While preparing today’s this day in history section I noticed that today is the anniversary of a notable American businessman who is rarely mentioned in any headlines anymore but his accomplishments in my view are fairly remarkable.
His name is Frank Winfield Woolworth. He was the founder of F.W. Woolworth’s, the world’s first five and ten cent store. Most people of my age group will remember them as dime stores where we could spend our meager allowances on pretty much anything that the store would carry.
He was born of fairly humble origins on April 13, 1852 on a potato farm in Rodman, New York. His parents were John Hubbell Woolworth and Fanny McBrier.
On June 11, 1876 he married he married Jennie Creighton with whom he had three daughters. One of his daughters, Edna Woolworth committed suicide in 1918. She was the mother of Barbara Hutton.
Woolworth wanted to be a merchant. In 1873, he took a job in a dry goods store in Watertown, New York. The owner refused to pay him for the first few months because he felt that he shouldn’t pay someone for learning the business. Woolworth remained there for six years.
On thing that Woolworth observed while working at the stores. Surplus items were placed on a table for sale at five cents. He thought that this was a great idea. Why not open a store where everything sold costs only five cents?
Woolworth decided to go out on his own. He borrowed $300 and on February 22, 1879, he opened his first five cents store in Utica, New York. The store failed within three weeks.
He established his second store in April of 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He expanded the concept to also include items for ten cents.
The second store was a huge success and Woolworth and his brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth opened a large number of five and ten cent stores. Ironically Woolworth’s first employer was made a partner in the business.
In 1911, the F.W. Woolworth Company was incorporated which united 586 stores that the Woolworth brothers along with others had founded.
Woolworth died on April 8, 1919 five days before his 67th birthday. His company owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States and other countries. At his death the corporation was worth $65 million ($806 million in today’s dollars).
The reason that I find Mr. Woolworth’s story so remarkable is that he founded an idea and a form of merchandising that is very popular today.
Today’s dollar stores can trace their lineage back to Frank Woolworth. In today’s fragile economy these dollar stores are showing huge growth whereas other more traditional retailers are having a much more difficult time.
Just look at the legacy of Mr. Woolworth. All of these stores can attribute their foundation on Frank W. Woolworth: Duckwall-ALCO, Ben Franklin Stores, Butler Brothers, S.S. Kresge Company(K-Mart), S.H. Kress and Company, McCrory’s, J.J. Newberry’s, TG&Y, McLellans, Neisner’s, H.L. Green, G.C. Murphy, Walton’s Five and Dime (Wal-Mart) and Sprouse-Reitz.
All of these dollar stores can trace their lineage back to Woolworth. In the U.S.: Dollar Tree, 99 Cent Only Stores, Deal$, Fred’s, Dollar General, Family Dollar, Five Below, Galloway Dollar and Real Deals.
In Canada: A Buck Or Two, Dollarama, Everything For A Dollar Store, Great Canadian Dollar Store, Dollar Giant and Your Dollar Store With More.
In Mexico: Waldo’s Dollar Mart.
In Spain: Todo A 100.
In Germany: ToBi, EuroShop, HEMA, Pfennigland and TEDi.
In Japan: Daiso, Daiei and Seria.
In Australia: The Reject Shop, The Basement, Go-Lo, Crazy Clark’s, Chickenfeed, Red Dot, Browse In And Save and Hot Dollar.
There are plenty more out there but this is a good overview of the legacy of Frank W. Woolworth.
My father had his first job at a Woolworth’s store in downtown Chicago back in the 1940’s. My grandmother used to confiscate his paycheck. She gave him some of it but most of it was put in the bank for his college fund. You could say that because of Mr. Woolworth my father was able to attend college.
My fondest memory of Woolworth’s was the store that they had in Cadillac, Michigan. On a Saturday afternoon I used to take my children there where they would spend their allowance. The floor was wood planked and they had an old fashioned soda fountain in the store where you could buy a milk shake and a hamburger. Yes, they still employed a soda jerk!
It was a sad day when the store was closed back in the mid 1990’s.
Frank W. Woolworth left an incredible legacy that I am quite sure that back in the 1870’s he never imagined he would leave. When Woolworth’s closed in the ‘90’s not only did a great business close, but a true piece of Americana had ended never to return.