The Golden Potlatch Alaska Parade float, 1912. Photo by Frank Jacobs
The Golden Potlatch Alaska Parade float, 1912. Photo by Frank Jacobs

Seattle’s Golden Potlatch celebrations were among the most exciting events of life between the Gold Rush and World War I, but most of us have little idea of what it felt like to be immersed in these colorful festivals. These direct precursors to today’s Seafair featured a level of creativity and craftsmanship that began to slip away as our life became increasingly industrialized. They also engendered some controversy that persists to this day.

Local residents can get a rare glimpse into the stories behind the Golden Potlatch and its successors, illustrated with many rare photographs and color poster art, at this month’s meeting of the Queen Anne Historical Society. The program will take place on Thursday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the Church of Christ, 2555 Eighth Ave. W. (formerly Seventh Church of Christ-Scientist). The presentation follows a tour of the church sanctuary and a short business meeting.

Emulating Mardi Gras

The first Golden Potlatch was conceived in a very short timeframe in 1911 and was immediately embraced by all levels of Seattle society. In the short span of five months, an immense week-long carnival was created, with many of the features that we associate with Seafair — not only parades, helpful court jesters like today’s Pirates, Navy tours and powerboat races, but even flying demonstrations by the only real Naval aviator at the time.

“Golden” refers to the discovery of Alaskan gold in 1897, which launched Seattle’s great boom after four years of national and local economic depression. In the decade that followed, Seattle’s population would rebound from 30,000 to 250,000.

“Potlatch” is a version of Native American, or First People’s, term that referred to great and often sacred feasts and celebrations. At their height, these could last for days, with much dancing, gift-giving and establishment of social order. Although they were greatly restricted during the early 20th century, smaller and unofficial potlatches did take place, and the concept was well known to Puget Sound residents. Local business leaders hoped to emulate the great success of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivals, with a similar grand carnival that could help create branding for Seattle, provide a sense of civic unity through celebration and provide historical continuity for a newly arrived populace.

The first festival of 1911 put its heaviest emphasis on Seattle’s story and general entertainment and publicity, while using the potlatch metaphor to symbolize a gift of gaiety for all people.

In 1912, a much stronger connection with Vancouver Island and Alaskan Native American art and ceremony was developed and promoted.

While our views on cultural appropriation have matured dramatically in a hundred years, we can still appreciate the innocence and artistic endeavor of these times. Although a Native American-like symbol was developed and the city was decorated with hundreds of signs and faux totems, the carnival’s emphasis overall was on colorful entertainment, fireworks, aviation, commercial connection and promotion, the Navy and musical performance.

There was also a great deal of alcohol consumption, and citizens were encouraged to celebrate freely in the streets at times, leading to one of the famous incidents of mayhem in Seattle history: the 1913 “Potlatch Riot.” 

A time of artistic splendor

WWI helped put an end to the early Potlatch celebrations. Although there were no official celebrations under the Potlatch name for almost two decades, summer festivals had become established. The spirit of the first Golden Potlatches continued for most years, expressed through Fleet Weeks, special pageants and artistic merchant expositions.

The Potlatch name continued to come up, and finally, in the later Depression-era years, new Potlatch celebrations brightened the city’s summers almost annually until the start of World War II.

Each of these eras will be illustrated in Thursday’s talk, which will feature more than 90 illustrations and many stories from this time of festivity and artistic splendor.

DAN KERLEE is a Magnolia resident. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.