The Woolworths Museum


Yankee Doodle Candy in the 19th Century

Frank Winfield Woolworth - founder of the legendary retail store chain and the brains behind the world's first budget weigh-out sweets, which came to be known as Pic'n'Mix in the British store chain

 

Frank Woolworth maintained the popularity of his stores by always trying something new. This constant innovation helped him to stay ahead of the competition. His goal was to amaze customers at the sheer variety of items that their nickels and dimes could buy.

In 1886 he decided to tackle the sweets market, believing that it should be possible to bring the prevailing price of the day of around 25¢ for a quarter pound (about 8p for 125 grams) down to just 5¢. This would bring 'candy', as the Americans call sweets, into the price range of ordinary people, rather than keeping it for rich people to buy in department stores.

This is the story of how he did it.

 

The F. W. Woolworth management in the USA, pictured in 1884

The supremo gathered the team to announce he intended to install a large candy counter at the front of each store. Customers would choose an assortment for 5¢ a quarter. Their reaction was muted.

The Store Managers told him he was bonkers! He would never be able to make it pay, as the cost would have to held to 12¢ a pound (c. 10p/Kg) to match the profit on other lines. There would be capital outlay for fixtures and scales, and staffing challenges too.

Frank thanked them for their input, but carried on regardless.

 

Broadway, New York where Frank Woolworth set up a small buying office at Room 57 of the Stewart Building, No. 280 Broadway. The picture postcard view is from about 1886

To set the ball rolling, back at his single-room buying office in the Stewart Building, Broadway, New York, he began to put the word out. He wished to buy candy direct from a leading factory, without following the custom of going through a wholesaler. He followed this up by going out to factories to evangelise the idea. Several agreed in principle, but all considered his offer of 3¢ unrealistic.

Undaunted, Woolworth conducted market research. He asked passers-by whether they would buy candy for 5¢ a quarter, and if there were any barriers that would discourage them making a purchase. A number of people pointed out that others had offered cheap candy on market stalls, but had compromised on quality, leading to a spate of food-poisoning scandals. Any candy must be 'hygienic' for them to consider buying, and they would trust the Woolworth 5 & 10¢ to make the necessary checks.

 

An artist's impression of the premises of the small New York sweet factory of D. Arnould & Co.  They saw sales rocket after their offer to Woolworths was accepted, always getting first refusal on any new request to supply

 
But, just as it seemed that Woolworth's words were falling on deaf ears, he was approached by Mr. D. Arnould. Frank was invited to inspect his shop and adjoining factory.

Woolworth found Arnould pleasant and approachable. The confectioner was drawn to the huge anticipated volumes and the 5 & 10¢'s promise of up-front payment and a contribution towards his set-up costs. He would draw up some plans without delay.

 

True to his word, the very next day Arnould made his way to the Stewart Building. He had compiled a list of all the candies he could produce for 3¢ a quarter. While it wasn't comprehensive, it included chocolate candy as well as boiled sweets and toffees. Minutes later the two men shook hands on an opening order for a 100 lb (about 40 Kg) assortment.

 

In 1886 Customers had to pay at least 25 cents a quarter for their sweets, until F. W. Woolworth entered the marketThe sign boasted Finest American Candy for 5 cents a quarter in the Autumn of 1886.  Frank Woolworth made sure that all of his sweets were made to the highest possible standard.

While Arnould set up the production line, Frank chose new counters and weighing scales, and commissioned banners and signs. He mimicked the styling used by Macey's Department Store, while highlighting the 80% drop in price. Shiny frames would show off the banners on the top of the counter, while triangular tickets would name each sweet, as well as its ingreidents and price. These were chocolate coloured, with white writing on a rich brown background, and became a hallmark of the brand. The style was only finally updated in 1954.

 

The first candy counters in Woolworths were made of mahogany with glass tops.  This one was pictured in Binghampton, New York in the 1910s

The new candy counters were a triumph. The mahogany base was lower than on the other counters. It was tiered with separate compartments for each sweet and encased in glass on the customer side, with an opening on the inner edge for staff sevice. Each slot was crammed with candy. Each flavour of chocolate, mint and toffee had a distinctive bright and colourful foil wrapper. This layout owed more than a little to Macey's. Today some fancy delicatessens employ the same display principles, albeit with stainless steel or plastic instead of mahogany.

A launch pack told Managers deploy their prettiest clerk on the new counter, and show them how to use the extra large scoops and the special ready-reckoner table which Frank had prepared. This would help them to find the price for any given weight. It specified that any sweet which became unwrapped was to be given away as a sample.

The launch was prepared in great secrecy. The counters were hidden under cloths when they were first installed. They were only filled in the hour before opening, when signs promoting the new offer were affixed to every window. Within minutes of unlocking the doors, shoppers had gathered like bees around a honeypot, and an hour later further supplies had to be rushed from Arnould's factory, which became a frenzy of activity. From that day forward, it ran a night shift, and was in operation twenty-four hours a day. Autumn 1886 became a landmark both for Woolworth and for Arnould. Both made money, enjoying a deep bond that endured down the years.

Word of Mr Arnould's good fortune soon reached other confectioners. His wealth was plain to see. Before long rivals fell into line. The one-time sceptics sent samples and begged for an audience. Frank drove a hard bargain, making it clear that he would always prefer to pay "the visionary Mr Arnould" a little more, and he would have to double-check whether his partner could match any new line they had to offer. History records that by 1919, as the 5 & 10¢ marked its 40th Anniversary in Main Street, USA, it had sold a staggering 4,400,000 lb (1,973 tonnes) of candy from Arnould's growing empire of sweet factories.

 

A Halloween Candy Window at a Woolworth's five-and-ten in the USA in the 1920sCandy for Valentines Day in the window of a Woolworth's store on the West Coast of the USA in the 1920s - just ten cents!

 

For the next seventy-five years, both in North America and later in Britain, a favoured technique of promoting sales of weigh-out sweets was to assemble elaborate window displays. Sometimes these featured new lines, but more frequently highlighted seasonal events like Halloween, Valentine's Day or Thanksgiving. We're proud to share photos of some of the finest displays to grace the Main Streets of North America in the 1910s and 1920s.

The century-old album that the pictures come from reveals a closely-guarded secret from the era. These displays had to be restocked every two days, before the sunlight caused the candy to deteriorate. Candies removed from the window were placed on the top of the displays in-store and sold through the next day!

 

Marshmallows - recommended for Sunday lunch - ten cents a half pound at Woolworths in Kansas City, USA in 1927 (left) and Fruit Tablets (half a pound for 10c) at the San Francisco, California store

 

George Washington's birthday was the inspiration for these elaborate displays of candy in the F. W. Woolworth stores at Atlantic City (left) and Baton Rouge (right) in 1926

 

Midget Mints - half a pound for ten cents at Woolworth's in Buffalo, New York in 1924

 

Shortcuts to related content

Yankee Doodle Candy

Tuppence a Quarter

Visit a 1930s Sweet Factory

Rationing in World War II

A new world - the 1950s

Building a legend

Europe's biggest sweet shop

Candy Kings?

The Good Ship Lollipop

Site navigation

Early history

1900s Gallery

1910s Gallery

Home Page