indefinitely postponed and not voted up or down.

The Post-Intelligencer did not report on the shutdown of the circus in Seattle or the dispute with the Council, so the back story to these events remains unclear. The circus had gotten good reviews in other cities, with particular praise for McMahon's bareback riding skills and his trained elephants. The Tacoma Daily news said the circus had "the finest railroad cars, the finest ring horses and the finest elephants in the world." The only hint of trouble in area newspapers was a May 12 mention of financial trouble reportedly caused by a "wicked advance agent who ran away with the funds of the show."

McMahon's story ended six months later, when the Tacoma Daily News reported that he had died of consumption on a train en route to Chicago.

Anti-Japanese League

Anti-Japanese League

In a letter to City Council dated October 24, 1919, the Anti-Japanese League called for "radical steps" to curb the increase of the local Japanese population. They feared that "people now living will see the day when the Pacific Coast will be a Mongolian instead of a White Man's Country." The letter expresses concern about a supposedly high birthrate in the Japanese community, as well as the fact that Japanese residents were "rapidly acquiring retail grocery stores, Dye Works, and various other lines of business." Of particular concern was the purchase of a dairy, which the writers felt was sure to lead to unsanitary milk being fed to children.

Attached to the letter was suggested ordinance language for Council to consider. A sample ordinance item read, "That no space in any Market owned or controlled by the City of Seattle be granted to anyone except citizens of the United States, and where a corporation is seeking a site in the Public Market, that no site be granted to any corporation, unless all its stock is held by citizens of the United States." The league recommended the same license requirements for hotels, rooming houses, secondhand dealers, restaurants, grocery stores, meat markets, bakeries, pool rooms, vaudeville and movie theatres, and transportation services. As the naturalization laws excluded Japanese immigrants from becoming citizens, these ordinances would inherently prevent them from obtaining these licenses.

The League was starting their lobbying at the local level, as they believed that it would take a while for officials in Washington DC to "see the danger as clearly as the Pacific Coast people see it now." Their ultimate goal was the passage of a national Japanese Exclusion Act, similar to the Chinese Exclusion Act that was already in place. The letter concluded, "It is up to you, Gentlemen, to take the first steps along the lines of self-preservation."

Notice of the League's proposed bill was printed in the newspaper, which prompted a local minister, Rev. U.G. Murphy, to write his own letter to Council. In it he took issue with many of the League's claims about the current Japanese population numbers and the community's birthrate, saying the League's numbers were "absolutely ridiculous." However, his strongest language was saved for criticism of the proposed laws: "To deprive a man of the privilege of citizenship by Federal enactment and then punish him because he is not a citizen…is about the superlative degree of injustice. Such a measure has no hint of the American spirit about it."

1902 Elks Carnival

1902 Elks Carnival 1 of 2
1902 Elks Carnival 2 of 2

In August 1902, the Seattle Elks Lodge hosted a carnival and street fair in downtown Seattle. This was quite a big affair, extending over almost two weeks and a good portion of downtown. Ordinance 8369 granted the Elks permission to build temporary wooden structures "between Second Avenue and Fifth Avenue, Pike Street and University Street, on Third Avenue, on Union Street, on Fourth Avenue and upon the grounds known as the Federal Building Site and the Old University Grounds."

Planning efforts were elaborate; the committee doing the legwork even had their own letterhead. The committee tried to plan for every eventuality, including petitioning the city to have a fire engine with horses and men in a designated location on the grounds throughout the event. They even went so far as to get City Council to pass a resolution banning the carrying or use of feather dusters during the carnival, as they were deemed "annoying and dangerous."

Another resolution was introduced banning any competing "circus or like performance" during the period of the carnival, "except such circus or entertainments of like character as are permitted to exhibit under the auspices of the Elks carnival committee." However, this legislative attempt at killing the competition was indefinitely postponed and apparently never passed.

In late July, the Elks decided it would be a good idea to invite city officials to participate in the event and sent a letter to City Council asking them to be in a parade on August 19th, which was designated as Seattle Day. Apparently at least some accepted, as another clerk file dated August 18 informed them that five carriages would pick them up at City Hall the next day to assemble for the parade.

The parade seemed to have been the City's last official interaction with the carnival planners, save for one final document: in October, the Council passed a resolution requesting that the planning committee be asked to take down a bandstand which was erected for the fair and was still standing two months later.

Nuisance fireworks


Comptroller File 159643 contains a July 8, 1938, letter from Mrs. Ellie Barnhart of White Center complaining about fireworks being shot off near her home in White Center. She begins by declaring, "I am a tax payer...and I want protection." The letter notes that she wrote with the same complaint the previous year, but that "nothing was done because the Police were not here just at the time of the shooting." She states that this year fireworks began on May 1, "and will no doubt last till Christmas, if something is not done about it."

