A lifelong passion for curiosities was inspired by winning the book “Wonders of Nature” in third grade for having the neatest desk. Joseph Standley (1854-1940) became an avid collector of Indian and Eskimo artifacts, as well as natural curiosities. He opened Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in 1899 to house the many unusual artifacts that he had collected.
Though it’s changed locations a few times, the century-old shop and much of the original collection remains today, passed down through four generations. Among its many wonders, the collection includes a large display of shrunken heads, a three-tusked walrus skull, a working merry-go-round organ, a narwhal tusk, and a pair of famous mummies.
Much of the modern store is taken up by trinkets and souvenir items of varying authenticity (Seattle fridge magnets are side by side with mounted insect specimens and hand-carved Native American art), but the walls and display cases are covered in the original curiosities that made the store famous.
Medical Ed is a preserved cadaver head which served as a dissection aid for medical students in the early 1900’s. His face and skull have been divided and hinged to open on tiny brass pins, and his skull pops open from the top. A small collection of mechanical toys and sideshow contraptions are scattered around the store, many of them still coin operated. The most famous of these is a one-armed old slot machine named “Black Bart” which was at one time removed from the store on suspicion of being a functioning gambling machine. He has since been restored to his place of honor.
The two most famous items in the collection are Sylvester and Sylvia, the resident mummies. Propped up in glass cases at the back of the shop next to cases showing Ecuadorian shrunken heads (which may or may not be made of monkeys) and WWII ration booklets, the two have a mysterious past.
Sylvia is believed to have been a Spanish immigrant to Central America, where she succumbed to tuberculosis at around the age of thirty. She was buried and naturally mummified, now weighing in at only twenty pounds.
Sylvester was long thought to be a cowboy or highwayman of some sort and was displayed at both the 1909 Seattle Alaska Yukon Exposition and the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition, as well as sideshows and carnivals. Between 2001 and 2005 he was subjected to modern forensics in an attempt to figure out just who he was, but this resulted in more questions than answers. The most intriguing thing may be the shotgun pellets embedded in his head, which you can see if you look closely at his mummy. Apparently, they were not what killed him as they had time to heal over, leaving his actual cause of death as much of a mystery as his identity.
Near the front of the shop, hanging from the rafters is a blackened and grimacing Fiji Mermaid. No one seems to know the provenance of this particular item, although the original proprietor told colorful stories about it being shot “off the shores of Duckabush” by a local fisherman.
Know Before You Go
The current shop is easy to spot on Pier 54, next to Ivar's.
- Ye Olde Curiosity Shop Presents: A curious Alphabet, 2006, printed by Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle
- 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art, Kate Duncan, 2001 University of Washington Press