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Woolworth, F. W. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: F. W. Woolworth

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F.W. Woolworth and Co.


Frank Winfield Woolworth was a classic “self-made man” who rose from an impoverished background to establish F.W. Woolworth and Company, which at one time was the world’s largest merchandising operation. He built a chain of stores around a merchandising gimmick that was used by storeowners in the years following the Civil War to clear out unwanted merchandise for a nickel. The lowpriced goods displayed in his stores gave his customers the luxury of choosing from a wide array of merchandise.

Personal Life

Frank Winfield Woolworth was born on April 13, 1852, on a farm near Rodman in Jefferson County, New York. His parents, John Hubbell Woolworth and Fanny McBrier, had ancestors who came to America in 1660. He attended public school in Great Bend, New York, and later spent two short terms at a business school in Watertown, New York. He helped out on the family farm but disliked the heavy work.

At the age of 19, Woolworth took a job as a clerk in the village grocery store. For two years he received no wages there, working only for the experience. When he was 21, he obtained work at a leading dry goods store in Watertown on a trial basis. He received no salary for the first three months as he swept floors, delivered packages, and arranged window displays. He was making $6 a week after two years there.

In 1875 a “99-cent store” opened in Watertown, and a merchant there decided to try the idea in Port Huron, Michigan. He took Woolworth along as a clerk and paid him a starting wage of $10 a week. When Woolworth proved to be a poor salesman, his salary was cut to $8.50 a week. He soon took ill, suffering a breakdown, and returned to Watertown.

Back in Watertown, he met a waitress, Jennie Creighton, and married her in 1876. They had three daughters. One of Woolworth’s granddaughters was Barbara Hutton, a socialite who achieved notoriety for her many marriages.

Career Details

Woolworth was back working for his first employer, Moore and Smith, in 1877. A year later he heard of a store in which there was a counter offering goods for sale for five cents. This was a common marketing tactic for stores that wanted to get rid of older or slightly damaged goods. Woolworth persuaded W.H. Moore to put a similar counter in the store, where it was a success. Woolworth then ordered $300 worth of “Yankee notions” with a loan from Moore and opened The Great Five Cent Store in Utica, New York, in 1879. These notions included thimbles, combs, buttonhooks, harmonicas, baby bibs, soap, napkins, pencils, and similar merchandise.

Woolworth picked a poor location for his first store, and it soon closed. He then opened another store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Keeping the five-cent goods on one side of the store, he added another section offering ten-cent goods. This store did well and Woolworth changed its named to Woolworth’s Five- and Ten-Cent Store.

Woolworth called on his younger brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, and his cousin, Seymour H. Knox, to join him in the business. They opened stores in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and York, Pennsylvania; Newark, New Jersey; and New York City. Again, poor locations made these stores unproductive at first. Other stores in Buffalo, Erie, Scranton, and elsewhere were more successful.

Two other men, F.M. Kirby and Earl P. Charlton, were brought into the business. After a few years Woolworth sold his interest in the Buffalo and Erie stores to his cousin Knox, who created the S.H. Knox chain of five and ten cent stores. The other partners also started their own chains, all the while remaining friendly and not trespassing on each other’s territory.

In 1886 Woolworth moved to Brooklyn, New York, to be near wholesale suppliers. Taking advantage of the wide variety of goods available there, he assumed responsibility for purchasing merchandise for all of his stores. He added candy and was able to purchase it directly from the manufacturers. He also planned all of the window and counter displays for the chain. An admirer of the red color of A&P grocery stores, he designed the characteristic red store fronts for the Woolworth stores, adding the company name in gold letters.

The Woolworth chain grew rapidly in the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century. By 1895 there were 28 stores, and sales reached the $1 million mark. By 1900 there were 59 stores and sales were more than $5 million. The company continued to expand, and in 1912 there were 318 Woolworth stores in operation. That year F.W. Woolworth and Company was incorporated and absorbed the four chains of Knox, Kirby, Charlton, and C.S. Woolworth. With 596 stores and $65 million in capital, it was the world’s largest merchandising operation. Frank Woolworth was president of the new corporation, and the heads of the other chains became vice presidents.

In 1913 the Woolworth Building was completed in New York City. Built at a cost of $13.5 million and paid for by Frank Woolworth personally, the 792-foot-tall skyscraper was then the world’s tallest building. By 1915 Woolworth was spending less time on business and more time in Europe. When he died in 1919, there were 1,057 Woolworth stores in the United States and Canada, plus another 175 stores in England. U.S. sales were $119 million, and Frank Woolworth’s personal fortune was estimated at $65 million.

Social and Economic Impact

Woolworth’s business goal was to offer as many articles as possible for five or ten cents. Many of these articles

Chronology: F. W. Woolworth

1852: Born.

1879: Opened The Great Five Cent Store in Utica, New York.

1895: Sales topped $1 million from 28 stores.

1900: Sales reached $5 million from 59 stores.

1909: Opened “Three and Sixpence” stores in England.

1912: Incorporated the company and absorbed four other chains.

1913: Completed The Woolworth Building in New York City.

1919: Died.

had never before been sold for so little money. Woolworth stores began having goods manufactured for them, often taking a factory’s entire output. He brought the luxury of selecting a wide array of goods to people who normally would not have been able to afford them. For many small towns and cities, as well as the large metropolitan areas, Woolworth’s five-and-ten stores meant a new kind of retailing. Although his company would fade by the late twentieth century, eventually renamed the Venator Group Inc. and focusing on sporting goods chains, Woolworth’s success spawned many imitators and established principles that would later be employed by such companies as Kmart Corporation and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

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about 6 years ago

I am trying to trace my fathers years as manager of Woolworths stores in the 1920's. Is there any arcives listing suchinformation?