Seattle's Ye Olde Curiosity Shop entrance

Geek Road Trip: Seattle’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

Contributed by
Sep 13, 2018

There are the obvious tourist hot spots to check out when visiting Seattle: the Space Needle, the Museum of Pop Culture, and Pike Place Market. And then there are the less obvious, more obscure landmarks that highlight the Emerald City's eccentricity, like the Fremont Troll, the Gum Wall, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, a novelty shop with a rich, century-old history.

Situated on the Seattle waterfront, at the end of Pier 54, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop doesn't look like much from the outside. It does, after all, share its location with Ivar's and Kidd Valley, local chains that offer greasy but delicious grub. A large gold sign perched above the restaurants points to the store at the far end of the dock, where the Shop sits, humbly, overlooking the Puget Sound.

The beige storefront is deceiving. Its 1900s-inspired signage along with its small series of totem poles make for an intriguing welcome. But it doesn't sum up what the store contains, not in the slightest. This works as the ultimate element of surprise, though, because what waits inside is an unexpectedly eclectic hodgepodge of Native American artifacts, shrunken heads, taxidermy spectacles, and, most notably, mummies.

Seattle's Ye Olde Curiosity Shop 1 mummy

(Credit: Samantha Ladwig)

Upon entering, customers are greeted by a large, hand-painted wooden slot machine named Black Bart. The one-armed bandit is coin-operated, its raised limb serving as its lever, but don't expect to win any money. The machine dispenses tokens only, with Seattle landmarks imprinted on their faces.

Sitting behind Black Bart is Medical Ed, a real-life head that came to the store packed in a hatbox. The right side of its face functions as a door, which swings open so that medical students, who used devices like this during the 1800s to learn about human anatomy, could study its innards. For that reason, the shop deemed the relic "The World's Most Open-Minded Guy." It's grotesquely hypnotizing, and just the tip of the curio iceberg.

Seattle's Ye Olde Curiosity Shop Siamese Twin Calves

(Credit: Samantha Ladwig)

Stepping further inside, the store's walls are lined with glass display cases holding various oddities, ranging from shrunken heads to a stuffed two-headed bull calf to a jar containing a 10-pound geoduck. Above, whalebones, a century-old giant Pacific octopus, an oversized coco de mer, a terrifying Fiji mermaid, and countless other curios all hang, preserved, from the ceiling.

It's at the far end of the store where customers can find Sylvester and Sylvia, Ye Olde's real-life mummies. Solidified by arsenic, Sylvester stands at 137 pounds with his entire anatomy intact, organs and all. His origins are a mystery, but his journey to the shop isn't. After he died, Sylvester became a spectacle. He traveled across the country with carnivals and was shown in various expositions in Seattle and San Francisco during the early 1900s. It wasn't until 1955 that the mummy turned up at the shop.

Less is known about Sylvia. She hails from Central America, where she was buried in the early 1900s. Arsenic fluid wasn't necessary for her mummification. The area's overwhelmingly dehydrated conditions dried her right up. As for scale, she's smaller than Sylvester, and unlike his cured meat aesthetic, Sylvia is white. Her face looks like Arnold Vosloo's haunting sand face in Stephen Sommers' 1999 blockbuster, The Mummy, right before it's about to chomp down on Brendan Fraser's plane. The mummy duo is unnerving, and as two of the shop's biggest attractions, they're not going anywhere.

Seattle's Ye Olde Curiosity Shop bugs

(Credit: Samantha Ladwig)

The store is not without kitschy souvenirs, and that plus the over-the-top displays could make for a trivial atmosphere. But as locals know, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop isn't just a local version of Spencer's gift shop. Institutions like the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., the University of Washington, and additional museums in Sweden; Portland, Oregon; and elsewhere exhibit items that originated from the peculiar store. In a 2001 interview with The Seattle Times, Kate C. Duncan, author of the 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native Art, discussed having learned that the shop supplied a great deal of Native American art to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, a discovery that inspired her to write the book.

The original owner, J.E. Standley, was enthusiastic about his collection, which inspired him to either donate the items outright or sell them to the institutions with a discount.

Seattle's Ye Olde Curiosity Shop zombie fudge

(Credit: Samantha Ladwig)

Even more surprising is the A-list visitors the store has hosted since its establishment in 1899. From Charlie Chaplin to Sylvester Stallone to Teddy Roosevelt to Katharine Hepburn to Queen Marie of Romania, the store's unique offerings have drawn people from all walks of life, from all over the world.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop is a must-visit for tourists and locals alike. And if the disturbing curios aren't enough, positioned on the left side of the store is a homemade fudge bar for customers looking for something a little more sweet.