2007 Find of the Month Archive

Quarantines, swill milk, and nuisance laundries

The city's early General Files cover several topics relating to public health:

  • In 1894, a hotel owner filed a claim for damages after his hotel was quarantined for 19 days during an epidemic. He listed the loss of pillows, blankets, and mattresses that were destroyed or taken to the "Pest House," and also claimed expenses for rent, licenses, and lost lodging income. The Claims Committee recommended he be reimbursed for the destroyed bedding but not for the last three items, as "all persons engaged in this business assume the risk of epidemics."
  • Over 100 Seattleites signed a petition in 1891 asking that the sale of "swill milk" - milk from cows that were fed discarded malt from breweries - be prohibited in the city. The petitioners claimed that "it is a known fact that the milk produced from such feed is very injurious and conducive to diseases." Health Officer G.H. Sparling appended a note to the petition stating that swill milk was "the cause of a great number of deaths from cholera."
  • An 1890 letter to the mayor and common council complained of a "disagreeable nuisance" on Yesler Avenue. A sanitary officer subsequently inspected the property and discovered that the issue was "slops flowing from a Chinese Wash House." He explained that the laundry, along with several others in the city, had no sewerage connections, causing its "slops and filth" to run out over the ground and under the sidewalk. He stated that all such laundries constituted "a Public Nuisance and a menace to the health of the neighbors," but offered no solution to their runoff problem.

Astronauts visit Seattle


A file in Mayor Uhlman's records documents the 1970 visit to Seattle of the three Apollo 12 astronauts, Charles Conrad, Alan Bean, and Richard Gordon. The Apollo 12 mission was the United States' second manned lunar landing, and occurred during a time of high national excitement about the space program. Gordon was from Seattle, which gave the visit additional meaning for local residents.

The astronauts came to Seattle directly from Pasadena, where they served as grand marshals of the Tournament of Roses parade on New Year's Day. Numerous local officials, as well as Senator Magnuson, took part in the festivities. The itinerary for the visit included two welcome ceremonies, a luncheon hosted by Boeing, a motorcade and parade through downtown, a dinner, and two receptions. The astronauts also presented a public program at the Pacific Science Center to discuss the Apollo 12 mission and answer questions.

The visit brought out the musical talents of local residents, showing how the space program had captured the nation's imagination. A Seattle man rewrote the lyrics of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" with "new space age lyrics" that began:

We've been riding on a moon ship, all the live long day
We've been flying on a moon ship, along the Milky Way

The man suggested the song could be used as part of the ceremonies, and that perhaps the "moon men" would like copies of the lyrics.

Additionally, a Bothell woman had written and self-published sheet music for a "march song" entitled "You're the Pride of the Human Race." The lyrics read, in part: "We are proud of ev'ry one for a job well done/That has made our space dream come true." She sent a copy to the mayor and apparently was able to present one to the astronauts in person as well.

Seattle Rumor Center

Seattle Rumor Center

Files in the archives describe the establishment and activities of the Seattle Rumor Center. Modeled on similar programs in cities like Chicago, the center provided "a central source of accurate and reliable information on subjects of concern to the citizens of Seattle and affecting the public peace, safety and welfare."

The Rumor Center opened on an experimental basis in 1968; by 1969, it was open from 10:00 am to midnight seven days a week. In addition to fielding calls and serving as a rumor clearinghouse (one "minor incident" at the Seafair Torchlight Parade led to over 200 calls to the center), the staff also produced a biweekly rumor report, documenting everything from fights at Meany Middle School to buzz about an upcoming "rumble" between motorcycle gangs.

In a 1969 letter to the mayor, the Rumor Central General Secretary sounded off on the kind of damage his center worked to prevent: "Recently, a group of drivers started what they considered a humorous rumor. It spread throughout a portion of the City until a fire station phoned asking us for verification. In this case, we were able to trace the course of the rumor to its source and to explain what harm this 'fun' had caused."

The center's annual report for 1971 described how local events affected the types of rumors that were circulating. School desegregation plans prompted a rumor that there would be mandatory busing of 4-year-olds, and the Boeing layoff led to a number of rumors related to the potential cancellation of unemployment benefits.

The work of the Rumor Center did not go unnoticed. The mayor praised them for their "fine work," and the Superintendent of Schools wrote, "We believe that on a number of occasions serious trouble has been avoided because of the splendid service rendered the community by the Center."

Women's Protective Division

In the early part of the 20th century, the Police Department had a Women's Protective Division that specifically looked after the welfare of women and children. Annual reports of the Division give a flavor of the kinds of issues officers dealt with.

The reports recount how the Division's officers helped children find medical treatment, avoid workplace exploitation, and escape abuse and neglect. Women newly arrived in the city were assisted at the docks and railroad stations, and homeless women were referred to the Salvation Army.

