Finding just the right phrase to represent a city in a few words was never easy, and Tacoma was no more successful at it than anyone else.
Going back to the 1800s, the city rolled out one slogan after another.
Tacoma wanted to be known, in various decades, as “Lumber Capital of the World,” then “Where Rails Meet Sails” and “The New York of the West.”
“The phrase “You’ll Like Tacoma” was introduced at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in Seattle on what is now the campus of the University of Washington.
The Booster Club installed 20-foot tall white letters along the shore of Lake Union, facing the Expo. The letters were electrified, allowing the city to claim a world record for Tacoma —the largest electrified sign in America.
That anecdote and dozens more go on display Monday (Dec. 8) at the Tacoma Historical Society Museum in an exhibit called “Greetings from Tacoma: Souvenirs and Boosterism.”
Museum volunteer and Tacoma author Deb Freedman wrote those notes and others about the eras when the city found ways to promote itself and the region using everything from postcards to spoons.
“It’s fascinating history,” Freedman said.
And surprisingly accessible.
If you’ve got kids, or simply remember being one from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the first things you’ll see at the museum may delight you.
Back in 1964, Never Never Land opened in Point Defiance Park with 17 storybook scenes, later expanded to 26. They included the Three Little Pigs, Little Miss Muffet, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and a scene from Bambi.
When Never Never Land closed, the figures were stored by Metro Parks Tacoma in the basement of the Pagoda building in the park. When an arson gutted the Pagoda in April 2011, many of the figures were ruined or badly damaged.
“We have seven of those figurines on loan from Metro Parks,” Freedman said. “Everything from Bambi to the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood.”
Another part of the exhibit is a history lesson on Tacoma’s first church, Old St. Peter’s, which was built in 1873. Church-going children in Philadelphia began saving their pennies to buy St. Peter’s a bell, and a year later did so.
In Tacoma, the church had a steeple but nowhere for a bell. Lumberjacks topped off a huge tree nearby and mounted the bell atop the towering stump. Upon counting the rings and realizing the tree was over 300 years old, a promotion was born.
Postcards of St. Peter’s said its bell tower was the oldest in America.
Early Tacoma drew well-known visitors, including Mark Twain. In 1889, a British journalist, Rudyard Kipling, then 24, stayed in Tacoma during a long writing tour through America.
His description of the city?
"Tacoma was literally staggering under a boom of the boomiest," Kipling wrote.
Though Mount Rainier was named in 1792 by England’s Naval captain George Vancouver, history shows locals called it Mount Tacoma throughout the 1800s. Some of the Tacoma’s earliest souvenirs were based around that name.
As late as 1915, candymaker Brown & Haley introduced the Mount Tacoma Bar. Years later, the name changed to Mountain Bar.
Some of Tacoma’s history seems more like fiction than fact.
Using surplus shipbuilding parts, restaurateurs Allen Rau and Bert Sundgren built a restaurant on pilings in 1946 and called it Top of the Ocean. The place was a Tacoma favorite for decades.
Apparently not everyone loved it.
On April 3, 1977, 17-year-old David Levage arrived in a taxi, carrying a gallon can of gasoline. He set the building afire, destroying most of “The Top,” as it was called.
Levage was convicted of arson and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The restaurant was never rebuilt.
The museum exhibit has hundreds of items, on loan from Freedman, Bill Baarsma, Scott Larsen, Polly Medlock, Paul Michaels, Metro Parks and the Smith-Western Company.
The museum seems to have learned from the history of Tacoma boosterism. It offers for sale reprinted postcards, mugs, mouse pads and a stuffed animal replica of Jack the Bear, once a Tacoma landmark himself.
But that’s another story.