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F.W. WoolworthF. W. Woolworth

founder of the "five and dime store"

Frank Winfield Woolworth was born on a farm in Rodman, New York, on April 13, 1852, the first of two sons born to John Hubbell and Fanny McBrier Woolworth. He left school at the age of sixteen to work full-time on the farm, but never enjoyed it. He convinced his mother to dip into her savings to pay for night school, where he studied bookkeeping. Convinced he could make a living in business, he then convinced his father to let him out of farm work so he could try his hand at commerce. A family friend introduced him to the owners of Augsbury and Moore Dry Goods Store in Watertown, New York, and the seeds of a "five and dime" empire were sown soon after.

Looking rather scruffy at the time of his interview, Woolworth did not impress Morgan Augsbury, but William Moore decided to give him a chance after Woolworth offered to work unpaid for three months in exchange for board and lodgings. In fact, Moore was impressed enough by the offer that he actually agreed to take Woolworth on as an apprentice for six months and to pay him $3.50 a month after the third month.

Woolworth's first few months at Augsbury and Moore saw Moore often thinking he had made a poor decision, as Woolworth proved to be awkward with customers and slow to learn the store's routines. Unwilling to give up on him, however, Moore ended up putting Woolworth in charge of checking in goods, keeping the stockroom tidy, and for setting up displays. It was then that Woolworth's real talents began showing. He established his own system and started to study the merchandise as it passed through, gathering insight into the margins and suppliers. And, to everyone's surprise he showed a real flair for display. It seemed he could make something out of nothing. His house style employed red cambric (felt cloth) to cover the table or shelf to draw attention to the display, which was always topped with a large, neatly lettered sign showing the price of the articles below.

As he grew in confidence, Woolworth requested a pay rise. When this was turned down, he took a job with A.A. Bushnell, a rival merchant in Watertown. His new boss was much more conservative, however, and would not allow Woolworth to spend time on fancy displays. Still ineffective as a salesman, he ended up having his pay cut to less than what he had been getting at Augsbury and Moore. Unable to cope with the humiliation, he was taken ill and ended up bedridden.

While bedridden, Woolworth was cared for Jennie Creighton, a seamstress who occasionally worked for Augsbury and Moore and had offered to act as Woolworth's nurse. The two fell in love, and were married at the Woolworth home on June 11, 1876. After nursing her husband back to health, Jennie persuaded William Moore and his new partner Perry Smith to reinstate Woolworth as a window dresser and stockman, at the then hefty salary of $10 a week.

In 1877, a slow economy left Moore and Smith with a lot of unsold stock. Moore decided to sell the surplus inventory from a feature display at the back of the store, with every item on display being five cents. Woolworth created a smart display, using red cambric material to make it stand out, with a bold sign reading "Any article on this table 5." The stock soon sold out, and Moore ended up buying additional lines from the wholesaler Spelmans to maintain momentum. Woolworth wondered whether a store could prosper selling just five cent merchandise, and in 1879 he approached members of his family, asking if they would bankroll him. They laughed, but Moore offered $300 of stock on credit. He also released Woolworth to seach for a good location.

Woolworth opened his first "five cent store" in the outskirts of Utica, New York, on February 22, 1878, but sales were lackluster and he closed it after just a few weeks. Deciding that his problem had been a poor location, Woolworth decided to try downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The new location worked, as the F.W. Woolworth Great Five Cent Store had $127.65 worth of sales on its very first day of business, on June 21, 1879. Two weeks later he opened a second store in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and before long he added 10-cent items to the inventory, creating the world's first true "five and dime." Within months he was opening multiple stores in business partnerships with local retailers, and within a few years Woolworth was a millionaire. In 1909 he opened his first store in England, and in 1913 the company opened its new headquarters in New York City's Woolworth Building, then the world's tallest building; Woolworth paid the $13 million construction cost out of his own pocket.

F.W. Woolworth died in New York City on April 8, 1919, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx. At the time of his death there were more than 1,000 Woolworth stores, on both sides of the Atlantic. The company peaked as the world's largest department store chain in the late 1970's, with more than 4,000 stores. By the late 1990's, however, business was sputtering, and the company closed all of its American department stores, renamed itself Venator, and sold the Woolworth Building. In 2003 Venator renamed itself after the conglomerate's most successful division, Foot Locker, Inc. Under separate ownership, Woolworth stores are still operated in Austria, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

SOURCES
The City of Watertown, New York https://www.watertown-ny.gov/index.asp?NID=413
Woolworths Museum http://www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk/aboutwoolies.html

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The Robinson Library >> Economics >> Department Stores, Mail Order Business, Supermarkets, Convenience Stores

This page was last updated on April 12, 2017.