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Alaska Life

What the sourdough bathtub controversy of 1946 tells us about changing times in Alaska

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: February 23
  • Published February 23

My historical research depends upon a very broad range of source material, from social media to maps to archives to government reports to books to even, one time, a matchbook. For 20th century Alaska, newspapers are crucial repositories for information. Newspapers are windows into what was considered relevant and worthy of public documentation. Sometimes, what was important decades ago remains important now, and sometimes what was important decades ago has shriveled into obscurity. Both types tell you something about the past.

“Nome No Longer One Horse Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 23, 1953, 11.

But every so often, you come across an especially hilarious newspaper article, one that has nothing to do with the research at hand but can’t be forgotten. These articles have fun titles, tell an amusing story, or are simply so bizarre that they need to be shared. For example, in 1940, a General Electric mathematician suggested to the New York Journal-American that widening the Bering Strait by “removing” the Seward Peninsula could warm the Alaska climate and encourage development.

What follows are three of my favorite articles that on their own mean little, but together offer some understanding of how far Alaska has come in recent decades. Each article was an accidental discovery, examples of how you never know what to expect.

One lovely October 1953 day, the Anchorage Daily Times ran an article with the headline: “Nome No Longer One Horse Town.” It’s an insult to be called a “one horse town.” The headline thus suggests that Nome is growing, perhaps even booming. If later today, you heard that some relatively random Alaskan town was no longer a one-horse town, it would be fair to wonder what happened to lift it out from its humble origins.

But whoever wrote or edited this Times article decided to have a little fun with the reader. The article’s title is the setup, and the first sentence is the punchline. “Nome No Longer One Horse Town”; “Nome’s one and only horse is dead.” The article continued, “Prince has gone to wherever horses go when they have lived a good and useful life.” Though sad for Prince, the article is fantastic proof that trolling existed long before the internet.

The next article was meant as an insult to Anchorage. In 1940, the Cordova Times published a lengthy feature with the Cordova perspective on Anchorage and Palmer. Due to “one of the very few paved streets,” Anchorage “has more the air of an ‘Outside’ city than I have seen in any town in Alaska, Yukon Territory or northern British Columbia,” said the author. Yes, because Anchorage had a paved street, it was considered more like an Outside city than not by Cordovans. And no, this was not considered a compliment.

Before construction on Fort Richardson began that summer, Anchorage had about 4,000 residents. The two cops in town worked opposite shifts. Seattle this was not.

The article continued, “Your average Anchorageite lives in a house, has a lawn to mow, and rushes from breakfast coffee to the office in his own automobile.”

First off, not a lot has changed. Today, Anchorage is famous for its high ratio of retail coffee options per resident. Cars and jobs also still exist. Second, this is how low the bar was to impress people in 1940 Cordova: a combination of homes, lawns, coffee, cars and jobs. The article also mentions that Palmer seemed “to have more farm machinery than farms,” and “the cemetery is the only place that shows no activity.” Cordova residents probably enjoyed this article a lot.

Last, there’s the great sourdough bathtub controversy of 1946.

That year, the San Bernardino Daily Sun offered an article titled, “Alaska Sourdoughs in Dither Over Consignment of Bathtubs.” Sourced out of Anchorage, the rumors of an outraged group of old Alaskan sourdoughs had reached all the way down to California.

“Alaska Sourdoughs in Dither Over Consignment of Bathtubs.” [San Bernardino] Daily Sun, March 31, 1946, 4.

The story was that sourdoughs were upset over the “disturbing rumor” that 40 large, white bathtubs were on their way to the Far North, somewhere within Alaska’s Arctic rim.

“Why, doggonit, that’s more bathtubs than there are in all Alaska north of Fairbanks,” said one mustachioed sourdough before “hurling a hunting knife into the board-walk.” A longtime trapper protested, “You don’t think they’re gonna make us all take baths, do ya? Baths ain’t good for a guy in the winter time.” A third old-timer was more curious about how they would reach their destination. He devoted himself to the logistics of dragging 107 yards of bathtub behind a sled team: “Don’t know what the dogs would think.”

As it turns out, the sourdoughs were worried for nothing. The bathtubs were destined for a new lodge under construction in Kotzebue for bush pilot Sam Shafsky, who also flew for Alaska Airlines. The news was a relief to the old sourdoughs, thankful that the bathtubs were meant for “dudes from the States and the high north is still a place where a man can take a bath or leave it alone.”

For many old time Alaskans, the loss of horses, addition of paved streets, and threat of baths were unwelcome signs of change, of a transition into a more modern Alaska. Everyone fears change, but everyone shouldn’t fear baths.

Key Sources:

“Alaska Sourdoughs in Dither Over Consignment of Bathtubs.” [San Bernardino] Daily Sun, March 31, 1946, 4.

Nelson, James A. “Anchorage and Matanuska as Seen by the Times.” Cordova Times, May 15, 1940, 5.

“Nome No Longer One Horse Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 23, 1953, 11.