Meet Brad Holden, Seattle’s Unofficial Historian

Virtually anything that represents the past is fair game
| Updated: June 18, 2021
 
 
Historian and author Brad Holden holds an original Prohibition-era closure notification police would post on businesses caught selling alcohol.

This story is featured in the May/June issue of Seattle magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.

Brad Holden's Seattle Artifacts Instagram page is a random, eclectic treasure trove of the region’s colorful past.

Among the 1,300-plus items on his page is a 1920s-era membership card for The Lonesome Club, a former nightclub in the Holyoke Building on First and Spring in downtown Seattle that served as a dating site long before lonely hearts were swiping right on Tinder or Bumble. It is now a coworking space. Vintage menus from iconic Seattle staples such as the Dog House restaurant recall a simpler and less expensive time ($4 hamburgers, anyone?)

There’s a nod to Bea Haverfield, known as Seattle’s “Queen of the Neon,” who created many of the signs that now define Old Seattle, including Dick’s Drive-In, Chubby & Tubby, Ivar’s Seafood Restaurant and the pink Elephant Car Wash pachyderm recently removed. Interesting side note: The lettering on many is actually Haverfield’s own handwriting.

Holden’s extensive collection includes treats such as these: the rich history of Rainier and Olympia beer advertisements; memorabilia from the Supersonics, Mariners and Totems; political advertise-ments; Seafair promotions and even a 1922 newspaper clip from the defunct Seattle Star on rumrunners and their orgies. 

The collection is even more impressive considering that Holden isn’t a trained historian. He holds a “regular job” that doesn’t involve history. “I’m completely self-taught,” says Holden, a self-proclaimed “urban archaeologist” who scours for historical artifacts at estate sales and flea markets and, during the pandemic, virtually. “I have no formal academic training. I just go out and find things related to Seattle history, bring it back to my house, research it and post it on my Instagram.”

Holden displays his collection at local venues, writes for Historylink.org and volunteers at the Edmonds Historical Museum. He is also the author of a book, “Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners & Graft in the Queen City,” described as a “spectacular story of Seattle in the time of Prohibition.” He is now working on a book about Al Hubbard, a little-known bootlegger and spy who died in 1982. It will be published this summer.

Edmonds Historical Museum Executive Director Katie Kelly calls amateur historians like Holden “super important” because many people consider everyday artifacts and objects meaningless. By collecting items like old menus and trinkets, Holden helps create a sense of place and time and keeps the city grounded. Holden was prepar-ing to open an exhibit about Haverfield at the museum – which has more than 26,000 artifacts – but that’s on hold due to the pandemic.

“A lot of those items are unknown or lost to time. With him and any other amateur historians, they do the research and it is very detailed. Ultimately, it really encourages people to tell their own stories of objects they’ve found,” Kelly says. “What I see on his Instagram page are people talking about certain events, what it meant to them, but more important than what it means to somebody else, he’s preserving history.”

Surprisingly, Holden says he has no particular emotional attachment to most of the items in his growing collection, though he says his extensive Prohibition collection means the most to him. The “top” items in his collection relate to the city’s founding, including correspondence from Arthur Denny, who led the party of immigrants who first landed at Alki Beach in West Seattle and subsequently founded the city; Henry Yesler, an early entrepreneur; and Thomas Moore, a developer who created the Moore Theatre on Second Avenue.

Leonard Garfield, the longtime director of Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry, has never met Holden but is very familiar with his work. Garfield says Holden has an eye for historically significant items that even trained historians tend to ignore, such as decades-old restaurant menus that seemed unimportant at the time. Holden’s real strength, Garfield says, is “weaving idiosyncrasies that define cities in a charming way.

“Brad’s mementos of the past may seem inconsequential, but they carry so much emotional weight,” adds Garfield, who has led MOHAI since 1999. “Brad understands that the city right now in this moment is composed of all these earlier moments. When you tell people and give them insights into where they live, I think they take an interest in it and then take better care of it. It makes us aware that what we do now has consequences.”

