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Sunday, April 1, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

From kitsch to culture: New book links curio shop to world museums

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It's curious: How could a Seattle shop known for a mummy, mermaid and man-eating clams - not to mention tiny fleas in dresses - be regarded as a significant supplier of art?

That's what Kate C. Duncan wanted to know.

Duncan, an art historian, lived in Seattle from 1975 to 1991 and sometimes took visitors to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, an obligatory tourist stop on the waterfront.

To Duncan, the entire floor-to-ceiling jumble of trinkets, curios, novelties, baskets, masks and carvings was an amusing diversion.

"But to be honest," she admits, "I didn't take it very seriously."

Author reading


Kate C. Duncan will read from "1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art," at 7 p.m. Friday at University Book Store and 4 p.m. Saturday at The Elliott Bay Book Co.

Her attitude changed dramatically in 1993. On a research trip to the Royal Ontario Museum, Duncan was asked by a curator if she was familiar with Ye Olde Curiosity Shop.

When she said yes, the curator explained that much of the Ontario's Northwest Coast collection of Indian-made art and artifacts had come from that shop.

"My first reaction was: "Really?'" says Duncan.

Her next reaction: to return to the quirky Seattle shop and learn more about its role as a conduit of Native American and Eskimo art, its impact in boosting tourism here and its colorful founder, J.E. "Daddy" Standley.

Her book, "1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art," (University of Washington Press, $35) is a product of that exploration.

Duncan, now an art professor at Arizona State University, will visit Seattle Friday and Saturday to read from the 273-page oversize book, and hopes to hear local residents tell their memories of the shop.

In her research, Duncan found that items that passed through the curiosity shop are also on display in major museums in London, Washington, D.C., and other cities.

Objects that have interested museums range from the utilitarian to the decorative, all shedding light on the lifestyle of Northwest tribes and Alaskan Eskimos.

A 7-inch-long ivory school of fish, created by an Eskimo carver about 1900, was among some 1,200 pieces purchased from Standley in 1916 by collector George Heye, founder of the museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation. It is now in the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Another example is a 79-inch prehistoric mammoth tusk, engraved with depictions of Eskimo village life about 1899, acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum - at Standley's urging - in 1917.

The curiosity shop, which marked its 100th birthday in 1999 at Pier 54, is still in operation. (It spent most of its life on or adjacent to Colman Dock, Pier 52.) Passed through generations, it is now run by Standley's great-grandson, Andy James, and his wife, Tammy.

But the bulk of Duncan's work concentrates on the store's first four decades, when it was run by Standley, collector, Native-art enthusiast and civic booster.

"He probably was very entertaining to some people, and a little odd to others," Duncan said. "He was always very committed to what he was doing, and he loved Seattle dearly ... I wish I could have met him."

Although such a meeting was impossible - Standley died in 1940 - he posthumously tutored Duncan on the shop and his activities through the countless notes he left behind - notes he intended to use to write his own book but never quite got around to.

Standley's passion for the unusual traces back to a children's book on the wonders of nature, which he won for having the neatest desk and nicest monogram in his third-grade class in Ohio.

Years later, that interest influenced the inventory in his first shop, a grocery store in Denver, where Standley likely gathered Indian-made items in exchange for food and supplies.

"I started putting curios on the counter for decoration and people began to buy them. So I got more and more curios," he told The Seattle Daily Times in 1937.

In 1899, Standley moved to Seattle, advised by doctors that a lower altitude might benefit his ailing wife, Isabelle. That same year, he opened his first Seattle shop, Standley's Free Museum and Curio, on Second Avenue and Pike Street.

For Standley, the timing was ideal. By the time of Seattle's first world's fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, word of his shop and collection was already spreading, and his exhibit at the event drew not just tourists, but scholars, anthropologists and collectors.

Over the years, the jumbled displays at Standley's shops combined the simply curious with significant art objects - treasures and trinkets sharing shelf space in a most democratic style of display.

Among the staples: Baskets, tools, ivory, masks and totem poles of all sizes. Standley didn't just wait for items to come to him; many were made by Native artists to his specifications, or to resemble ones he had seen in books.

But Duncan notes that Standley also spiced up the array with the bizarre, the strange and sometimes, the downright creepy, such as the shrunken heads from the Amazon (some were real, some were counterfeits made from animal skin). Standley even put together a gag do-it-yourself kit, with packets of a mysterious powder and the advice, "Don't lose your head, shrink it."

How about a sewing basket made from the shell of an armadillo? A popular item in the 1920s, the shells were cleaned out, turned over, lined with satin, and the tail was fastened to the neck area to form a handle. Duncan found the names of six Texas suppliers among Standley's paperwork.

Standley's supply methods sometimes crossed cultural lines. He was enthusiastic about totem poles make by Tlingit artists in Alaska. But to ensure a steady and affordable supply, he had the design replicated by carvers of the Vancouver Island-based Nuu-chah-nulth tribe living in Seattle. He even stocked inexpensive totem-pole souvenirs made in Japan.

In 1937, Standley, then 83, was hit by a car on Alaska Way and suffered a broken leg. Though he would live for another three years, Duncan said he never fully recovered.

Also significant, the 1940s saw an expansion of the public's knowledge of the larger world, through war, travel and the news media.

"By the 1940s the shop could no longer disarm in quite the way it had in earlier decades," Duncan notes.

A final chapter in the book gives a condensed look at the shop since 1940, noting the shop's different locations and the sale of some 2,000 piece of Native American art at three auctions from 1976 though 1980.

These days, the shop still holds some of the ancient treasurers, but mostly it sells novelty items more likely to amuse than amaze.

It's doubtful the shop could have survived exactly the way J.E. Standley operated before 1940, Duncan said, now that television, the Web and other media can bring much of the world's curiosities into people's own homes.

"But there is a mystique, something about the personal search, the discovery, and tangibly experiencing the object itself, that a media experience cannot provide," Duncan wrote. "Visitors still rush their friends through cramped aisles to a display case somewhere in the rear of the shop to share a discovery."

Jack Broom can be reached at 206-464-2222, or at jbroom@seattletimes.com.

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