Business and Industry in Seattle in 1900

  • By James R. Warren
  • Posted 9/15/1999
  • Essay 1669

A look at Seattle area businesses in 1900 indicates that the economy was simpler, life less complicated, labor harder, travel slower, and that a person's opportunities to enhance the quality of life were rarer. The modest turn-of-the-century Seattle skyline was that of a town, but within a decade steel-framed skyscrapers poked high crowns into the heavens above a true city. Historian James R. Warren (1925-2012) surveys local industries and businesses at the beginning of the twentieth century in this special essay, adapted with permission from the Puget Sound Business Journal.

The Seattle City Directory of 1900 boasted: "Seattle is the principal manufacturing center of the Pacific Northwest. The census shows that instead of ranking with Portland, Tacoma and Everett, this city, including her suburbs, far outstrips them all in general manufacturing industries." Seattle's manufactured products that year were worth about $50 million. The work force numbered about 13,000 persons and the payroll for the year was $9 million, an average of about $50 a month per employee. The values of types of goods sold include:

  • Groceries, $6.25 million
  • Clothing and dry goods, $6 million
  • Flour, hay, grain and feed, $5.5 million
  • Packing house products, $4.5 million
  • Hardware, $3 million
  • Heavy machinery, $3 million
  • Fresh meats, $1.9 million

Wood, Coal, and Iron

Lumber and wood products (shingles, sashes, doors, and furniture) were the leading exports of the time. In 1900, more than 340 lumber and shingle mills in Western Washington produced 405 million board feet of lumber and more than three billion shingles. Of Seattle's 31 shingle mills, 14 had Ballard addresses.

Coal was also a major export and the primary fuel for industry and homes. Soft coal was mined in the areas around Lake Sammamish and southeast of Renton. A giant gasification plant near present-day Union Station converted coal into gas for lighting and power. (Electricity, first generated in Seattle in 1886, was chiefly used to drive streetcars.)

More than 900 Seattle firms, many of them tiny specialty shops, were involved with some kind of manufacturing. Among the larger companies were packers of pork and beef, including Armour, Carstens, Cudahy, and Swift. More meat was consumed per capita than is the case today, and animal fat (lard) was the major cooking oil.

No fewer than 133 mining companies had Seattle offices, many of them operating holdings in Alaska. The search for metals and minerals continued in the Cascade foothills but with limited success.

Living by the Sea

Puget Sound iron foundries produced engines and mill machinery worth about $2.5 million per year. Their most frequent customers were the 16 ship and boat yards located on Elliott Bay. American Boat Building Co. at 2nd and Jackson proudly advertised its new-style steam and gasoline launches. Moran Brothers sold mining machinery and mill and engine supplies. Western Machinery specialized in lumber mill engines, boilers, and saws.

The fishing industry reported a healthy $25 million in capital. Seattle's trade with Asia, nonexistent five years earlier, was worth more than $15 million a year by 1900. James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railroad, was building a huge terminal at Smith Cove and commissioned two of the world¹s largest freighters to shuttle goods and passengers between Seattle and "the Orient."


Family-owned retail outlets were found every few blocks in those days. The Seattle City Directory of 1900 lists 232 neighborhood groceries, 217 saloons, 74 meat markets, 43 bakeries, and 64 dairies. Not one chain store is mentioned.

Drugstores, 52 of them, were scattered throughout the city, including George Bartell's store at 506 2nd Avenue. Most druggists advertised patent medicines regularly.

The Seattle City Directory of 1900 listed only two businesses under the heading "Department Stores." One, The Leader, is unknown today. The other, The Bon Marché (now Bon-Macy), is better known today than it was in 1900, when it was located at 1419-35 2nd Avenue.

Ready-made clothing was not as available in 1900 as it is today. As a result, Seattle was home to 183 dressmakers and 42 merchant tailors. There were 178 express companies in Seattle in 1900 when less than a third of the homes had telephones. United Parcel Service was founded in Seattle in 1907 by James Casey and Claude Ryan and at first employed bicycle messengers.

Smoking and Entertaining

Though 4 billion cigarettes were produced in the United States in 1900, many men considered cigarette smoking to be effete. Pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco were more popular on Puget Sound. Local residents helped 134 cigar and tobacco retailers succeed in business. Washington state briefly banned cigarettes, but not other tobacco products, once in 1893 and again in 1911.

Home entertainment was popular in many families, creating a demand for pianos and musical instruments. The Seattle City Directory of 1900 lists 128 music teachers.

There were 92 Seattle restaurants serving meals. Eighty-three barbers trimmed hair and beards, many offering baths in the back of the shop for customers who did not have such facilities at home. In those days, when housewives hand-scrubbed dirty clothes on washboards and boiled soiled linens in copper tubs atop a wood stove, 65 laundries served the city. Dry cleaning did not exist.

Rise of the Professions

A hundred years ago, typewriter retailers demonstrated the latest office technology. There were 13 such stores in Seattle and both public and private schools offered typing classes. The technology opened new job opportunities for women, and many took clerical courses. Graduates were not called typists back then; both they and their machines were known as "typewriters." Business was good, and typewriter magnate Lyman C. Smith (1834-1910), of Smith Corona fame, would build the city's tallest building, the Smith Tower, in 1914.

Educational professionals were gaining influence as the century turned. Previous to that time, school children usually completed no more than the sixth grade. However, technology was advancing, and by 1900 the big red brick Seattle Central School at 7th and Madison was enrolling increasing numbers of high school students. In 1902, Broadway High School opened to provide additional facilities for the higher grades.

The City Directory lists 311 Seattle lawyers practicing in 1900, 178 physicians, 126 nurses, 55 dentists, and 11 veterinarians. Many of these professionals had trained as apprentices under seniors in the profession. However, colleges and universities were beginning to develop legal and medical departments.

The engineering profession listed 21 civil engineers, 13 mining engineers, seven mechanical, six consulting, and four electrical engineers. There were 24 architects listed, 39 artists (producers of portraits, landscapes, and the like), 25 photographers, and 24 clairvoyants.

One wonders if the clairvoyants could see how dramatically Seattle would develop in the coming decades.


James R. Warren, "A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999.
Adapted with permission. Original copyright 1999, Puget Sound Business Journal.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You