Holden’s hobby adds to the rich tapestry of Seattle’s past reflected in museums across the city, including the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, the National Nordic Museum and the Northwest African American Museum. Holden brings a unique perspective as a private collector, Garfield says.

“Even though relatively speaking we’re a young city, these things become increasingly important,” he notes. “They tell stories about ourselves that aren’t in the straight histories. The artifacts bring meaning themselves.”

Holden’s interest in history dates to his childhood in Spokane. His stepfather’s hobby was restoring old cars, and Holden would often tag along to swap meets and fl ea markets, where he spent his time combing through comic books and toys. He began his current quest about 15 years ago, when he went in search of vintage décor to decorate a home office. “I got the bug again,” he recalls.

His daughter, a teenager at the time, showed him how to create an Instagram page and, to his surprise, “It just took off. I thought if I could get 20 to 30 people interested, it would be a success.” He now has more than 6,300 followers. His home office is packed with historical decorations, but he’s conscious to keep it under control and says he rarely hangs onto larger pieces. He has a reasonable idea of the worth of his collection but has never had it appraised. He plans to pass it onto his daughter at some point.

Holden casts a wider net than most private collectors, who tend to concentrate on narrow interests. His site is littered with random artifacts: old political buttons and candidate brochures; pictures of long-defunct Seattle businesses and old ashtrays; memorabilia from high schools, including sports schedules and commencement programs; and brochures ranging from the 1909 Pacific Exposition to the World’s Fair in 1962. Virtually anything that represents the past is fair game.

He doesn’t always immediately understand the significance of the items he stumbles upon. He became interested in Haverfield after finding an old restaurant menu at an estate sale. He did some research and was delighted to find that nobody had previously written about her.

“The more obscure the better,” he says. “I like weird.” He’s particularly fond of a robotic apple dispenser from the 1920s, “one of the first tech pieces of the time.” His discovery of the remnants of an old copper moonshine still at an estate sale sparked his interest in Prohibition, which led to his first book. 

His collection also reflects his nostalgia and awe for the 1990s, a transformative period in Seattle’s history. He was in his 20s then and soaked up all the city had to offer. He has an extensive collection of sports memorabilia, including commemorative glasses and bobble-heads from the ’90s-era Seattle Supersonics and Seattle Mariners. 

Seattle truly started to become a global city in the 1990s, Holden says, ticking off grunge music and the pop-culture appeal of TV shows like “Frasier” and movies like “Singles,” both of which were set in Seattle. “Everyone was talking about the city,” he says, citing a Time magazine cover story from the era that also became a line on the TV show “Seinfeld.” “People were moving here to become a tech millionaire.” 

He notes that Seattle transitioned from “Jet City” to “Tech City” in the 1990s and is preparing for yet another transition within the next five years or so.

“I heard a quote recently that every 25 years, Seattle sheds its skeletons and a new version emerges,” he says. 

Both Holden and Garfi eld are keenly cognizant that the pandemic is rapidly, and unfortunately, creating new opportunities to preserve history. MOHAI is collecting masks and signs warning of social distancing, as well as taking oral histories from front-line medical workers. Garfield says Seattle was among the fi rst cities to mandate masks during the 1918 Spanish Flu, and has some in its collection.

Holden adds that the city is “absolutely losing its history at a rapid rate” because of the pandemic. He’s particularly focused on preserving the history of recently closed Seattle restaurants, including The Brooklyn Café, Beth’s Café and most of Tom Douglas’s restaurants.

“We won’t get it back again,” he says. “There won’t be another Elephant Car Wash, Beth’s Café or Randy’s Restaurant. Any restaurants that are popular now, or were popular before Covid, will have kind of a nostalgia. That’s usually the stuff people get nostalgic for: restaurants, music venues and bowling alleys.

“History preserves the character of what constitutes Seattle, what informs its personality and its characteristics.”

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