What could have caused shoppers to crowd around the entrance to a downtown Chattanooga jewelry store in November 1953?
Well, it's hard to know precisely since there is no record of this Chattanooga Free Press staff photo actually appearing in the newspaper. Consequently, no caption exists to definitively solve the mystery.
But, here's a guess.
On Nov. 6, 1953, the same month this photo was taken, LeGrand Jewelry Co. at 604 Market St. bought a large display advertisement in the Chattanooga Free Press with news so exciting that it required two exclamation points.
"LeGrand Astounds Chattanooga!" the ad's headline read. "Sale of Sterling Silver!"
And, indeed, this crowd looks highly motivated — or at least excited enough to line up prior to the store's opening. Let's hope the missing baby implied in this photo — note the empty stroller — is in its mother's arms somewhere in the huddle.
Why would shoppers go ga-ga over soup spoons and butter knives? Well, a little historic context might be instructive. In the mid-20th century, owning sterling silver flatware was aspirational for the middle class, sort of like quartz countertops today. It was the waning years of a silver-focused housewares trend that had lasted almost a century.
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By the 1950s the cost of silver was on the rise and sale prices on sterling silver pieces were rare. In fact, the 1953 newspaper ad also trumpeted: "Buy the sterling silver you have always wanted at an amazingly low price. First time ever offered on sale."
Indeed, the regular price of a single sterling silver place setting at LeGrand Jewelry Co. — the precursor of Zales Jewelry here — was $27. In 1953, meanwhile, the federal minimum wage in the United States was 75 cents per hour, making the cost almost a week's wages at entry-level pay.
The sale was offering the same $27 place setting for $19.99. That included a teaspoon, luncheon knife, luncheon fork, salad fork, soup spoon and butter spreader. Meanwhile a complete set of six sterling silver place settings could be had for $99.99 during the sale, down from a normal price of $135.
Sterling silver flatware was so popular in 1953 that some Chattanooga families were "registered" at local jewelry stores so friends could buy them single forks and spoons as gifts. Soon, though, tastes changed and consumers drifted to flatware that was cheaper and easier to clean than sterling silver, which contained 92.5 percent pure silver and 7.5 percent copper alloy.
At the time of this photo, LeGrand Jewelry Co. was located adjacent to the downtown J.C. Penney department store in the 600 block of Market Street. Also on that block were the old State Theater and Kay Jewelry. That block today is occupied by the Hamilton County Courts Building and the United Way of Greater Chattanooga offices.
Later in the 1950s, a few years after this photo was made, LeGrand Jewelry Company became Zales-LeGrand Jewelry Company, and by the 1960s simply Zales. Later, Zales stores, part of a national retail chain, became ubiquitous in Chattanooga area malls.
This photo is part of the Chattanooga Free Press collection of images at ChattanoogaHistory.com, a website curated by history buff Sam Hall. Follow the "Remember When, Chattanooga" public group on Facebook.
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