Also in the file is a petition on the same topic signed by Mrs. Barnhart and about 30 other White Center residents. The petition asks City Council "to afford us some abatement of the Fireworks nuisance, which is upsetting our nerves and making us ill... We have repeatedly called the Police Department, only to be told they can do nothing unless they can apprehend the culprit committing the act. By the time the Police Car can get from West Seattle the noise is over." The petitioners felt the problem was worse that year due to the sale of both fireworks and liquor south of the city limits.

The police department sent two officers to talk to Mrs. Barnhart on July 14, at which time she reported that no fireworks had been shot off in the past two days. The memo which documented this contact also reported that investigations showed most of the fireworks were being bought and exploded outside the city limits, which were two blocks south of Mrs. Barnhart's house.

Building the Space Needle

Space Needle

In 1960, officials from the Century 21 Exposition were in discussions with Seattle city officials over the construction of a 550-foot tower "to be used for restaurant purposes" on the grounds of the upcoming World's Fair. Joseph Gandy, president of the Exposition, claimed that the proposed structure would be "of tremendous excitement, interest, and value" to the fair, and opined that it would become "one of the greatest tourist attractions in any metropolitan civic center area." He said that the design of John Graham & Company had been chosen, and that "the engineering that has gone into this design has been very substantial."

Cheerleading for the project aside, there was much negotiation to be done about how to proceed with the project, and particularly its funding. Gandy pointed out that while title to the land belonged to the city, financing for its construction would need to come from private, not municipal, sources. Gandy suggested an agreement whereby the city would issue revenue bonds to finance the construction, which would then be purchased by private funders, and then would grant the funders a 20-year operating concession for the tower. He stressed that "time is precious if we are to see to it that this tower is actually constructed and in operation during the Exposition."

Asked for his response to the proposal, the city's Superintendent of Buildings Fred McCoy expressed some reservations about "the desirability of authorizing a private company or corporation to construct such a facility," and wanted to be sure any agreements were clear that the lessee "would assume all responsibility for construction, operation and maintenance."

However, McCoy's main concern was what would happen if the lessee failed to make the project financially successful, obliging the city to take it over. He wanted to be certain the city would not become responsible for a "550-foot high white elephant" Space Needle.

Trouble at the Goo Goo Saloon

Goo Goo Saloon 1 of 2
Goo Goo Saloon 2 of 2

Clerk File 14547 contains the following report from Police Chief John Sullivan, dated April 24, 1902:

I beg leave to report to your honorable body that on the night of April 23rd, 1902, H.H. Wilkins Jr. and a party of friends entered the Goo Goo Saloon and Concert Hall, on the southwest corner of 2nd Ave. South and Main streets, in this city. He drank a glass of beer and in a few moments was taken sick. A waiter came rushing up, gave him a glass of seltzer sour, and told his friends to take him out. As soon as they reached the sidewalk with him he became unconscious. Dr. DeSoto, who happened to be in the vicinity, applied restoratives, and Wilkins was brought to the police station. Dr. Bories was then called to attend him, and, after an examination, said that Wilkins had been given a large dose of chloral, and had it not been for the prompt attention given him by Dr. DeSoto he undoubtedly would have died.

James Sloan was picked up in the same place about two hours afterwards in a dazed condition, undoubtedly suffering from the effects of chloral, claiming that he had been robbed of fifteen dollars.

This report is made to your honorable body in order that you may take such steps as you deem best in the premises.

The Seattle Times filled in more details about Sloan's case, saying that a patrolman had noticed him inside the saloon in a "dazed condition" and left to call a patrol wagon to take Sloan to the police station. When he came back inside, Sloan was gone, and the bar's occupants "professed not to know what had become of him." About 15 minutes later, the patrolman found Sloan "in a box, where he evidently had been placed by some one."

The Times reported that at the ensuing trial against the proprietors of the Goo Goo, a former bartender testified that chloral poison was kept behind the bar to mix in the drinks of "customers who happened to exhibit any large sum of money on their person." However, the defense attorney got the victim Wilkins to admit that he had drunk whiskey earlier in the night and wasn't feeling well all evening. Despite the two doctors' testimony that they believed Wilkins' symptoms to be from poison, the judge ended up dismissing the case.

Working wives

Working wives

High unemployment during the Great Depression led to scrutiny of families with more than one wage earner, particularly if one of those employed was a woman. A 1930 letter to a local newspaper complained that the wife of a fireman of the writer's acquaintance "works in a store and lets two children run wild. The husband gets good pay and has steady work. What can be done about this?" The newspaper's Mr. Fixit suggested writing to the Fire Chief, George Mantor, to have him determine whether "the conditions justify action."

Two anonymous citizens did just that. One, who signed her letter "A Poor Working Girl," complained of a fireman's wife who had been working at a tea room for two years: "[T]hey have no children and have a good time besides, and keeps us girls who need work out." She claimed such wives worked for selfish reasons like "swell clothes." Another writer, signing as "Yours for Fair Play," complained of a fireman who hadn't missed a day's pay in eight years, worked on his vacations as well, and had "no sickness or any trouble of any kind...to call for the wife's working." (She sold ties at the Bon Marche.) The letter continued, "I for one think it is high time that men living off the taxpayers should at least keep there [sic] wives from doing another tax payer out of a living."

