F.W. Woolworth Archive

Reference: FWWDate: 1909-2004Extent: c. 72 boxes and 122 volumes

The F. W. Woolworth Company (often referred to as Woolworth’s, or Woolworth) was a retail company and one of the original pioneers of the five-and-dime store.

The first Woolworth store was opened by Frank Winfield Woolworth on February 22, 1878, as “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” which sold discounted general merchandise at fixed prices. Though it initially appeared to be successful, the store soon failed. However Woolworth opened his next store in a new location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on July 18, 1879 and this one proved a success. He brought his brother, Charles Sumner (Sum) Woolworth, into the business.

The two Woolworth brothers pioneered and developed merchandising, direct purchasing, sales, and customer service practices commonly used today. Woolworth, as the stores popularly became known, was one of the first American retailers to put merchandise out for the shopping public to handle and select without the assistance of a sales clerk. Earlier retailers had kept all merchandise behind a counter and customers presented the clerk with a list of items they wished to buy.

By 1904, there were six chains of affiliated stores operating in the United States and Canada. In November 1909 the first store in the UK opened in Liverpool, on Church Street, this store also included a “Refreshment Room”, another first for the company. A second store opened in Liverpool in February 1910 and a store in Fishergate, Preston opened the following day. Openings went ahead in Manchester, Leeds and Hull and by the Christmas the plan to have stores in towns along the route of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway were complete. By the outbreak of WWI, 44 stores had opened, the goal was a hundred outlets by 1919.

In 1912 the Woolworth syndicate agreed to a scheme crafted by Frank Woolworth: to join forces and incorporate as one corporate entity under the name “F. W. Woolworth Company” in a merger of all 596 stores. Frank Woolworth, president of F. W. Woolworth, Corporation, died in 1919, in Glen Cove, New York. His brother Charles Sumner Woolworth took on the new role of Chairman, which he held until 1944.

The British chain opened its hundredth branch in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in 1921. The target to treble the size of the Company by 1930 saw the four hundredth store open in Southport in July 1930. Eric Pasold head of a major European weaving firm, planning to relocate to England, persuaded the Buying Team in London, to place an order for ladies silk knickers. Pasold named his British company “Ladybird” and continued to give F W Woolworth first refusal on every product. Woolworths went on to buy the Ladybird brand outright in the 1990s. By 1939 the chain had grown to 768 stores, with new outlets from Penzance in the south, to Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis to the north of Scotland.

In 1962, Woolworth’s founded a chain of large, single-floor discount stores called Woolco. Some of these stores were branded as Winfields, after the founder’s middle name. While it was a success in Canada, the Woolco chain closed in the United States in 1983. Woolco and Woolworth survived in Canada until 1994, when the majority of the Woolco stores there were sold to Wal-Mart.

By Woolworth’s 100th anniversary in 1979, it had become the largest department store chain in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The papers in this collection contain accounts, administrative records including branch and property records, legal records, publications, promotions and advertising records, and photographic records.

Please note the collection is stored off site, so please contact us at least five working days in advance of your visit.

More Information

  • A full description is available on our online database.
  • A handlist for the whole collection can be found here.