The 1916 report relates how "for many girls, family homes and employment were secured and for several marriages arranged, thus legitimatizing [sic] children who otherwise would have been nameless. In many cases misunderstandings between parents and children have been settled, restoring harmony to the house."

The dedication of Division officers to their work is apparent in the reports. One 1916 case where a man was accused of taking advantage of a minor girl was successfully prosecuted based on shredded letters found in the girl's room. It took "hours of painstaking effort" to piece the missives together, but the reconstructed evidence led the man to plead guilty.

As part of their protective services, officers investigated "soft drink parlors," skating rinks ("frequented, to a large extent, by sailors and young girls"), and other places of amusement. The 1920 report contended that "moving picture shows" and their "false ethics" were increasing juvenile delinquency, and suggested banning the exhibition of any films that depicted a crime being committed.

Elvis Presley


Several Clerk Files from 1956 contain letters from teenagers (all girls) protesting the city's refusal to allow Elvis Presley the use of the Civic Auditorium, apparently over concern about potential unruly behavior by youth attending the concert.

The arguments took several tacks, with some following the fairness angle. One girl wrote, "What did we teen-agers ever do to deserve this? Nothing!…Why have we teen-agers of Seattle been refused when teen-agers all over the U.S. have not?"

Many contended that Seattle's youth were being condemned based on what those in other cities had done. An Elvis Fan Club member asked, "Are we the kids in the other towns? No we are not… Then why are you afraid we'll start something?" Another girl attempted to reassure the Council that "so many kids want a chance to see him, that they wouldn't let a riot start."

Others defended the music itself. A girl from Renton argued, "The reason some people don't like him is usually because he has a different way of singing, and people don't like anything that's different." A Seattle teen wrote, "Elvis has a good 'beat' to his music. It's different. It isn't this drawn out mushy slow music." Another argued, "Think of when the Charleston was the craze and the teen-agers were crazy over Sinatra!"

However, one girl conveyed a different message than she intended when she wrote, "I want Elvis Presley to come to Seattle because we have never had a Rock and Roll riot in Seattle before, and I think it would really be fun."

Swimsuit regulations


A 1934 folder in a Parks Department collection highlights the changing standards for proper beach attire. Seattle was apparently behind other parts of the country in terms of what styles of suits were allowed on city beaches. A Bon Marche vice president complained to the Park Board that "practically all the bathing suits in demand from a fashion standpoint would be barred." The sporting goods manager from the University Book Store contended that men wanted to wear trunks (rather than one-piece suits with tops), and since trunks were not permitted on city beaches, they would "avoid the beaches and risk their lives swimming in places that are dangerous or at least unprotected."

He also argued that scantier swimwear was good "from a hygienic standpoint…because we have so little sunshine." In a similar vein, the Bon Marche vice president claimed that "no one will deny that acquiring a good coat of tan…has much to do with one's well being."

These and other petitions persuaded the Park Board to look at their policy. A representative from Olympia Knitting Mills appeared at a May 1934 board meeting, along with several models, to show the new styles of suits. The board decided to allow men to wear topless trunks, while women were allowed for the first time to wear white suits (as long as they were wool). Two-piece suits were still barred, however; the P-I reported that the board decided "a strip of bare anatomy between trunks and tops…isn't quite decent." The paper quoted board president Samuel Martin as saying, "Ah, ha! Now we're modern at last!"


The archives holds almost twenty leather-bound volumes detailing search warrants and court cases related to the illegal possession of alcohol during Prohibition. Seized liquor varied from amounts as small as half a pint to thousands of bottles. Officers also confiscated stills, mash, funnels, and jugs.

Prohibition in Washington State began in 1916, three years before the U.S. Constitution was amended to outlaw the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol on a national level. Here, as elsewhere, the law was widely violated. Bootleggers and rumrunners did a thriving business supplying Washingtonians with illegal liquor, and many people built stills to manufacture their own. Bootleggers even held a convention in Seattle in March 1922.

Seattle civic leaders cracked down on this activity to varying degrees. Mayor Hiram Gill was among the more severe, establishing an unpopular "Dry Squad" to raid businesses and homes suspected of violating the ban. The squad's excessive zeal caused thousands of dollars in damages and managed to alienate even die-hard temperance activists. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Seattle City Council immediately passed an emergency ordinance allowing beer and wine to flow in the city once again.

1960s miscellany


Three items of note discovered in one day in the 1969 Mayor's Office records, proving that the sixties were alive and well in Seattle:

  • A 45-rpm record of Johnny Nash singing "Love and Peace," sent by the record company as a way to help prevent race riots. The accompanying letter expressed concern about the "long, hot summers" and the "onslaught of hate and prejudice which leads to riots and breakdown of law and order." Copies of the record were apparently sent to mayors, governors, and members of Congress, with the suggestion that the song be made the theme of the summer.
  • A newspaper photo of Mayor Braman with both legs in casts after a skiing accident. The clipping was sent to the mayor by an elderly citizen, accompanied by a Polaroid photo of the citizen in an upper-body cast. The man did not send a letter with the photos, but did type a list of his injuries on the back of the Polaroid. The mayor wrote a letter to the man wishing him a speedy recovery.
  • Promotional materials from the Seattle Visitors Bureau displaying their groovy official logo: a colorful Yellow Submarine-style design incorporating the slogan "The Swinging Gateway." (London wasn't too worried about the competition.)

