The history of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop dates back to the Civil War. Joseph Standley, who lived in Steubenville, Ohio, was in the third grade when he received a prize for having the neatest desk in the class. His reward was a book entitled Wonders of Nature and it inspired him to begin collecting nature's curios and Indian artifacts. He explored Ohio's river banks and the nearby hills and caves of West Virginia for Indian arrowheads and such. He became an avid collector and a serious student of ethnology, always on the look out for unusual artifacts from other cultures.

 

 

At the age of 22 Joe and his family lived in Denver where he owned and operated a grocery store. He continued collecting and he would bring these collections to the store for his customers' enjoyment. Soon it became hard to find the groceries among all the curio displays!

 

 

 

 

When it became necessary to leave Denver because of his wife's health, Joe chose Seattle. He opened a small curio shop on the waterfront in late 1899 and turned a hobby into his business. He called it Standley's Free Museum and a year or so later changed the name to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. His slogan was and remains "Beats the Dickens". (A reference to Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop.) The first few years were tough. It is said that he took in only twenty-five cents during his first three days! However, that would buy a good sized salmon in those days and so he could feed his family. Joe was a fair man who was well liked and soon made many friends of the local Indians and residents as well as explorers and sea captains going to and from Alaska. From these contacts he was able to obtain many beautiful and rare Alaskan Indian and Eskimo carvings, ivories, baskets, tools and weapons. These became the nucleus of his ethnological collection that won the gold medal at the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (Seattle's first World's Fair). This collection he sold to George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, for $5,000.00 (quite a sum in 1909!). Joe Standley was now on his way. The shop attracted collectors and curio seekers from all over the world and supplied artifacts to most of the significant museums in the United States and abroad.

 

Daddy Standley, as he affectionately became known throughout Seattle and the country was a great supporter of his adopted city. He was always promoting Seattle as a great place to visit and to live. He became known as a one man chamber of commerce! He had a great sense of humor and always had a story. He tended to entertain his customers rather than sell to them. He loved the things he collected (practically all of which were for sale in the early years) and everything had a story. When he would start to tell the story he would often fall in love with the article all over and then not want to sell it! Many of these artifacts and unusual things are part of our permanent museum collection and are not for sale.

 

Joe Standley was active in the business from its founding in 1899 to within 4 days of his death on October 25, 1940. His son in-law Russell James was active from 1912 to 1952 (with time out for World War I) and Russell's son Joe James, namesake of Daddy Standley and the third generation, became active in the 1940's. He successfully operated and expanded the business for over 50 years. The Fourth generation, Joe's son Andy, along with his wife Tammy and his sister Debbie currently run the shop along with another store Waterfront Landmark. Waterfront Landmark is also located on the central waterfront at Pier 55.

 

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop has moved a number times but has always been on the central waterfront. Since 1988 it has been located on Pier 54 next to Ivar's Acres of Clams restaurant. Most of the museum collection has stayed with the shop through its various moves. Some of the more unusual things are: Sylvester, A perfectly preserved mummy, Siamese twin calves, one of the largest collections of shrunken human heads outside of Equador, the Lord's prayer engraved on a grain of rice, Ripley's name on a single human hair, the largest coin ever minted (6 1/2 lbs.!), fleas in dresses, a 67 lb. snail, oil paintings on pin heads, a six foot crab, a Chinese two-man gun, a three tusk walrus skull, a chain carved from a match stick, a nine foot blow gun, a woven cedar bark hat worn by Chief Sealth (namesake of Seattle), old time player pianos, a Chinese beheading sword, a "mermaid", a real (working) merry-go-round organ, whale and walrus oosiks, and many, many more things.


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