The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Ninety

November 1-8, 1918

On November 4, 1918, Kate Roosevelt wrote in her diary, “Shopping at the five and ten cent store.” In the early 1900s these variety stores were a welcome slice of life along most main streets in America. Selling a variety of merchandise at reasonable prices, they offered shoppers on a budget a chance to go on a shopping spree; children an affordable place to spend their allowance and gave Kate Roosevelt a chance to rub elbows with the middle class, something she did not often do. She didn’t say which one she went to or what she bought, but I assumed it was the newly-opened Woolworth’s on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, calling itself the new “Five and Ten Cent Store Deluxe” when it opened in the Fall of 1917. According to the founder, Frank Winfield Woolworth, “Women of wealth, who spend their mornings picking out expensive jewelry still have the same need for hairpins and brushes.”

F.W. Woolworth

The marketing genius known as F.W. Woolworth knew his customers as well as his merchandise. When he opened his first store called the Great Five Cent Store in Utica, New York in 1879 he put a five-cent price tag on every item in the store and displayed it all so that customers could help themselves rather then rely on a store clerk to get it from inside a glass counter.

Woolworth’s Signature Red Front

Some of the items that were flying off Woolworth’s shelves included: toy dustpans, tin pepper boxes, school book straps, gravy strainers, tin scoops, biscuit cutters, purses, egg whips, apple corers, boot black, animal shaped soap, cake cutters, candlesticks, ladles, scalloped pie plates, baseballs, cast iron pot covers, tack hammers, writing books, pencils, tin spoons, red jewelry, napkins, handkerchiefs, yarn and police whistles. The first item he sold was a five-cent fire shovel.

Woolworth Building

The next year he added the words ten cents to the store’s name and began carrying items that cost that much. In just a short time, F. W. Woolworth nickeled and dimed his way to millions. In 1913 he built his company headquarters on Broadway and Prince Street. Known as the Woolworth Building, the sixty-story skyscraper was the tallest building in the world, costing $13.5 million to construct. It was designed by the famous architect, Cass Gilbert. It was from his elaborate office that he master-minded his million-dollar operation, always analyzing how to make the most money. His business plan was to import items made by women and children in Europe cheaply. The dolls and toys they sold him for three cents each were big sellers.

F. W. Woolworth’s Office

Candy sales were also profitable. Mr. Woolworth said, “I don’t pretend to know much about the candy-making business, but in my opinion, if I put it in brass trays near the front door, shoppers passing through or leaving will be reminded to buy some to take home to the children.” Many other sweet sales were made at the store’s soda fountain that offered ice cream sundaes, hot chocolate and coffee at bargain prices.

Lunch Counter in Woolworth’s Refresh Room

Besides going to the five and ten, Kate Roosevelt also stopped by a toy shop to buy Shippen Geer a kiddy-car.  In 1918, most wealthy families had their own private automobiles and the affluent adults shared their passion for cars with their children. Her three year-old grandson, Shippen was at the perfect age for a tiny, tin car that he could pedal himself. At the time, FAO Schwarz was one of the most famous toy stores in New York City. Originally called the Toy Bazaar, the store Kate often shopped at was located on West 23rd Street. Named for its founder, Frederick August Otto Schwarz, its flagship store was located at 745 Fifth Avenue, selling toys that even the extremely rich, Mrs. Roosevelt would have found outrageously and expensive.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

On WAT-CAST, listen to Sharon talk about the series.

Photo One:
Woolworth Five and Ten Store
public domain

Photo Two:
F.W. Woolworth
wiki

Photo Three:
Woolworth’s Signature Red Front
Boston Public Library

Photo Four:
Woolworth Building
Pictorial News, 1913

Photo Five:
F. W. Woolworth’s Office
Cathedral of Commerce, 1913

Photo Six:
Lunch Counter in Woolworth’s Refresh Room
public domain