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Frank Winfield Woolworth

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Frank Winfield Woolworth
Born(1852-04-13)April 13, 1852
DiedApril 8, 1919(1919-04-08) (aged 66)
Resting placeWoodlawn Cemetery
EducationWatertown Commercial College
Years active1873−1918
Known forFounded F. W. Woolworth Company (now Foot Locker)
Political partyRepublican
Jennie Creighton
(m. 1876)
RelativesCharles S. Woolworth (brother)
Barbara Hutton (granddaughter)
Seymour H. Knox I (cousin)

Frank Winfield Woolworth (April 13, 1852 – April 8, 1919) was an American entrepreneur, the founder of F. W. Woolworth Company, and the operator of variety stores known as "Five-and-Dimes" (5- and 10-cent stores or dime stores) which featured a selection of low-priced merchandise. He pioneered the now-common practices of buying merchandise directly from manufacturers and fixing the selling prices on items, rather than haggling. He was also the first to use self-service display cases, so that customers could examine what they wanted to buy without the help of a sales clerk.[1]

Early life[edit]

Woolworth was born in Rodman, New York to John (1821–1907) and Fanny (née McBrier; 1832–1878) Woolworth; his brother was entrepreneur Charles Sumner Woolworth (1856–1947).[1][2] His parents were devout Methodists and sympathetic to the Northern side during the Civil War, and they raised their sons in those beliefs.[3] His paternal ancestors were English farmers who left England around 1665 settling in the Massachusetts Bay Colony area. Meanwhile, his mother's parents, the McBriers, were Scots-Irish from County Down, Ulster, who had come to the United States in 1827.[4]

At age four, Woolworth told his parents that he would become a peddler like those who sometimes came calling. He and Charles would play "store", and Frank would set up merchandise to sell to his brother.[3] Woolworth finished his schooling at age 16, yet he was unfit to begin working in any legitimate store with only basic knowledge and no experience. He applied to many shops in the area, every time being rejected.[3] He attended a business college for two terms in Watertown, New York, with a loan from his mother.[3]


In 1873, Woolworth worked as a stock boy in a general store called Augsbury & Moore's Drygoods in Watertown,[3] and his experiences there served as the starting point to his own business venture and innovations. He was considered to be an inept salesman[3] and was given jobs such as washing the windows, where he found a creative niche arranging the store's front display; his work was so impressive that his boss assigned him that role.[3] Typical business practices of the day was that a few of each type of item be displayed on a counter if small and behind if not. Clerks were responsible for obtaining what the customer wanted and making the transaction.[5] From exposure to this Woolworth developed the notion that goods should sell themselves, something which became increasingly prominent in his retail career.[3]

Frank and Charles Woolworth with Seymour H. Knox I

Under the employment of Moore & Smith, Woolworth had an opportunity to sell a large surplus of goods. He organized a store in Great Bend that opened on February 10, 1878, but sales were disappointing; the store failed in May.[3] Accounts differ on the genesis of the five-and-dime concept. Gail Fenske suggests that Woolworth had heard of a "five-cent counter craze" while questioning his own sales ability at his first job.[6] Jean Maddern Pitrone suggests that the idea was conceived after a travelling salesman told Woolworth of stores in Michigan with five-cent counters.[7] Plunkett-Powell suggests that Woolworth overheard the concept during a discussion between William Moore and a young man who had opened his own cut-rate goods store.[3]

Woolworth memorialized in an architectural detail of the Woolworth Building

Woolworth borrowed $300 (~$9,810 in 2023) and opened a five-cent store in Utica, New York, on February 22, 1879.[8] It failed within weeks. He opened his second store in April 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he expanded the concept to include merchandise priced at ten cents. By 1889, Woolworth had twelve thriving stores and in ten years, from 1879 to 1889, his sales had increased by 240%.[9] By 1900, Woolworth's chain had grown to fifty-nine stores, with sales of over $5 million (~$151 million in 2023). Woolworth's desire for control stretched further than just the bounds of his company. Wanting to implement his ideas on a much larger scale, F. W. adopted a policy of acquiring smaller chains of his competitors. This policy, combined with “the development of the five and ten cent idea, the exploitation of the idea through a chain, [and] the squeezing out of his middleman competitors for the purpose of controlling goods manufacturing and distribution” resulted in the dominance of the low-priced segment of the American retailing industry.[3]