Chief Mantor was uncertain about how to reply to these complaints. In a letter to the Central Labor Council, he asked whether the unions had a policy on the issue or if it was considered a personal decision for each employee to make. Mantor stated, "[W]e have been hesitant to make any comment or take any action - even though we believe that it is not a matter of good policy for our personnel who are steadily employed to permit their wives to fill positions that should go to the unemployed."

The Labor Council replied that they agreed this was a problem in principle; "however, there are extenuating circumstances that justifies some married women working... [D]uring the war, women were pressed into service, filling the places of men in many instances, and after the war was over they just remained undisturbed." While the council had no fixed policy on the matter, the letter stated that it was "a big question that should have been given attention years ago, and for our negligence, we are all subject to criticism... [T]he time is not far distant when there will be a general awakening when something will be done."

Jail conditions

Jail Conditions

In March 1907, Seattle's Unitarian Club investigated the conditions at the city jail and sent a letter to the City Council outlining their findings. While the visitors approved of the building's cleanliness and the prisoners' food, they did emphatically state that "the male prisoners working on the chain gang...should not be compelled to sleep on the cement floors and without blankets." The letter continued, "It seems to us that it is far from humanitarian to compel these men, many of whom are not especially bad characters, to work for the municipality, and then give them no place to sleep, other than a damp cement floor."

The Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds concurred with the club's opinion and recommended that cots be provided to the men. However, this suggestion was apparently not followed, at least not right away. A clerk file from November 1907 - eight months after the committee's recommendation - contains a letter from Charles James, a representative of the International Prison Commission from New York, who once again found the prisoners sleeping on the floor.

In his letter, James noted that it was "the first instance in which I have found the above described condition, altho [sic]…I have visited jails and kindred institutions in all parts of the country." He continued, "[H]umanity, nay common decency, commands that such degrading conditions should be ameliorated…at once."

It is possible that improvements were already in the works when James wrote his letter. Ordinance 17219, passed shortly before his visit, authorized the purchase of "necessary furniture" for the jail, although it does not specify what that furniture was to be. Meanwhile, an agreement in another clerk file outlines what the prisoners were to be fed: steak, potatoes, bread, and coffee for breakfast; roast meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables (carrots, beans, peas, or corn), bread, and coffee for supper; and a repeat of either breakfast or supper for dinner. The city paid fifteen cents for each meal.

Dance marathons

dance marathon ad

Seattle's first and only dance marathon began on July 23, 1928, at the city's armory. At these events, contestants competed for cash prizes by dancing for days at a time, with only short rest breaks each hour. As the days went on and the contestants became more and more exhausted, they struggled simply to stay on their feet, and often suffered hallucinations and other symptoms of severe sleep deprivation.

An ad recruiting contestants for the Seattle event called attention to the $2000 in prize money and encouraged, "If you are out of work why not enter? ...No entry fees, no expense to you whatever." Another ad highlighted the fact that a waitress had won first prize in Minneapolis. Publicity for the event noted that "physicians' services will be available throughout the marathon."

Thirty couples entered the contest, and while one dropped out after the first day, the rest carried on. Organizers placed ads in the Seattle Times publicizing the ongoing event and encouraging spectators: "They have danced over 112 hours and are still going strong - Come any time, day or night"; "215 hours of dancing and the hoofers are still plodding away."

As the condition of the dancers deteriorated, complaints increased from women's clubs and city officials, who demanded that the contest be ended. Finally, on August 13, the National Guard forcibly removed the three remaining contestants from the floor, saying that the armory was needed for military drills. The city's health officer had also declared he would shut down the contest that day because of the garbage that had piled up on the dance floor. The Times reported that "to prevent any of their number being adjudged winner by reason of leaving the floor last, the dancers linked arms and limped away together."

Many in the city were appalled by the whole thing and lobbied for City Council to pass an ordinance outlawing future dance marathons. A Times editorial opined, "That witless contest against fatigue should never have been permitted. As a spectacle it takes rank somewhat below that of flag-pole sitting or coffee-drinking contests. It appeals to morbid tastes which find pleasure in human suffering or in side-show freaks… Before Seattle forgets the repugnant affair entirely, it should take what steps may be necessary to prevent a repetition of the spectacle."

Council obliged by passing Ordinance 55985, which required anyone wishing to hold a physical endurance contest to first obtain a permit from the Chief of Police. The ordinance also specified that any such contest "shall terminate at or before midnight of the day on which it begins," thereby outlawing dance marathons in one fell swoop. The ordinance was amended in 1931 to note that the law "shall not be construed as related to or prohibiting the holding of six (6) day bicycle races."

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.