Happy 100th Anniversary, Woolworth's. For 100 years, purveyors of the ordinary, the pots and pins of human existence, furnishing the apartments of the unwealthy and the pockets of children.
Here is a real bargain you can get this very day at the Georgetown Woolworth's, opened in 1922 and the oldest of the Washington area's 20 stores: for $2.99 (plus tax), a small washboard made in Cleveland, Ohio, "Ideal for silks, hosiery, and lingerle or handker-chiefs. Just the right size to fit a bucket, pail or lavatory. Fits easily into suitcase or traveling bag."
"Diamond bracelets Woolworth's doesn't sell, baby," goes the song, "I can't give you anything but love."
Yesterday was the anniversary of the first store opened by Frank W. Woolworth in Utica, N.Y., home also of the first newspaper photograph and the first commercial telegram. Actually, it is the anniversary of a failure, because that store didn't make it and Woolworth opened another in Lancaster, Pa. There in the heart of one of the wealthiest farm areas in the country -- and home of the prudent Amish -- business was great.
This is history: Woolworth's was the first company to sell zippers on the counter. The first to sell bulk candy at a price the average sweet tooth could afford (one vice president sampled the wares so couscientiously he reportedly got diabetes in the line of duty). The first to introduce on the East Coast the 5-cent bargain counter, and the first to popularize the sale of sheet music.
In 1933, a Mrs. David W. Hughes went on a "pre-bridal spree" at Woolworth's and bought for $9.95 a raft of items to outfit her married life. They included "two dozen real crystal glasses at 5 cents each, a tinted glass sugar and creamer for 20 cents... and a treasure trove of 10-cent items including ladle, potato masher, cake turner, can opener and kitchen tongs," according to a company press release.
Not knowing the exact sizes and so forth of Mrs. Hughes' purchases, and not being able to find a cake turner -- whatever that is -- The Washington Post nonetheless attempted to duplicate her purchases. Grand total, plus tax: $81.29. Oh well. Just yesterday you could get a hairnet for 17 cents, or a spool of white thread for 10 cents, or a pair of silver sandals for only $5.
F.W. Woolworth was a farm boy who hated to farm. He died in 1919 five days short of his 67th birthday, having built a fortune as well as several huge buildings. The most famous of the buildings is the Woolworth in New York City, which was opened in 1913 with the intention of its being -- at 60 stories -- the tallest building in the city It isn't, but at its opening, when President Woodrow Wilson pressed a switch in the White House and lit the floodlights in New York, it was a major news event. It cost, as Woolworth put it, 270 million nickels, or $13.5 million cash.
Woolworth's office in the building, on the 24th floor, was modeled after Napoleon's Empire Room. There was a large fireplace of green Tyros marble with gilt bronze ornaments, a ceiling-high mirror, and a copy of Napoleon in coronation robes.
In 1901 he moved into a 30-room mansion at the corner of 18th Street and Fifth Avenue -- "a neighborhood of tycoons who had already made their millions in oil, steel and railroads" -- and installed an immense organ that was coordinated with a set of colored lights. It could play Great Works at the flick of a switch, and at the same time an illuminated portrait of the composer would appear at the top of a wall. (It could also play thunder storms.) Woolworth had the music piped into the staircases, bedposts and clothes closets.
Today Woolworth's has 5,700 stores throughout the world and last year sold over $6 billion worth of goods. It has 200,000 employes. It sells 8,000 slices of pizza and 15,000 doughnuts a week.
Toward the end of his life, Woolworth gained weight and couldn't sleep. He snacked on rich foods, and his favorite was over-ripe bananas. He had a "nervous disability" that "manifested itself in uncontrollable fits of weeping."
He took a rest cure. But then his wife developed mental problems.
"In his big, empty houses, loneliness often gripped Woolworth," reads the company press release. "In the great dining rooms of the Fifth Avenue and Glen Cove residences, there were often only four persons at the table: Woolworth and his nurse, Miss Salter; and the magnate's stricken wife and her attendant."
When he died, he left an estate of $27 million to his wife. One of his granddaughters became famous for being rich: Barbara Hutton, "the poor little rich girl," who has been married seven times.
"There are four types of Woolworth's stores," said Donna Hilbert, 27, manager of the Georgetown Woolworth's. "Dominant, like Tyson's Corner; large, such as Seven Corners; medium, such as this one; and small. They're phasing out the small ones."
Hilbert has worked for Woolworth's for 10 years, since she was a high school part-timer behind the candy counter in Quakertown, Pa. (In the 1890s, Woolworth wrote to store managers: "You follow my instructions and have a girl to sell candy that has some style to her, and above all, good looking... and above all things don't put a slouchy, dirty, homely girl behind the candy counter, as looks goes a long way in the candy business.")
She has worked in four stores, including one in Florida while her husband went to law school, she was made a manager, a four-year effort, in September, and generally works 12 hours a day, six days a week.
"Every store is different," she said, sitting on a blue plastic seat at the lunch counter tended by Grace Atoko, one of 13 other employes at the store.
She has about 20,000 items in stock. Most are standard, but there are also "auxiliary items" that the manager is allowed to choose. "That's where I really have fun," she said. "For this store, I cut down on my sewing racks and give 12 feet to luggage because I get a lot of tourists. I took away from stationery -- the kids around here, they want a notebook that says 'Georgetown University,' not 'Herald Square' like ours say. I expanded the cosmetics and drugs and the housewares."
Louis B. Smith, 51, is the longestterm employe in Washington at 31 years, according to a company spokesman. Smith is head stock man at the 14th Street store. When he started work in 1947, he said, he made $21 a week. Now he makes $190.