1917 strike marked the first time ever that Seattle laundry owners
had been forced to acknowledge a female union. That body was Local
24, by far the largest working womens union in the city. (By
1925, it had become the largest local that could claim affiliation
with the International Laundry Workers' organization.) For the next
decade-and a-half, the laundrymen attempted to crush it - culminating
with a battle royal during 1932.
1932 strike remains the most violent of laundry disputes and it
was won by Seattle Empire Laundry. When laundry owners rejected
the Mayor's arbitration, Local 24 called out the plant at Bell and
Western. The walkout of its women ended the final laundry strike
in Seattle's long labor history.
in the late 1930s, the laundry industry changed dramatically, due
to the popular domestic washing machine. Power laundries had serviced
every level of the population but those laundries which followed
became specialist operations. Because of this, the history of power
laundries is now almost lost. Their struggles, accomplishments and
economic role became unknown to the public those who, in
the past, so depended on them.
its recent and disfiguring alterations (all begun after landmark
status had been granted), the Seattle Empire Laundry speaks for
past events - events which had deep effects upon the city, the region,
even the nation. Those events concern not one, but two, Northwestern
industries: the fur trade as well as the now-vanished commercial
involved notable persons as well as famous events.
building embodies that trade which shaped the career of union great
Dave Beck - who, in 1952, became General President of the International
Brotherhood of Teamsters. Beck led that union through its fastest
growth period, taking its membership from 78,000 to 1,580,000. As
the dynamic boss of the Western Conference of Teamsters, he was
for years Seattles only truly national figure. Both Presidents
Roosevelt and Truman wanted Beck to serve as Secretary of Labor,
but he declined both offers.
laundry's story also features Dave Becks business antagonists,
the powerful, organized "laundrymen" of Seattle. Seattle
Empire Laundry's founder D. C. Keeney was succeeded as an owner
by the tycoon John C. Hagen. Hagen, who amassed a local empire of
laundries, proved to be one of Dave Beck's wiliest, most intransigent
1951 to 1977, however, the laundry played a special role in a different
Northwestern trade. During that era, its life revolved around another
local magnate: the Alaska Fur Company's founder James Branson Simpson.
bought the structure as a manufacturing plant. But it leapt to unexpected
fame in 1955. That was the year of the national "Davy Crockett craze":
to this day, Americas biggest media-driven sales phenomenon.
During the height of America's Crockett-mania, the former laundry
cranked out 5,000 "coonskin caps" per day. Simpson was quoted in
Time magazine; he appeared on national television.
the Seattle Empire Laundry embodies light as well as darkness; the
deeply regional as well as the famously national; the history of
actual everyday working lives and of TV mythology. Its history is
to be found in archives and headlines, but also in letters and memories.
the history also has a serious, living component: the workers' rights
defended by the building's very earliest occupants.