I read about the whole Will the last person leaving Seattle turn the lights out thing years ago in Roger Sale’s 1976 book Seattle Past to Present. Between January 1970 and December 1971, Boeing laid off 65,000 people, almost two-thirds of its workforce. Sale wrote:
Seattle made the national news … and the tale most often told outside of the bleak unemployment figures was one of billboards and bumper stickers that asked the last person leaving Seattle please to turn out the lights.
I wasn’t especially impressed. I’d seen almost exactly the same message spray-painted on an abandoned building on the edge of downtown Buffalo, New York, a few years before I read the book. The Seattle Times reports that the phrase originated in Seattle and has since been copied all over the world, including presumably Buffalo.
But returning to Roger Sale, it sounds like he didn’t get it quite right, not if you believe today’s segment on local NPR station KUOW or this Seattle Times article from last year, which is odd considering that Sale was writing about the story just five years after it happened. Sounds like it was in fact just one billboard (shown above) located down near the airport. And they didn’t ask politely: there was no please in the message.
The billboard was supposed to be up for a month, but KOMO radio kicked up such a fuss that it came down after just 15 days, and the folks behind it—referred to by some as the “two idiots”—got half their money ($80) back. Humorless opposition billboards veered into doth-protest-too-much territory. “Who says the lights are out in Seattle … NOT US!” said one.
The Economist (PDF) also got into the spirit of things in 1971 with:
The country’s best buys in used cars, in secondhand television sets, in houses, are to be found in Seattle, Washington. The city has become a vast pawnshop, with families selling anything they can do without to get money to buy food and pay the rent.
According to KUOW today:
On March 24, 1971, the Boeing Corporation laid off 7,000 employees, marking the nadir in a string of cutbacks that became known as the “Boeing Bust.”
Forty years ago today. Doesn’t sound like that was the nadir—the lowest point—if cuts continued through December, but maybe Roger is a little off on that one too. Either way, Historylink.org reports that the now infamous billboard first appeared on April 16, 1971.