The Woolworths Museum


Mum and Dad's Toys

the playthings of the 1960s and 1970s

On this page we take a look at some of the toys that our parents played with in the 1960s and 1970s. During the period Woolworth lowered its prices in response to strong competition. During the Sixties the toy range was given a major overhaul. Lots of new items were added, though by today's standard most of these look quite tame. Very few things needed batteries, let alone a mains adaptor. Woolworth stuck with its tried and tested personal service formula as its rivals adopted self-service. This left most of the branches looking old-fashioned. Most of the photographs on this page were taken for publicity purposes and show the company at its most modern.

A number of Sixties toys celebrated the space programme. These are covered in a separate feature.

The Government's decision to decimalise the currency forced the High Street chain to modernise. Between 1969 and 1975 most of the stores were given a new look. The period also saw the arrival of new ranges of battery-operated and electronic toys, which were sold at discounted prices and were heavily advertised on TV.

 

A new look Woolworth toy department with a spectacular display of dolls photographed in full colour. The shot shows the Gallowtree Gate branch in Leicester in 1965.

In 1965 the Woolies store in Gallowtree Gate, Leicester was chosen to test out a new "futuristic" look. It had new ranges and new styles of display, with taller counters, but continued to have a till at each one, and to offer personal service to every shopper.

The upgrade heralded a further move up-market. Many of the new items were at higher prices, like the dolls in the foreground of the photo. Before World War II nothing had been over sixpence (2½p). Now some branded dolls were fifty-five shillings (£2.55). Even accounting for inflation this was twenty-five times higher. At today's prices the most expensive doll would be £45 or $56. But sixpence still bought a three minute go on the sit-and-ride horse in the background !

 

By the early 1970s many smaller Woolworth stores were starting to look quaint and old-fashioned. The picture shows the store at Atherstone, Warwickshire in 1973. While the merchandise had changed, the look and feel of the store had remained frozen in time for the thirty years since World War II. The branch was finally modernised and converted to self-service shortly after this picture was taken.

 

The toy department in a new look small Woolworth store after 'crash-conversion' to self-service as part of the chain's response to the decimalisation of the British currency in 1971

The picture above shows Atherstone, Warwickshire in 1973, just before it was modernised. It had first opened in 1935 and appeared to be trapped in a time warp. When it had first been fitted out the company had not stocked large items. As the range had expanded it had simply squeezed them in, creating ramshackle displays with echoes of the original US Woolworth 5 & 10¢ in Utica, New York in 1879!

The 'after' picture shows rge scake of the makeover. Between 1969 and 1975 200 stores were upgraded each year, finally moving to self-service as a way to avoid the cost of decimalising twenty thousand cash registers, after the change of currency in 1971.

One-by-one the older stores closed for a week. The counters were dismantled, taken to the stockroom for cleaning while the walls and ceiling were repainted. Their wooden floors were scrubbed and then fiited with thermoplastic tiles, some plain and some patterned. The old counters were then re-assembled in taller configurations at the back of the store, and new ones were installed at the front along with new cash and wrap desks to take customers' money. The last stores got their 'every expense spared' makeovers in 1975.

 

To give a flavour of the toys that children chose in the 1970s, we've picked out some typical pages from the Christmas Catalogues of 1973 and 1975. The brochures were a new idea, reflecting changing buying patterns. If you have a broadband connection you can download a high resolution PDF of the extracts shown below.

 

The first of two double page spreads in Woolworth's first Christmas Catalogue, which was distributed free-of-charge stapled into the centre of the Radio Times, Britain's most popular magazine of the era. Right click and choose 'Save target as...' to save a high resolution PDF version.

 

The second of two double-page spreads of Toys in Woolworth's first Christmas Catalogue, which was stapled into the centre of The Radio Times in November 1973

 

The 1975 Woolworth Christmas Catalogue, which was distributed with the Radio Times, was inspired by a great British tradition - the pantomime (Oh no it wasn't, oh yes it was.) Oh... just one more thing -"look behind you!"

 

The second of two double-page spreads of Toys in the 1975 Woolworth Christmas Catalogue

 

By the late 1970s Toys had begun to play a more important part in the overall Woolworth's offer. The largest stores had enough space to offer more toys than specialist Toy shops, allowing them to experiment. The flagship Oxford Street store in London W1 allocated a sixty foot (18m) run of counter to Lego. There were similar-sized displays of soft toys, Fisher-Price pre-school, sports and leisure, and camping.

 

Toy displays in Woolworth's flagship store in London's fashionable Oxford Street in the late 1970s (image courtesy of Mr Andrew Hayzelden)

 

A bold display of Fisher Price toys for pre-schoolers in the flagship Woolworth store in London's Oxford Street, pictured in 1979 (image courtesy of Mr Andrew Hayzelden)Bold displays of soft toys - many of them made in Wales by Lefray Toys - in the flagship Woolworth store in London's Oxford Street in 1979

The toy counters of the flagship store in London's Oxford Street were over 250 feet (80m) long!

They tempted tourists to buy soft toys as gifts. The top sellers included British bulldogs, ladybirds, penguins, snails and a cuddly octopus.

 

Battery operated and electronic toys were very popular in the late 1970s at Woolworth's

In the late 1970s there was a craze for radio-controlled and electronic toys. In 1977 the first lines sold out quickly. In 1978 Woolworth broadened its range and promoted it strongly on TV.

In 1979 electronic gadgets featured strongly in the Christmas campaign. Two lines, Kenny Everitt's Captain Kremen Krenometer and a Stylophone, won out, along with an electronic game called 'Merlin' (below). The ads also featured Milton Bradley's Simon. Invicta promoted its Electronic Mastermind, while MB pushed its Computer Battleships and Logic 5 on TV.

The modern age was dawning and Woolworth wanted its share. You can find out more in our Eighties toys feature.

 

Merlin, the electronic games machine, was a smash hit in 1979, along with the Stylophone and new electronic toys from Milton Bradley and Invicta Toys. Many of the items were four times more expensive than a Board Game of the era at over £20.