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Seattle, Washington

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

A 100-year-old purveyor of curiosities, curios, and kitsch featuring mummies, shrunken heads, and a Fiji Mermaid. 

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 crammed with 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 1900s. 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 an old “one-armed bandit” slot machine named “Black Bart” that was at one time removed from the store on suspicion of being a functioning gambling machine. Black Bart 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 displays of Ecuadorian shrunken heads (which may or may not be monkeys) and World War II 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 30. She was buried and naturally mummified, now weighing in at only 20 pounds.

Sylvester was long thought to be a cowboy or highwayman of some sort and was displayed at both the 1909 Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition and the 1915 San Francisco Panama–Pacific International 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 the 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.

Hanging from the rafters near the front of the shop 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.