In the early 20th century merchants in towns like Lawrenceville and Norcross offered the goods that were required for everyday living, but if you wanted to see the “latest and greatest”, or purchase something “extra special”, one thought of visiting stores like Rich’s, Macy’s, J M High’s or one of the other department and specialty stores on streets like Whitehall and Peachtree in Atlanta. The photo below, from the atlantahistory.com website, shows Whitehall Street (today renamed to be the southern section of Peachtree Street) in 1955, towards the end of its heyday as the premier shopping destination in Atlanta.
And, if you were going from a farm or small town to shop in downtown Atlanta in those days then
- The trip was many times considered an “occasion”, and you dressed up accordingly, and
- There were “street photographers” roaming the sidewalks downtown looking for both locals and visitors who might pay a quarter or 50 cents for a photo they could take back home to remind them of their trip to the big city.
The photo below is an example from such a trip. It shows brother and sister Frank and Jane Scott, with their mother Emma Dodgen Scott in the background, as they were leaving the Lerner Shop at 62 Whitehall Street in downtown Atlanta circa 1940. The Scotts lived in Norcross – Emma’s father Franklin Dodgen had been the town marshal at the beginning of the 20th century, and it was there that Emma had met and married her sweetheart Ben Scott. Ben and Emma Scott, lifelong residents of the area, raised three children, daughter Jane and sons Frank and Rusty.
The Lerner Shops retail chain (with stores often referred to as just “Lerner’s” by customers) was started by Samuel Lerner and Harold Lane in the early 1900s, and, according to the Lost City blog, the business grew to encompass stores in 450 or more locations across the United States. The stores specialized in “popular-priced, ready-to-wear lady’s apparel” according to an article in the Atlanta Constitution in 1942. Many of the stores had similar facades, with the name of the store spelled out in a distinctive font, harkening back to their roots in the early 1900s, as shown in the accompanying photo.
It is not clear which of the street photographers working in downtown Atlanta took the photo of the Scotts – there were many such vendors over the years – but one who was active in those days was Oscar E. Kilgo. In an interview his daughter, Betty Kilgo Harris, she recalled her father’s many business activities in the mid century. Among them he
- ran neighborhood movie houses and drive in theaters around the metro Atlanta area (including the Swan Theater and Gwinnett Drive In in Norcross – see the attached photo of the drive in, from the CinemaTreasures website),
- presented and promoted concerts by performers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Tommy Roe, and
- owned a recording studio in Brookhaven.
Mr. Kilgo was a photographer as well, acting as the official post photographer for Fort Gillem, an army facility on the south side of Atlanta in those days, in addition to maintaining a “man on the street” photo business.
In those days photographs were created by developing film – the “instant” polaroid process had not been invented at that point – and Mr. Kilgo generated his photos as follows. He would take a batch of photos on the street, promising the subjects that he would have the print ready for them at the same spot in under an hour. He would then rush to a nearby dime store where he rented space that he had equipped as a darkroom for photo processing. There he would quickly develop and print the photos and take them back to his customers so they could take them home as a souvenir as promised.
Jane Scott (now Jane Scott Cunningham) remembers those trips to Atlanta when she was young, and that trip in particular – she recalls not the details of the blouse that she purchased that day (it was in the box in her hand in the photograph) – but rather the price that she paid - $4.00, a hefty sum for such an item of clothing in those times from her point of view. It must have been a nice one!
Many thanks to Betty Scott Jarrett for the use of the photograph of her family members, and for her stories of shopping in those days as passed down by her aunt. Photos are from Betty or from the websites as noted.