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daytime photograph of the two tory FW Woolworth Co building with two street lights in front adorned with hanging flowers
Woolworth's "five and dime in Greensboro, North Carolina", 2017. Carol Highsmith, photographer.

Nickels, Dimes, and F. W. Woolworth

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From selling goods to the Civil Rights movement, Woolworth’s Five & Dime was iconic in the American retail landscape. As the company founder, Frank Winfield Woolworth is a large part of that story.

portrait photograph of FW Woolworth wearing a coat and tie
New-York Tribune, April 9, 1919.

Woolworth was born April 13, 1852 in Rodman, New York. His father was a farmer, but Frank’s interest lay elsewhere. He got his start in dry goods stores in Watertown, New York–Augsbury & Moore and later Moore & Smith, according to an article from the December 26, 1937 issue of the Syracuse Herald Newspaper–but he wanted his own business. He married, started his family, and opened his first store “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” but in early 1879 this store failed. He didn’t give up, and later that year opened another store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on North Queen Street which proved much more successful. Woolworth was interviewed for an article in the January 6, 1901 issue of the New York Tribune and gave a bit of information about his early career:

“I remember it was a very hot day. Everything depended upon that first day. During the forenoon not a person came into the shop. In the afternoon and evening they fairly mobbed in. We sold $128 worth of the stock. I telegraphed that night to duplicate the order. Before the goods arrived I had sold everything in the shop. That was the beginning of my success. The result was that within my first year I cleared $1,500. Then the business began to grow. I started stores in other towns. For the first ten years the growth was slow. Since then it has been more rapid. Now we have sixty stores, all east of Pittsburg.”

full page advertisement for the first annual economy sale at Woolworth on 51 North Main street Logan Utah everything is 5, 10, or 15 cents
The Logan Republican, October 19, 1918.

As Frank was opening more and more stores, his brother Charles Sumner “Sum” Woolworth was also operating similar stores and eventually the brothers combined their efforts. A rather complicated business deal expanded the chain even further, and by 1912, it became the F. W. Woolworth Company.

The 1901 New York Tribune article also provided a little bit of insight about how popular his stores had become by this time:

“An approximate notion of the bulk of the business may be gathered from the statement that Mr. Woolworth imports a larger tonnage of toys and tree ornaments than all other United States buyers put together, or over one half of the product of the world.

When the newest of the Woolworth stores was opened, June 30, 1900, in East Fourteenth Street, no less than 25,000 people entered this huge building during the day. So great was the crush that, jammed beneath the maroon and gold sign that distinguishes all the Woolworth stores, and which many rivals have copied, several women fainted, while many others found repairs necessary to their clothing. During the recent holiday season these stores did a very large business. In the Sixth avenue store alone they made 44,060 individual sales in a single day. This is larger than the aggregate sales of their great store In Lancaster. Penn., made during its first year’s start in that city.”

By 1916, the stores sold items for 15 cents and Woolworth’s concept had become so popular, that others opened businesses using a similar concept. Frank Woolworth died April 8, 1919 but the business continued on without him.

Woolworths continued to modernize and innovate. One of the earlier ideas was to install lunch counters for hungry shoppers. In the South the lunch counters were segregated and because of that, they became a flashpoint in the Civil Rights movement. In 1960 when students staged the Greensboro sit-ins at the local Woolworths, the store and their lunch counters became part of a much larger story. Those sit-ins didn’t just happen in North Carolina; they spread throughout the South and within months, the lunch counters were desegregated.

The company also moved to open and operate new types of stores. They started Woolco, purchased Kinney Shoe Corporation (now known as Foot Locker), and opened other specialty stores. Unfortunately, through the 1970s and 1980s the company couldn’t keep up, and in the early 1990s they closed many of their stores. By 1997, they closed the last of their signature Woolworth stores.

Beyond the stores and their place in the American historical and physical landscape, Frank Woolworth commissioned what became the Woolworth Building in New York City. This building was a pioneering early skyscraper and became one of the skyscrapers on the New York City skyline. Designed by American architect Cass Gilbert, it was the tallest in the world when it was built and is still one of the tallest buildings in the United States. If you are interested, the Library has photographs of the building, many that feature architectural details (one detail is an image of Woolworth himself) from when the building was being constructed including a plan from Cass Gilbert. The building was a big deal when it opened in 1912, and newspapers in New York and Birmingham, Alabama covered the opening.

Woolworth Building, New York City, 1952. Angelo Rizzuto, photographer.

If you are interested in learning more, the Library has quite a bit in its collections about Frank Woolworth, his company, and the building he built, including some more personal material from Woolworth, as well as material from Cass Gilbert. We have annual reports on microfiche for the F. W. Woolworth & Company Limited for the years 1966-1972, 1974, 1975; the F. W. Woolworth Company for 1968-1972, 1974; and the F. W. Woolworth & Company Ltd. for the years 1976-1978, 1980-1983. Of course, we also have a number of books, a few of which are listed below.

Many people have memories of Woolworth’s, what are yours?

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  1. My dad would take every Sunday after Church at St. Josephs
    to the diner for a banana split. I was so impressed with the petite elderly waitress moving up and the counter isle making everyone happy.

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