Signs of the Time

Pick apart a 1920s-era photograph of a gang of local youths outside a corner grocery store.

Though nearly illegible, the word on the wall next to the back motorcycle tire appears to read “Crawford.” Could this have been the Crawford Grocery Store that was located on Randolph Street? Photo courtesy of Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Although the photo above is undated, it does a pretty good job of time-stamping itself somewhere in the late 1920s or early 1930s. For starters, the car’s body style (seen far right) is more boxy than the aerodynamic shapes that followed in the ’30s, and the motorcycle has the iconic teardrop-shaped gas tank that Harley-Davidson introduced around 1925. (It is difficult to tell if the steel horse has front brakes, a feature the manufacturer added in 1928.)

Perhaps the most telling “signs of the time” are the signs themselves. Both Baby Ruth candy bars and NuGrape soda were developed in 1921. Smith’s Bakery, opened by Gordon Smith at the turn of the 20th century, used the slogan “For Goodness Sake” through at least 1930, as evidenced by ads run in newspapers along the Gulf. Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale peaked in popularity around 1927, and its sign located along the top of the building touts, “Keep Healthy,” a nod to the drink’s ability to soothe upset stomachs.

Maybe the most telling sign of all is the one for Chero. The beverage was known as “Chero-Cola” until the early 1920s when pressured by Coca-Cola to drop “cola” from its name. Chero’s sales declined, and in 1925, the company reemerged with a new drink, fruit-flavored Nehi, mentioned twice on the building. 

“The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that there were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.”

excerpt from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain

Price Check

Cost of an ice-cold bottle of Birmingham-made Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale in 1927. Grocer Sidney Lee brewed the ginger beverage in 1901 from a tonic for upset stomachs formulated by Selma pharmacist Ashby Coleman. Lee added the carbonation, and the spicy sipper went on to be one of the few pleasures people could still enjoy during the hard times of the Great Depression.

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How much money Gordon Smith had in his pocket in 1899 when he moved to Mobile from his native New Orleans to help a family friend’s grocery and bakery business. Smith’s Bakery, launched just a year later, was an early producer of sliced, wrapped loaves in the 1920s, and was one of the first to enrich bread with vitamins and minerals.

Do you recognize this store or the “street toughs” pictured? Let us know! Email [email protected]

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