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The Race for Space

 

Since the earliest times children have dreamt of aliens and outer space - and flying to the moon. The V2 rockets of World War II brought this dream one step closer. The Fifties and Sixties saw intense competition between the two global superpowers - the USA and USSR - to master space and land a man on the moon. Coverage of the story in cinema newsreels, on the radio and via the new mass medium of television made space travel a hot topic at school, and a key theme for toys and games in the shops.

 

Space jigsaws had pride of place in this 1955 Woolworth window display

 

A special favourite during the 1960s - a space rocket kiddy ride at Woolworth's

 

Customer interest in the space programme resulted in many space-related products, from tin toy rockets and colouring books to a wide selection of jigsaw puzzles - initially based around science-fiction comic strip stories, and before long showing the prototype craft and the heroes of the space programme.

Building on the opportunity, before long Woolworth replaced traditional horseback and motorbike kiddy ride machines with space rockets. For sixpence (2½p) little boys and girls could be transported to another universe !

 

President John F. Kennedy, speaking outside an F. W. Woolworth store

Speaking in 1961 US President John F. Kennedy accelerated the space race, challenging America to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. To achieve the moon-landing would require new fuels and new materials that had yet to be invited. The speech mobilised scientists and was the catalyst for many inventions that we take for granted today. Everything from the sliding doors that open automatically when we go to the shops, to satellite communications, microwave ovens and fibre glass was developed during the 1960s.

It is hard to imagine today that the total computing power behind the moon mission, both on board the Saturn V rocket and back at mission control, was less that that of a typical mobile phone today. At the time the five gigabytes of storage that holds this website would have filled several office blocks rather than a fraction of a three and a half inch (8.5cm) hard disk!

 

The Apollo Missions were the inspiration behind many of the toys that appeared on the shelves at Woolworth's, from board games like 'Blast Off', illustrated below, to models of the lunar craft which were either pre-made or available to build at home as Airfix kits. Many dads and lads spent the winter evenings of 1969 assembling their very own Apollo 11 - the must-have present that Christmas, while others opted for a tinplate model of the Gemini landing craft.

 

Waddingtons Blast Off - a boxed game released in 1969 to satisfy intense interest in the moon landing
A Japanese-made model of the Gemini Space Capsule - a big seller at Woolworth's in the late 1960s

 

Another Board Game with a space theme was Triang's 'Moon Probe', which was a big hit in 1968 as a preparatory Apollo 10 mission headed to the moon, orbiting to the dark side without landing. Meanwhile another innovation - the View Master, which was a three dimensional slide viewer, captured the imagination of many families. Clever design and marketing led to many circular image cartridges on a variety of topics from travel guides to natural history, cartoons and legends ... and, of course, the Apollo Programme. The viewer was supplied complete with an assortment pack of cartridges for two pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence (£2.87½p), the equivalent of £39.47 or US $62.00 today. A pack of three additional cartridges cost one pound and fifteen shillings (£1.75).

 

New in the 1960s was the Viewmaster - a 3D slide viewer.  One of the best selling reels (packs of pictures) depicted the Apollo space programmeMoon Probe - a model of the Apollo Saturn V programme

 

The best-selling item in the Space Range was. of course, an Airfix kit that built into an accurate 1:144 model of the Apollo Saturn V rocket. But one range came close - Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. These included the legendary pupeteer's own take on space rockets which were more than a little Apollo-like. They quickly captured the imagination of a generation and spawned a huge range of products from Fab Ice Creams to models of each of the craft, dress-up uniforms, board games and even jigsaw puzzles. Unlike many sixties fashions, the Thunderbirds franchise is still going strong in the 21st Century, with many still preferring the marionation action of the original ATV series to the slick graphics of the movie directed by Jonathan Frakes. Geoff Tracey, Lady Penelope, Parker, Scott and Vergil and even The Hood have their own immortality and never get older!

 

An Airfix kit of the Saturn V rocket from 1969/70

The original Airfix Model of Saturn V was such a hit that it regularly returned to the range on the shelves of Woolworths stores. Thirty-five years after the launch, the chain sold more than 40,000 models in their half price toy sale in July 2004, along with a similar number of supermarine spitfires, 64 years after the stores' staff had bought a Spitfire for the RAF at the height of the Battle of Britain. Airfix retains a timeless appeal to this day, surviving the digital revolution unlike the store chain that helped to establish the brand as a favourite in the 1950s.

Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds series was perfectly timed to capitalise on interest in the space programme and came up with remarkably good rockets. It first screened five years before the moon landing and is still regularly shown today.

 

A sheer touch of class, as Woolworths placed advertisements in newspapers around the world congratulating the astronauts on the moon landing in 1969.

The Eagle Lunar Module - a must-have toy at Christmas 1969 and Easter 1970

To complete the story, Woolworth Executives in New York pulled off a major coup, pre-booking advertising slots across many newspapers around the world to record the Company's appreciation of their ninetieth birthday present - the moon landing.

The advertisement recognised all three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz (Edwin) Aldrin.

Between 1969 and 2009 the Woolworth companies in the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany sold more than a million items relating to the moon landing, from Super 8 and 35 mm cine films to Viewmaster Reels, models, dressing up outfits, Airfix kits and jigsaws to DVDs and console games.

A private Company song, written in 1965, looked forward to Woolworth stores on the moon with the words:

"We can see the day is coming soon there,
They'll be selling travel to the moon there
When they do we'll take a journey through the stars
Up to Venus and Mars
Where we'll find red fronts by the score
And we'll do what we did before
Planet hopping, shopping at a Woolworths store."

Little did they know that within thirty years the American and Canadian stores back on earth would be gone, with the British High Street chain following just a decade later. At the time of writing it will fall to the German, Zimbabwean, Mexican or Barbadian company to open the lunar store. Perhaps a world class website is the next best thing - a Woolworths in the sky.

 

 

"Sell a toy, spread some joy"
Frank W. Woolworth, Proprietor


Shortcuts to related content in the Woolworths Museum

Wonders from Woolies

What our great grandparents used to buy   Got to believe that it's magic

The first character merchandise    In and out the windows    The Lion and Albert

There's a war on   Fifty years ago    Mum and dad's toys    The race for space

Cool for School   Woolies by Woolies at Woolies   Eighties and Nineties Toys   

Wooly and Worth    Kids and Celebrations    Century of Toys Video

Bonus Items - The History of Chad Valley


Although now owned by the Argos parent Home Retail Group, Chad Valley was
rescued by Woolworths and a key part of the firm's offer for 21 years

Toys for Toffs    TV changes everything

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