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  • Hank Orenstein

Today's NYC Birthday Honoree is Frank W. Woolworth, America's "Five-and-Dime King."

Too many noteworthy April 13th birthdays, so highly honorable mentions to Antonio Meucci (1808-1889), the Italian inventor who lived on Staten Island (check out the museum) for many years and who some consider the true inventor of the telephone; and native New Yorker investigative journalist Amy Goodman (1957 - ) of Democracy Now.


Frank Winfield Woolworth (April 13, 1852 – April 8, 1919) was an American entrepreneur and 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 low-priced selection of 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 customers could examine what they wanted to buy without the help of a sales clerk.


Born to a poor farm family in upstate New York, F. W. Woolworth began his career by clerking in a general store in the local market center. Woolworth left home at the age of 21, venturing to Watertown, New York, where he convinced the owner of the dry goods store Augsbury & Moore to allow him to work free for three months. After that he received $3.50 a week--the exact amount he was paying for his room at a boarding house. By 1878 the 26-year old was earning $10 a week.


Impressed with the success of a five-cent clearance sale, he conceived the novel idea of establishing a store to sell a variety of items in volume at that price. With $300 in inventory advanced to him by his employer, Woolworth started a small store in Utica in 1879, but it soon failed. By 1881, however, Woolworth had two successful stores operating in Pennsylvania. By adding ten-cent items, he was able to increase his inventory greatly and thereby acquired a unique institutional status most important for the success of his stores.


Convinced that the most important factor in ensuring the success of the chain was increasing the variety of goods offered, Woolworth in 1886 moved to Brooklyn, New York, to be near wholesale suppliers. He also undertook the purchasing for the entire chain. A breakthrough came when he decided to stock candy and was able to bypass wholesalers and deal directly with manufacturers. Aware of the importance of the presentation of goods, Woolworth took the responsibility for planning window and counter displays for the whole chain and devised the familiar red store front which became its institutional hallmark.


The success of the chain between 1890 and 1910 was phenomenal. The company had 631 outlets doing a business of $60,558,000 annually by 1912. In that year Woolworth merged with five of his leading competitors, forming a corporation capitalized at $65 million. The next year, at a cost of $13.5 million, he built the Woolworth Building in downtown New York, the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time. The building, designed in the Gothic style by Cass Gilbert, remains on of NYC’s iconic skyscrapers. It was the world’s tallest building from 1913 to 1930 when eclipsed by The Chrysler Building.


Over time with competition from a growing number of chain stores, the orginal Woolworth's company went out of business in the United States in 1997.


At the turn of the 20th century Frank Winfield Woolworth had come a long way from his family's farm in Rodman, New York. He told a reporter "We were so poor that I never knew what it was to have an overcoat in that terribly cold climate. One pair of cowhide boots lasted a year, or rather six months, for the other six months I went barefoot."

It was that year that the store where he was working installed a revolutionary marketing concept: a five-cent counter. Woolworth took the idea farther. A year later he opened his first store in Utica, New York with $350 worth of goods purchased on a note endorsed by his father. The store failed, but Woolworth was undaunted.


Woolworth had married Jennie Creighton on June 11, 1876. They had three daughters, Helena, Jessie and Edna. It may have been the girls' rapidly approaching the ages when they would be introduced to society--and potential husbands--that prompted the Woolworths' move to Manhattan.

Whether that was the impetus or not, in December 1898 Woolworth paid Louis Stern $175,000 for the north corner of Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, a plot 27 feet wide on the avenue, stretching 110 feet down 80th Street. The price of the site alone would amount to more than $5 million today.

Woolworth commissioned architect Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert (known professionally as C. P. H. Gilbert) to design his opulent new home. The millionaire may have been inspired by the mansion of Isaac D. Fletcher one block to the south, designed by Gilbert and completed that same year. The two French Gothic chateaux would bear striking similarities.



Construction on the five-story residence took two years. The family made the move from Brooklyn to Fifth Avenue in 1901. Opening onto 80th Street, their new home was adorned with stone balconies (the heavy brackets of which at the fourth floor took the shape of gruesome winged gargoyles), delicate carvings around and above the openings, and curved bays. The top floor detonated with elaborate dormers, gables, iron cresting and chimneys. Spiky finials rose nearly the full story's height, ornate urns perched upon pedestals and even the chimneys wore spiny Gothic-style crowns.

The mansion was later sold and tour down in the 1920’s and replaced by a luxury apartment building which opened in 1927 with the same address of 990 Fifth Avenue. The three elegant townhouses that Woolworth had built for his three daughters still stand on East 80th Street between 5th and Madison Avenues.


(Sources: DaytonianinManhattan, biography.yourdictionary.com, wikipedia)

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