Joseph Edward Standley was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on February 24, 1854. An oft-told story from his childhood recounts how, in the third grade, his teacher awarded him a book on the wonders of nature for having the neatest desk in class. His most significant takeaway from that, however, was not a penchant for neatness (as the clutter of his adult life would attest), but a fondness for art, artifacts and oddities that would blossom from a childhood fascination into a lifelong hobby and career.
Standley's segue from Steubenville to Seattle included a sojourn in Denver, Colorado, where he opened a grocery store in the late 1800s. Many times, he would provide groceries to Navajo and other Native customers who would barter with baskets, tools and other goods. He decorated his shop with those items and found that people wanted to buy them. Soon he had collected so many interesting items, there was hardly any room for the groceries. So began the flicker that became the flame.
By the end of the 19th century, Standley's wife was in declining health. Looking for someplace more temperate than the mile high city, Standley found Seattle. He settled in the budding town on Puget Sound at a time when the West was still a frontier, the Klondike gold rush was just beginning to wind down, and America's obsession with owning all things "exotic" was cranking up. The year was 1899.
Seattle was a very different place in those days, as evidenced in this view of Mount Rainier from 1900 (courtesy Museum of History and Industry), overlooking downtown Seattle and Beacon Hill. Pioneer Square is at the bottom right. This was just a decade after a massive fire destroyed so much of downtown and the waterfront that it was decided to rebuild some 20+ feet above the original street level; wood buildings were banned, brick structures were built, and by 1890 the once-small town became one of the most populous areas in the newly-admitted state.
For forty years, as the proprietor of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Standley was known as "Daddy," both for his congenial manner, making customers feel at home, and for his paternal care for Seattle. Standley, like few others in the early years of growth, saw a vision of Seattle that outshone its rough-and-tumble frontier exterior, and he worked his whole life to make that dream a reality for his family's adopted new home. Like a father, fostering the growth and success of a child, Standley constantly advocated for improvements not just along the waterfront, but for all of Seattle and Washington State. He was instrumental in the planning, preparation, promotion, and popularity of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. The art and artifacts he loaned the AYPE for exhibit in the Alaska House and the Washington State House held such tremendous appeal and value, that most of them were purchased after the Expo for the Museum of the American Indian in New York.
Clearly, there is much more of the story of this colorful character to be told, and we will do so here, in the coming days and weeks. It may have all started with a young boy's neat desk, but "Daddy" certainly became an apt moniker for this man, who made strangers in his shop feel like family, turned a rowdy frontier town into a family home, and built a lasting family legacy from an entrepreneurial spirit and a spark of curiosity for the oddities of the world.