Frank Winfield Woolworth
This Famous Person Game - April 2013
by Mike McLeod
Ted Carlton of Utah correctly identified the famous person as F. W. Woolworth.
Frank Winfield Woolworth was born on April 13, 1852 to John Woolworth and Fanny McBrier in Rodman, N.Y. His father was a Civil War veteran, and he had one brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth. He was raised on a farm, but even though he seemed like a regular kid who received good grades in school, everyone pretty much expected him to go no further than the farm.1
Everyone but Frank himself, that is. He convinced his mother to pay for a bookkeeping course to gain skills needed for a profession in business. In 1873, he convinced William Moore, one of the owners of the Dry Goods Store in nearby Watertown, N.Y., to hire him as an apprentice for three months for room and board and no salary. The senior partner, Morgan Augsbury, did not want to take him on, and Moore soon doubted his decision to do so because Frank was so unskilled in the retail environment, even with his bookkeeping course.
Yet, about six years later in 1879, Frank opened his first store. By April 8, 1919 when he died, one thousand Woolworth stores were in operation. By 1979, there were three thousand around the world. In 1912 when the company went public, Frank gave William Moore $500,000 (about $11.9 million today) for his support and friendship over the years. It is not recorded if Morgan Augsbury received anything.
William Moore funded Frank’s first store by purchasing $300 (about $6,850) in merchandise for him to sell for a nickel each. This concept to create a store that only sold products for five cents occurred to Frank after he heard of a friend’s success in Port Huron, Mich., selling Yankee notions (pots, pans, combs, etc.) and handkerchiefs for five cents (about $1.14 today) or less. He convinced Moore to let him set up a table selling similar items in the Dry Goods Store.
With products set up on a display table, Frank created a sign announcing, “Any Article On This Display 5¢.” It was a financial success. Almost all of the $100 invested in stock (crochet needles, glassware, wash basins and dippers, thimbles, pans, paper, soap, harmonicas, etc.) sold out by the end of the day. This eventually inspired Frank to open his first store—The Great Five Cent Store—in Utica, N.Y., in February of 1879.
The store’s sales started reasonably well, but they soon dragged. While Frank was able to sell all his stock after two months, he closed the shop because it was not on a main road, and sales were not promising. From this experience, he learned the three most important words in retail sales: location, location, location.
In June of that same year, he opened his next store in Lancaster, Pa., and he added items costing a dime to his wares. On the first day, sales totaled $127.65 (about $2,900 today). From there, Woolworth’s 5¢ and 10¢ Store with its distinctive crimson and gold sign launched like a rocket.
Frank determined to grow the business quickly, and he included his brother Sumner in managing and owning stores, along with several past co-workers at the Dry Goods Store. By doing this, Frank formed a syndicate of owners which could purchase large quantities of items at low prices directly from the manufacturers, much like Wal-mart today.
In 1890, Frank and a business associate set sail for Europe and visited manufacturers in England, France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. In England, Frank visited twenty-five Staffordshire potteries before choosing one as his supplier for ceramics. In his travels, he bought books, postcards, housewares, clocks and so on. In Germany, he hired people who made toys and dolls at home to sell to him directly rather than through a middleman. It was also in Germany where he found the handmade Christmas decorations that Woolworth’s became famous for selling.
Frank continued visiting Europe twice a year to get more products, even though he was always seasick on the five-day voyage across the Atlantic.
In 1910, Frank Woolworth purchased land in New York City for $2 million ($48.8 million today) to build the Woolworth Building, a 625-foot, 57-story skyscraper. It cost $13.5 million ($329 million) to build and was paid for in cash.2
It was at a Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960, that the Civil Rights Movement began when four black students were refused service because the counter was segregated. Today, eight feet of that counter are in the Smithsonian, and a civil rights museum is now at that store’s location.2
On its centennial anniversary in 1979, Woolworth’s had three thousand stores in operation. However, competition and challenges from the changing market led to the closing of the chain of stores that was the source of fond childhood memories for many. All the stores were closed by 1997, but over the years prior, F. W. Woolworth had diversified into sports apparel and shoes, buying Kinney Shoes and other companies. Today, Woolworth’s has 3,335 stores around the world and across America, mostly in malls, but now, it is known as Foot Locker.
When Frank was a boy, Sumner and he went to town to buy a gift for their mother. They chose a scarf, and as they counted out their change, store clerks gathered around to make fun of their poverty. This made a deep impression on Frank as he left the store and went to another to buy the scarf. “On the way home he told Sum that one day 50¢ would be enough to buy five or ten items, and every customer would be treated with respect. It was an important learning [experience], which later inspired one of the store's core values. Woolworth's aimed to be ‘classless’ and to give the same friendly, efficient service to everyone, whether they were spending a little or a lot.”1
Frank W. Woolworth died in April of 1919 from a dental infection (septic poisoning) because of his fear of dentistry and never going to a dentist. He was survived by his wife Jenny and two of his three daughters.
1 Woolworth’s Museum, www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk/
2 Wikipedia, www.en.wikipedia.org.
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