Pete Seeger

A 1965 file in Mayor Dorm Braman's records contains dozens of letters from citizens protesting a scheduled Opera House performance by Pete Seeger. Many of the writers asked the mayor to enforce Ordinance 91981, which prohibited "the rental or use of any city-owned buildings…to any subversive organization, or member thereof."

Letters cited Seeger as "an identified Communist" and noted that "he edits the magazine 'Sing Out' where Communist Party songs appear." One writer described his performances as "a large dosage of Red propaganda interspersed with bad music," while another warned that "communism uses the arts - including music perhaps most of all - to destroy us." Several writers were concerned that he would take profits from his Seattle concert and donate them to the Communist Party.

Many of the correspondents had apparently written first to the Superintendent of Buildings, Fred McCoy. McCoy replied with a form letter stating that he had reviewed the program and determined it was not subversive. One citizen took exception to his judgment, asking, "Have you been trained in the methods of Communist psychological warfare and brainwashing?"

A response letter from the mayor explains that the city did not have legal justification for canceling the performance, as no government agency would definitively label Seeger as being "dedicated to the destruction of our form of government by force." But Braman was proud that as a result of the city not making a public fuss, "the attendance at his show was very small compared to others."

The embezzling comptroller


The archives holds a set of audits and reports relating to the alleged embezzlement of city funds around the turn of the last century. A 1907 audit discovered that over $68,000 in city funds were missing. Also missing was the former Comptroller, John Riplinger, who served two terms from 1902 to 1906.

The city attempted to locate Riplinger using Pinkerton detectives. When he was eventually found in Honduras, the City Treasurer worked with the State Department to negotiate an extradition treaty. Within a month of the treaty's enactment, however, Riplinger "voluntarily" returned to Seattle, claiming the timing was coincidental. (Meanwhile, a "Lee Christmas" had offered to kidnap the fugitive for trial.)

Riplinger was charged with nine counts of larceny by embezzlement. The prosecutor decided to try the strongest charge first - a case where the state was able to prove both the delivery and the cashing of a check by Riplinger, and where a City Council member witnessed him carrying the cash out of the bank.

Riplinger's defense was based on the claim that the cashed check, while initially written to the city, was later offered as a personal loan. Riplinger could not account for why he had not come forth with this explanation two years before when he was first accused.

The jury deliberated for only 30 minutes before finding him not guilty. The prosecutor, stunned by the verdict, said he still planned to try the other eight counts, and threatened to prosecute Riplinger for perjury. However, he later dropped the charges, admitting "there would be little hope of securing a conviction." Riplinger, in the free and clear, immediately made plans to return to his banana business in Honduras.

Cows in Ballard

At the turn of the last century, the City of Ballard was starting to become more urbanized but still retained many aspects of rural life. In 1905, a law was passed restricting where cattle could graze, prompting citizens to write to the mayor and city council to comment on the new limitations. Dueling petitions found in the Ballard City Clerk's files show some of the conflict that resulted from the town's development.

One petition pleaded that the city government "give we people owning cows a chance to live, as well as those that do not own such." The signers claimed that by "pushing the boundary of herd law back so far, many will be obliged to sell their cows which in many cases is over half of their living."

However, another petition claimed that the law didn't go far enough and that the herding limits should be extended further. The petitioners state, "We consider it an imposition to have 25 or 30 cows herded right in our door yard and each cow with a bell on. They also herd on the Bay View school grounds where the children have to play, and annoy and make the Teachers nervous. Also those herd boys use all kinds of profane and obscene language in the presence of women who come near them."

The Beatles

A 1964 file in Mayor Dorm Braman's records contains a number of letters from teenage girls in a high state of excitement about the Beatles' impending Seattle concert. They ask the mayor for favors ranging from front row seats ("I promise you, I will not scream") to advice on what the band members might like as gifts (the mayor claimed ignorance about their preferences) to a declaration of an official Seattle Beatles Day ("I have talked to several of my friends about this and they think it's the greatest idea since cornflakes"). One girl asked that she and three of her friends be allowed to officially greet the Beatles when they arrived, while another was hoping to escort the band up to the top of the Space Needle after hours.

The lone letter from a citizen over the age of 18 was from a Mrs. Pinkham, who wanted to be sure taxpayer money wasn't paying for expenses associated with the visit, which she claimed "upset the whole city."

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.