Sidney Thal was born on July 15, 1909, in Malden, Massachusetts, to Samuel and Gertrude Rosenthal, Jewish immigrants born respectively in Lithuania and the Ukraine. Samuel changed his name from Thal to Rosenthal upon emigrating to the United States from England in 1906 (he changed it back in 1913). Samuel's militant socialism and his activism in trying to unionize fellow tailors led to unwelcome scrutiny from the local police. The great labor leader Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) advised Thal to relocate -- fast -- and in 1916 he traveled West to join his brothers in Bellingham, Washington.
Young Sidney displayed early talent for the piano and joined his brother Sol, a violinist, in giving recitals. He was also adept at tennis and won the Bellingham city championship in high school. Thal met his future wife Berta while taking piano lessons and together they enrolled at the University of Washington. He also took a part-time job in the Weisfeld and Goldberg jewelry store near the UW campus. But in 1929 the Stock Market crash brought an end to both his employment and his studies.
Hair Coloring Not His Thing
Sidney then took a series of traveling salesman jobs, peddling everything from stocks to hair coloring across the United States. In one of the more comical incidents on the road, he demonstrated a new hair rinse at a salon in Lincoln, Nebraska. The first customer was the wife of the president of the University of Nebraska. She was having her hair done on the eve of the annual football match against the University of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, the product turned her hair bright green. Sidney beat a hasty retreat.
Sidney and Berta ultimately moved to Portland, Oregon, where they married in 1934. After their first child, Stephen, was born in 1940, the couple returned to Bellingham. During World War II, Sidney served as a civilian manager at the U.S. Navy terminal at Seattle's Piers 90 and 91. Sidney and Berta's second child, Cynthia, was born in 1945.
After the war, Sidney took a new job managing Fox's Gem Shop in the Skinner Building in downtown Seattle. Henry Fox founded the store in 1912, and later sold the business to Herb Meltzer. When Meltzer decided to sell, Sidney and Berta scraped together $15,000 to buy it. They took over the business on February 9, 1949, but retained the original name -- they could not afford to repaint the sign on the windows. The arrival of their third child Joy in 1950 stretched finances even further.
The Thals could not afford much inventory. Fortunately, Matty Singer, a visiting wholesaler from New York City, took pity on the struggling couple and advanced them gems and antique jewelry at no charge. His confidence laid the foundation for a thriving business in the 1950s and 1960s.
Fox's Gems gained an unofficial mascot in 1966, when Sidney and Berta joined other couples to purchase a 1954 Austin "London Cab" at a PONCHO arts benefit auction. Their fellow bidders soon lost interest in the boxy, black taxi, and Sidney took ownership. Soon after, he traveled to London to visit his son and acquired his first Bowler hat. The dapper jeweler in his English hat and cab became a Seattle fixture. Before long, advertising consultant David Stern adapted the image to promote Fox's in television commercials.
In 1979, Fox's Gem Shop moved across 5th Avenue and reopened in the prime Union Street corner of the new Rainier Square. Sidney turned over most of the daily management chores to his son-in-law, Chai Mann, an accomplished jewelry designer. He was not ready to retire quite yet, and leapt at David Stern's suggestion that he share his repertoire of anecdotes in a series of newspaper advertisements.
From Jeweler to Writer
Stern served as ghost-writer for the first few ads, which debuted in April 1993, but Sidney soon took over the typewriter. A popular theme is the running "dialogue" with his son-in-law over their conflicting views of business and life. One of the funniest exchanges involves the displacement of Sidney's store office to make room for a complete Mastodon skeleton purchased by Chai. (The Mastodon has since moved to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Washington campus.)
Writing lessons in Palm Springs helped to sharpen Thal's skills and he also began to write short stories and poetry. A shadow fell over this happy semi-retirement when Berta, who had been disabled by a long illness, died in 1996.
In 1998, Sidney Thal published a collection of his anecdotes and short fiction titled Loose Gems: Stories About Life, Love & Business. Proceeds from the book's sale benefit the Seniors Making Art program established by Dale Chihuly. On his 90th birthday in 1999, Sidney announced that he had started work on a second book.
Sid Thal died on May 20, 2002, at his winter home in Palm Springs, California. He was 92 years old.