(Published in the Seattle Times online on Oct. 29, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Nov. 1, 2020)
Totem-shop postcard turns the corner on a curious puzzle
By Clay Eals
With this week’s “Then” photo, we present a visual puzzle whose clue is quite difficult to detect.
The subject is Mack’s Totem Curio Shop. Most Seattleites today associate the word “curio” with Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, for 121 years a tourist fixture with ghoulish attractions at several spots near or along the downtown waterfront, now at Pier 54.
But not much farther than a mummy’s throw away, Albert Angus “Mack” McKillop competed with Ye Olde for 38 years, from his store’s inception in 1933 to his death in 1971. His wares ranged from Native American carvings and Belfast cord (used in macramé) to fossils and walrus ivory (whose sale came under federal regulation in 1972).
Mack’s operated from the Marion Street Viaduct, a second-story bridge guiding countless pedestrians from First Avenue across Alaskan Way to the Colman Dock ferries and vice versa. Talk about storefront visibility.
That’s where the puzzle comes in. With carved panels, totem poles and bauble-filled windows, the shop stood near the middle of the elevated block. So why does this postcard depict Mack’s on a corner?
Our sleuths strained for clues by studying old maps, aerial photos and window reflections. Finally, Ron Edge enlarged the card to reveal that the lower bricks of the depicted corner do not exactly line up. Thus, discounting potentially poor masonry, we assume the card is a mash-up of two images, one facing east and the other facing south, to create a faux angle.
The postcard is among artifacts preserved by the family. Did McKillop create and sell the fabricated portrayal for his shop to be perceived as more conspicuous and prosperous? Did he assume newcomers, conned by the card, would forgive the deception upon their arrival? The answers remain … a curiosity.
Born in Manitoba in 1896, McKillop spent early adult years as a schooner seaman near Point Barrow, Alaska, before heading south at age 37 to start his Seattle business. His carved ivory gavels, earrings and belt buckles became a specialty.
His most celebrated showpiece, glaring from high on an interior wall, was a walrus head with four tusks. In 1956, McKillop told The Seattle Times he had found the rare remnant in a local tavern. His research indicated the animal was shot in 1915 in Siberia, and he claimed it was the world’s only known four-tusker.
McKillop was both craftsman and salesman. So one can wonder at the monogram — a mix of his A and M initials — visible at the base of the totem poles appearing at each end of the postcard. Did Mack commission or acquire the poles or carve them himself? Another unsolved puzzle!
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Big thanks to Dan Kerlee, Ron Edge, Barbara Manning and especially Victoria McKillop for their invaluable help in assembling the elements and thrust of this column!
Below are 55 supplemental photos, a map, an email message, four certificates and, in chronological order, 43 historical clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that relate to Mack’s Totem Curio Shop, A.A. McKillop and the Marion Street Viaduct and that were helpful in the preparation of this column.