In 1911, the F. W. Woolworth Company was incorporated with 586 stores. In 1913, Woolworth built the Woolworth Building in New York City at a cost of $13.5 million (~$306 million in 2023) in cash. At the time, it was the tallest building in the world at 792 feet.[10]

Woolworth often made unannounced visits to his stores, where he would shoplift items to test the staff's attentiveness. Managers or clerks who caught him doing so were sometimes rewarded with promotions.[11]

Personal life[edit]

On June 11, 1876, Woolworth married Jennie Creighton (1853–1924). They were the parents of Helena Maud Woolworth McCann (1878–1938), Jessie May Woolworth Donahue (1886–1971), and Edna Woolworth Hutton (1883–1917), who died from suffocation due to mastoiditis.[12] Rumors have persisted that she died by suicide.[3] She was the mother of Barbara Hutton. Frank and Jennie's marriage was a happy one and Jennie regretted the demands that financial success put on Frank's time with her.[13] By 1916 she displayed the symptoms of advanced dementia.[14]


Woolworth's tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx

Woolworth died of septic shock from an infected tooth on April 8, 1919, 5 days before his 67th birthday.[15] At the time of his death, Woolworth was worth approximately $76.5 million or the equivalent of 11214th of the US GNP.[16] His company owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States and other countries and was a $65 million ($804,328,215 in 2009 dollars) corporation. He died without signing his newest will, so his mentally handicapped wife received the entire estate under the provision of his older 1889 will.[17][18] When she died in 1924, her estate was worth $57.5 million.[19]

Woolworth is interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.


Woolworth Company[edit]

