There are a handful of shopping stores that are forever etched in the memories of New Yorkers who grew up in the 1900s. One way up on this list is undoubtedly Woolworth’s. Many people loved Woolworth stores and shopped in them almost on a daily basis. Of course, there were many others who were not too fond of the stores for various reasons including its controversial history. Regardless of one’s feeling towards the stores, the company infiltrated neighborhoods in every borough of New York City. They were also spread out across Long Island and upstate New York. The company had stores all across the United States and around the world. By 1979. Woolworth’s was the largest department store chain around the globe.
We all have memories of shopping in Woolworth’s. I brought my first 45 rpm record at Woolworth’s in 1971. You don’t forget moments like that. It was the Partridge family’s big hit “I Think I Love You.” I purchased it at the Woolworth’s on 204th Street in The Bronx. I was ten years old and I still remember like it was yesterday. Woolworth’s had their own top 100 list. Its where many people brought records. There were not many record stores around in the 1960s and 70s and I don’t remember any records store in our neighborhood in the Bronx. That’s one of the reasons what Woolworth’s was so successful. Woolworth’s was a one stop shop where you could final almost anything and pay a really cheap price for it. Known as the original five and dime stores, Woolworth’s was incredibly groundbreaking in so many ways……..both good…..and bad.
Woolworth’s stores were founded by a man named Frank Winfield Woolworth. In the late 1870’s Frank Woolworth was working in a small grocery store as a clerk when he came up with the idea to sell cheap 5 cent items at the counter. The idea turned out to be very successful. It was so successful it led Frank Woolworth to opening up his own store selling 5 cents items in Utica, New York. The store failed to be successful. If there ever was an example to be used as a lesson to young entrepreneurs in not quitting after their first failed attempt at starting a business, it would be the example of Frank Woolworth’s decision to try again after his Utica failure. Four months after his Utica store closed, Frank Woolworth opened up a new store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This time he expanded to selling 5 and 10 cent items. With a handful of partners by his side and a sheer will to be successful, the Lancaster store proved to be a winner. Soon, Woolworth and his partners were opening up stores all over Pennsylvania. With success in Pennsylvania the group quickly expanded to New York.
Frank Woolworth’s success started slow but then rapidly began expanding. In 1912, there were almost six hundred stores associated with Frank Woolworth in some sort of fashion. In a remarkable move, Frank Woolworth got all his partners and associated stores to incorporate under the name the ” F. W. Woolworth Company” One year later in 1913, Frank Woolworth would move his executive offices in New York to a new building that he had commissioned to be built a few years earlier. That new building would stand at 233 Broadway in Manhattan. It would become to be known as the Woolworth Building. However, this was no ordinary building. By 1930, the Woolworth Building would become the tallest building in the world. While it has obviously been eclipsed by modern skyscrapers, the Woolworth building still lists in the top 100 tallest buildings in the world as of 2020.
The advertising of Woolworth’s as a five and dime store was an advertisement that was taken quite literally. Woolworth actually had a price limit in their early stores. Unlike the 99 cent stores we frequent today where there are many items sold for more then 99 cents, Woolworth’s had an actual price limit where nothing was sold for more than either 5 or 10 cents. However, in 1932, the store added a 20 cents line of goods. With that line becoming very successful, three years later, the company’s cooperate offices decided to do away with price limits in the stores all together.
When most people speak of he city of Liverpool, England, they are almost always applying the city’s name in a discussion about The Beatles. However, the city of Liverpool is also known as the first city to incorporate a lunch counter inside a Woolworth store. If we look at all the coffee counters in Barnes and Noble stores and even the restaurants that would later open in places like Macy’s and Abraham & Straus stores, the idea started with Woolworth’s in Liverpool.
The concept of the lunch counter inside of Woolworth’s would not only play a role in economic history, but also in the Civic Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States. That role occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. At the time Woolworth’s had been utilizing a policy of racial segregation in their store’s luncheonettes. Horrifically ,like many other places in the South there were “whites only” sections at Woolworth’s lunch counters. Four men named David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell A. Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil who were also known as the Greensboro Four decided to sit at the whites only section of the Woolworth’s luncheonette in Greensboro. The four young African American men would continue to go to the Woolworth luncheonette every day until the store finally agreed to serve them while they sat in the whites only section. As each day passed more students would join them until it reached a capacity of 1000 students protesting in the store. Their brave actions that were captured by the media fueled a change in Woolworth policy which ended racial segregation in Woolworth Stores. It was an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The Greensboro Store.
Expansion and Competition
The 1960s would present many challenges to Woolworth. In 1962, three new stores that would become legends in their own right opened their first stores. K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Target all opened their first stores in 1962 providing direct competition to Woolworth’s. In response Woolworth decided to open a new chain of larger size stores under the name Woolco. Woolworth continued to expand into the 1960s and 1970 by opening up specialty stores in shopping malls across the United States. They were often opened up under different names. There were also Woolworth Express stores that opened in malls that focused on personal care items.
Eventually, competition from the bigger chain stores and changing social dynamics would lead Woolworth to begin closing and selling its stores. The Woolco chain stores were sold to Wal-Mart. By 1997, Woolworth had closed all of its stores opened under the Woolworth name. The company would also change its cooperate name to Venator. However, the company continued onward specializing in mail order sporting goods and focusing on some of their specialty stores that they had opened in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2001, the company changed it name one final time…..they were now called Foot Locker, Inc., Most people never knew that Foot Locker, Inc was a company that Woolworth had started in 1974.
The history of Woolworth’s is far reaching. It played a pivotal role in the development of retail stores in the United States and around the world. It was a store that eventually proved to be too competitive to allow many smaller mom and pop shops in neighborhoods to survive. It was a store that practiced racial discrimination that was upended by the people. In the end, it was a store that just could compete with the Wal-Marts of the world the way neighborhood candy stores could not compete with them. Yet, ask anyone over the age of forty if they had ever visited a Woolworth’s and 99 out of 100 would probably answer……..yes!
Borugh, James. The Woolworths (New York: McGraw Hill, l 1982)