Woolworth's Lost Departments
This page remembers some of products and ranges that once graced the shelves of Woolworths but didn't make it through the whole 99 years when the stores were at the heart of the High Street. Because the stores stocked so many things, as well as the most famous departments that were dropped along the way, we've also included some of the more bizarre things that are 'strange but true'!
The first stores, which opened in Liverpool, Preston, Manchester, Leeds and Hull, all stocked hunting knives - a popular favourite in the USA. These were considered so shocking by the national press that one paper called the stores 'un-British', reporting that the Founder did not understand that there were no wild bears in Liverpool!
Sales of the knives were mixed - some stores sold none, others sold a lot. After a while a pattern emerged. Nearly all of the sales were made in coastal stores, where dock workers found them useful for cutting the strapping on boxes or fishermen used them for gutting their catch! The line was dropped shortly after the First World War.
Gas Appliances was one of the most popular departments for the first twenty-five years. The range included tiny brass gas tap keys for a penny, rubber tubing by the yard and a selection of 'gas domes', which were lampshades that clipped over the rose at the end of a gas pipe and came in a variety of designs. Most homes in Britain converted to electric lighting between the World Wars. The department was dropped in the late 1930s.
A popular gift for men from the early days right through to the 1960s was a Tobacco Pipe. For many years a pipe was the most popular Father's Day present, before the dangers of smoking were known.
Each of the major pipe manufacturers designed showcards and display fixtures for store windows. These were rotated between branches, going on show for a week or two each season.
In the 1960s self-service Woolworth stores sold cigarettes from the checkouts (below), and from 1970 until 1989 the larger stores included a cigarette kiosk near the main entrance.
Toiletries, perfumes and cosmetics were a key part of the Woolworths offer for more than seventy-five years, and for thirty years before that in the USA, where Colgate Toothpaste was stocked in the first store in 1879. The counter, which was nicknamed 'The Toilet' by the staff, was traditionally displayed at the front of the store, in pride of place alongside the sweet counter. The range was particularly popular with the young because of the very low prices. Woolworth stores consistently undersold the independents and the firm's arch-rival of the time, Boots the Chemist, by offering smaller sizes of traditional branded products and many exclusive own label lines. For example they used to sell half-length lipsticks for sixpence and miniature bottles of perfume. They also sold tablets of soap that were a bit smaller than in rival stores. Over the years Woolworth built a number of popular, exclusive cosmetic brands. The chain's Evette range, made by E. R. Holloway of Lavenham, Suffolk, had a very strong following for many years, rivalling SnowFire products from before the war.
One range was an overnight sensation when it launched in the 1960s. The bright packaging of Baby Doll Cosmetics (left) hit the spot with teenagers. It was marketed in youth magazines, and followed the old trick of selling cosmetics in smaller sizes to keep prices low. The advertisements and display materials remain collectable to this day as a bit of sixties pop culture and, for some, hold special memories of a happy time of their lives.
Toiletries vanished from the shelves in the late 1980s after the parent company bought Superdrug and saw no need for the two chains to compete. The range made a brief return in a few High Street stores and at Big W between 1999 and 2003.
Another 1930s range that "retired" was utility cloth. It was woven on the looms of the Lancashire mills and sold in Woolies stores at sixpence a yard (approximately 3p per metre). Back then many more customers made their own clothes, and with Woolies also Britain's biggest outlet for paper patterns, the material made a perfect partner.
In the 1930s the company couldn't sell adult outer garments within their upper price limit of sixpence (2½p), so patterns and material were the best alternative available. Then in 1940 (as a result of the rapid price inflation that marked the early months of World War II), the upper limit was abandoned. What cloth was available was made into garments by Woolies suppliers and sold over the counters at prices of up to 5/- (five shillings or 25p) each.
The following year the Wolverhampton store was extended into the Mander Centre, overtaking Harlow as the largest in the land. The three floor megastore had many new ranges, including fitted kitchens, carpets on the roll and a huge food hall with not only supermarket style groceries but a fresh fish counter, butchery, delicatessen and range of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Woolworth started to stock groceries in 1937 and was among the first to introduce the self-service supermarket format in the early 1950s, with bright modern fixtures included in the store extensions of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Where the store was large enough there was also an offer of wines and spirits and fresh bread and cakes. The entire food operation was phased out between 1985 and 1987, although a smaller scale food offer appeared very briefly in the Woolworths General Store format shortly before the chain's demerger from Kingfisher in the year 2000.
Some of the out-of-town Woolco stores, which traded from 1967 until 1985, included motor servicing and a tyre bay and exhaust replacement service. Specialities inside included a Travel Agent, Opticians and even a Property Shop. The Woolco hypermarket in the Ards Centre, near Newtonards in County Down, Northern Ireland was the only British Woolworth ever to have its own filling station.
Woolworth stores featured large displays of soap powder and cleaning materials right from the first day in 1909 until Kingfisher refocused the stores between 1985 and 1987. The chain was the market leader for many of the new detergents that first went on the market in the years after World War II.
Soap Powder made a reappearance out-of-town in the Big W stores in 1999 and in the High Street Woolworth General Stores opened in the year 2000. Huge-sized boxes and bags of soap powder proved such a good seller that they remained in the range out-of-town when the format was renamed Woolworths in 2004/5 but never returned to the main High Street stores.
One of the more bizarre ranges stocked at Woolworths was live pets. Some customers still remember the displays in the largest stores in the 1950s and early 1960s, and one retired colleague (who worked for Woolies for more than 40 years) has fond memories of working on pets when he was a management trainee. He jokes the when he first joined the manager told him that canaries were a great seller ("they just fly out") while tortoises were "very slow"!
Gold Fish were a popular Christmas present in the 1930s, with many children visiting one the large City Centre stores that carried pets to choose a fish from a large tank and take it home in a jam jar for sixpence.
One of our correspondents bought a tortoise at Woolworths in the 1930s, also for sixpence. Cecil remains alive and well, having outlived the store chain that sold him!
Finally we couldn't end our whiste-stop tour of the lost departments without putting the wool into Woolworths. For years staff on the haberdashery department had to laugh each time a customers joked 'How much is that Wool worth, Miss Woolworth?' For years the answer was sixpence!
Vast quantities were sold before World War II, when many customers made their own clothes. At the time the stores sold patterns for everything from hats, scarves and gloves to skirts and jackets. For more info see our Fashion Gallery.
Initially Kingfisher intended to include wool in the Operation Focus range. It was rebranded 'Abigail' in 1985, but was only stocked as an occasional sale line after 1990. This reflected changing hobbies, as people switched from knitting and crafts in the digital age. Since the range was withdrawn knitting has become fashionable again. Maybe one day Shop Direct will put the wool back into Woolworth!
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