In the 1960s, after Woolworth's death, the company began expanding into various individual specialty store concepts, including sportswear, which led to the development of the Foot Locker sporting goods store in 1974. For a while there was a chain of discount stores called Woolco. By 1997, the original chain he founded had been reduced to 400 stores, and other divisions of the company began to be more profitable than the original chain. The original chain went out of business on July 17, 1997, as the firm changed its name, initially to Venator, but in 2001 adopted its sporting goods brand, Foot Locker, Inc. In 2012 the New York Stock Exchange celebrated Woolworth's 100th anniversary. The UK stores, under separate ownership since 1982, continued operating under the Woolworth name after the US operation ceased and by the 2000s traded as Woolworths Group. The final UK stores ceased trading January 6, 2009.[22] The UK Woolworths brand was bought by Shop Direct Group in the UK and operated online only but it ceased being operated as Woolworths in 2015.[23] Woolworth stores continue to operate in Germany.[24] Although both the Australian and the South African companies took their names from Woolworth's US and UK stores, they have no connection to the F.W. Woolworth Company.[25][26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Helen Pike (December 5, 1999). "Woolworth in New Jersey: A Love-Hate Relationship". The New York Times. Retrieved June 27, 2008.
  2. ^ "C.S. Woolworth, 90, Chain Leader, Dies. Helped Brother, Frank, Set Up 5-and-10 Stores 65 Years Ago. Later Headed Board". The New York Times. January 8, 1947. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Plunkett-Powell, Karen (1999). Remembering Woolworth's: a nostalgic history of the world's most famous five-and-dime. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-20670-3.
  4. ^ Pitrone, Jean Maddern (2007). F.W. Woolworth and the American Five and Dime A Social History. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-3024-6. Retrieved January 23, 2024.
  5. ^ Abelson, Elaine S. (1989). When ladies go a-thieving : middle-class shoplifters in the Victorian department store. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-505125-4.
  6. ^ "The skyscraper and the city : the Woolworth Building and the making of modern New York". search.worldcat.org. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  7. ^ "F.W. Woolworth and the American five and dime : a social history". search.worldcat.org. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  8. ^ "Five and ten; the fabulous life of F. W. Woolworth, by John K. Winkler..." HathiTrust. hdl:2027/uc1.b3127795. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  9. ^ Nichols, John P. (1974). Skyline queen and the merchant prince : the Woolworth story. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 978-0-671-77686-2.
  10. ^ Michelle Higgins (September 26, 2014). "Luxury Condos in the Woolworth Building". The New York Times.
  11. ^ Webster's guide to American history: a chronological, geographical, and biographical survey and compendium. Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Co. 1971. ISBN 978-0-87779-081-5.
  12. ^ "Mrs. Hutton Found Dead. Daughter of F. W. Woolworth Suffocated in Her Room at the Plaza". The New York Times. May 3, 1917. Retrieved December 3, 2011. Mrs. Franklyn Laws Hutton, who was Edna Woolworth, daughter of F. W. Woolworth, was found dead in her apartment at the hotel Plaza. ...
  13. ^ Lockyer, Peter (November 28, 2019). "The remarkable life of Jennie Creighton Woolworth". County & Quinte Living (Scroll down archived page for text.). Archived from the original on December 19, 2023. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  14. ^ Heymann, C. David (Clemens David) (1986). Poor little rich girl : the life and legend of Barbara Hutton. New York: Pocket Books. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-671-55769-0.
  15. ^ "A brief history of Woolworths". www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk. Archived from the original on December 19, 2023. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  16. ^ Michael M. Klepper (1996). The wealthy 100. Carol Pub. Group. ISBN 978-0-8065-1800-8.
  17. ^ "Woolworth Died With Will Unsigned. Death Came So Suddenly That Document, Long Under Consideration, Was Not Executed. Demented Wife Gets All. Estate of Between $30,000,000 and $40,000,000 Disposed Of Under Will Made in 1889". The New York Times. April 15, 1919. Retrieved June 27, 2008. The family of Frank Winfield Woolworth made public yesterday the fact that Mr. Woolworth's death came so suddenly that he did not have time to execute an extended will upon which he had been long at work, making many ...
  18. ^ "$27,205,283 Left By Woolworth In A 200-Word Will; Widow, Long Mentally Feeble, Receives Entire Fortune Without Restriction". The New York Times. January 11, 1921. Retrieved November 17, 2014. In a document of fewer than 200 words, written thirty years, ago when he was a poor man, Frank W. Woolworth, originator of the five and ten cent stores, willed his estate of close to $30,000,000, in full to his wife.
  19. ^ "Milestones: Jun. 2, 1924". Time. June 2, 1924. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on December 19, 2023. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  20. ^ "THE NATIONAL BUSINESS HALL OF FAME - March 12, 1990". money.cnn.com. Archived from the original on July 5, 2010. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  21. ^ "OpenStreetMap". August 22, 2017.
  22. ^ Wardell, Jane; Press, The Associated (December 17, 2008). "Woolworths stores to shut by early January". San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on December 19, 2023. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  23. ^ "Shop Direct closes Woolworths site as brand name sell-off speculation begins". retail-week.com. June 1, 2015. Archived from the original on December 19, 2023. Retrieved April 13, 2020.
  24. ^ "About us". Woolworth Company. Archived from the original on December 19, 2023. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  25. ^ Davidson, Grant (April 30, 2018). "The Inspiration Behind 10 of Australia's Iconic Brand Names". Davidson Branding. Archived from the original on October 28, 2023. Retrieved December 19, 2023.
  26. ^ "Our history – Woolworths Holdings Limited". Archived from the original on December 19, 2023. Retrieved December 19, 2023.

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