Seattle has always been a town to come alive after dark. Perhaps that’s because the sun sets so early most of the year. Whatever the reason, Seattle’s nightlife is her heartbeat, and we have always been a town quick to embrace the dark.
At one time, our proclivity for sin played a hand in disaster. A fire that started in a woodworking shop had the good fortune to find itself surrounded by liquor stores and saloons. Fueled by massive amounts of alcohol, that fire went on to destroy Seattle. Downtown was lost. 29 city blocks, leveled.
According to the census, in a town of 40,000 – mostly men – there were about 2,700 seamstresses. Interestingly, the vast majority of those working women all lived on the same street in Pioneer Square.
Seattle saw the ashes as a blank canvas for bold moves. The old city still exists, buried beneath the Seattle we know. We rebuilt stronger, and higher, and spared no expense. In the year after the fire, the city’s population nearly doubled thanks, in part, to the scale of construction being done and the workers required to do it.
At the same time, the city was quickly going broke. Infrastructure is necessary, but not free. A census was organized to uncover just how many new residents the town had, and how they might pay for the raised streets and functional plumbing.
The influx of construction workers came as no surprise to anyone. The accompanying influx of seamstresses was more of a head-scratcher. According to the census, in a town of 40,000 – mostly men – there were about 2,700 seamstresses. Interestingly, the vast majority of those working women all lived on the same street in Pioneer Square.
Seattle was not famous for a garment district, so the city council sent a few volunteers over to investigate. Believe it or not, they didn’t turn up a single sewing machine. Imagine, nearly three thousand seamstresses and not a sewing machine between them. They were, however, making astonishing profits.
The head seamstress, a German born entrepreneur by the name of Lou Graham, ran the finest sewing circle in town, catering to the upper echelon of Seattle society. She was also one of the most prosperous women of her time, a skilled businesswoman and investor. Graham and the council came to an agreement. Seattle’s seamstresses would help pay to rebuild their city, at a rate of ten dollars per week. This “sewing machine tax” would restock the city’s depleted coffers and, in return, earn the seamstresses a blind eye from the police as they peddled their craft.
Lou Graham and the working women of Pioneer Square helped Seattle to rise from the ashes of the worst fire in our history. If Graham was thanked for saving the city’s elite (and some say the bank itself) from bankruptcy amid the panic of 1893, it was done quietly. She wasn’t interested in the spotlight.
After all, Seattle’s heart does beat loudest after the sun sets.
This story is one of many delightful, lesser-told, Seattle-centric stories inspired by our coffee blends. We hope you enjoy reading them over a cup of great coffee.