On an icy winter’s night in 1963, the downtown Denver, Colorado Woolworth’s provides a warm oasis for shivering Christmas shoppers. Newly expanded to a huge 174,000 square feet, this store scarcely fit the traditional five-and-ten/dime store image with gold-lettered “red front” signboards above a quaint storefront that the name Woolworth’s conjures up to this day. (This impression persists despite scores of intricate art deco-exteriored Woolworth stores that opened in the 30‘s and 40’s.) If anything, the Denver store’s clean lines and imposing scale resembled the sprawling suburban mall department stores that by 1963 had come to symbolize the American Way.
Dubbed “The World’s Largest Variety Store” upon its grand reopening in October 1963, the downtown Denver location featured the typical Woolworth’s lineup of the time, albeit more of it. The store boasted “two miles of display counters” within “58 shops and departments offering more than fifty thousand items of goods for the entire family and whole home, ranging in price from a few pennies to upward of one hundred dollars”. These departments carried apparel for the whole family, housewares and home furnishings, garden, pet, camera and music shops, and of course toys. Also in-house were a “utility bill-paying station” and total restaurant/luncheonette seating capacity of 700 (!) people. Within the restaurant area was a sandwich counter, named the “Chuck Wagon” in salute to “Colorado’s famous livestock industry”. Of course, the western theme was stretched a bit with the addition of hoagies and pizza to the menu. (I was tempted to say “git along, little hoagie”, but thought better of it.)
One thing becomes obvious when reading Woolworth’s press releases from that time. Despite having launched a new chain of discount stores the previous year, Woolco, large variety stores like the Denver unit were the company’s pride and joy. They would continue to be the organization’s main focus for many years to come. Woolworth’s main competitor, S.S. Kresge Company, took a very different attitude. Kresge made it abundantly clear that their Kmart discount chain, also introduced in 1962, would be that company’s top priority. Within just a few short years, the Kmart program would have a transformative effect on the Kresge company, as it eventually would on mass merchandising in general. By comparison, Woolworth’s approach to Woolco seemed more tentative.
The story of the F.W.Woolworth Company is deeply woven into the American cultural fabric. Frank Winfield Woolworth’s company was founded with a single store that opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1879. Initially known as the “Great 5-cent Store”, it wouldn’t become a “five-and ten” until the following year, when the company began to carry higher priced goods. By 1886, the company had grown to seven stores, which now featured the soon-to-be-famous “red front” facades. That same year, Woolworth opened his new company headquarters in Manhattan. By 1900, Woolworth was operating 59 stores with total annual sales of $5 million. In 1909, the first British Woolworth stores (“three and sixes” as opposed to “five-and-dimes”) were opened. Woolworth sought unique ways to be of service to his customers, and one of the more successful ones was to introduce fabrics and other fine goods from Europe into his stores, at prices the general public could afford. Prior to that time, these goods were out of the reach of many American pocketbooks.
A huge advance in the company’s growth came in 1912, when Woolworth consolidated his 319 stores with three northeastern variety chains - S. H. Knox and Co., F.M. Kirby and Co., E.P. Charlton and Co., and the stores previously held by his brother Charles S. Woolworth and by W.H. Moore. The new company was formally incorporated on January 12, 1912 as “F.W. Woolworth Company”, with a total of 596 stores across the entire country, and stock was offered to the public. The Woolworth organization was in place, and through much of the 20th century would be a dominant force in American business. Woolworth and The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company became widely acknowledged as the twin behemoths of retailing. A year later, the magnificent 60-story Woolworth Building would open in New York City, the tallest building in the world at the time. President Woodrow Wilson ceremonially turned on the building’s lights for the first time, from a telegraph key in the White House.
The company continued to prosper despite Frank Woolworth’s passing in 1919. Ten years later, Woolworth would celebrate its 50th Anniversary with over 2,200 stores and $303 million in sales. Three years before that, in 1926, the first Woolworth units had opened in Germany, which would prove to be an important market for the company. The ten-cent price cap was doubled to twenty cents in 1932, and three years later, price ceilings would be done away with altogether. Woolworth’s would begin to stock all manner of goods, even featuring jewelry in some locations.
In the 1950’s, two major changes in American retailing forced themselves on Woolworth’s, and the company was smart enough to go with the flow on both. The first was the “self-service” trend, and the second was the shift away from downtown store locations toward suburban shopping malls and strip centers. In the mid-50’s, Woolworth closed in on nearly 3,000 stores, and many older stores were modernized. Another key international market, Mexico, was entered in 1956.
Through the entire decade of the 1950’s another trend gained traction, and by the early 60’s was akin to an unstoppable train – the emergence of the large, suburban discount store. By then, the success of the northeast-based discount chains – E.J. Korvette, Zayre, Topps and many others, along with the challenges this new type of store would present to the variety chains had become the cocktail conversation of the retail industry. In a September 1961 New York Times article, Woolworth president Robert C. Kirkwood outlined his company’s plans to open a nationwide chain of department stores under the name “Woolco”. Plans for 17 initial stores were announced, with the first store to open in Columbus, Ohio in the spring of 1962. Mr. Kirkwood told the Times “It is our goal to have the largest chain of discount stores in America”.
As it turned out, Woolworth wasn’t alone in that goal.
The Woolworth promotional photos above are from 1963 and 1964. The first four depict scenes from the Denver, Colorado store mentioned above, showing the store exterior, ladies’ and mens’ departments and the “Chuck Wagon” sandwich counter. The rest of the photos are from various Woolworth stores. Shown are the home décor section, with mirrors, tasteful paintings and groovy “starburst” clocks, followed by the bedding, paint and sewing departments.
The last three photos show the only departments that would have concerned me in my youth. (Well, I guess I’d have to count the restaurant as well!) The “music shop” and record department, which features two Kingsmen (“Louie, Louie”) albums and the soundtrack to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” film (half of that album was made up of instrumentals – I had the 8-track in the early 70’s), the very colorful toy department, and finally, the place I would have been guaranteed to spend every possible minute - and every possible dime I could wheedle out of my folks – the book department, with its fine selection of Mad paperback books. These were collections of articles that had previously appeared in Mad Magazine. If you were into those, and precious few my age weren’t, click on the enlargement and dig the classic titles – “Fighting Mad”, “Son of Mad”, “The Mad Frontier”, “Mad in Orbit”, “The Organization Mad”, and among others, my all-time favorite – “We’re Still Using That Greasy Mad Stuff”. In an affirmation of my good taste (or lack of it), this book appears in the 1966 movie version of “Fahrenheit 451”, where it's burned up along such other classics as Jane Eyre, Othello and Wuthering Heights.
I know. “News you can use”, right?