Late 19th and Early 20th Century Stationery at Woolworth's
Three stationery lines were among the fifty things Frank Woolworth stocked in his first store in February 1879. The tiny, makeshift 'Great 5¢ Store' sold simple 'writing books', (exercise books), as well as Pencil Charms and turkey red paper napkins.
He was quick to see the potential of paper products. These were mass-produced at a very low cost. The early writing books were made up of folded pages with a light cardboard cover, held together by two staples. By persuading a paper mill to set up a simple assembly line, it was possible to produce thousands of books every hour, helping to push the cost down enough to reduce the selling price from the quarter dollar (25¢) charged in rival stores to just 5 cents in the Woolworth Syndicate.
Simple accessories like brassed drawing pins, paper clips, treasury tags, and ring reinforcers were soon added. Initially these items were sold in plain brown paper envelopes, but before long they were repacked into boxes (above) which carried the distinctive 'Diamond W' logo.
Frank's original plan was just to sell practical items. He sold to thrifty Pennsylvania housewives who couldn't afford indulgences. But as stores opened cities, he also targeted businesses, adding typing paper, ribbons, carbon paper, and even account books to the range.
As news of the shops' reputation grew, particularly after Frank and Charles Sumner Woolworth added ten cent lines to make their Great Five Cent Stores into the 'Five and Ten', the firm got bolder in their choice of locations. In the 1890s they started to supplement their rural locations with larger branches in City Centres, including dominant premises across the major commercial centres of New York State.
The new locations attracted a different clientele, with office workers taking the place of farmers. Shoppers included clerks, typists and even captains of industry. Some of these people had little use for a cheap can opener, but were easily tempted by an elegant packet of fancy envelopes tied in a ribbon. They appreciated new lines like watermarked writing paper in a gentle lilac colour with a slight scent.
In 1890 Frank Woolworth discovered a new way to satisfy the demand for luxuries at affordable prices. As Buyer-in-Chief, he selected the lines personally. This brought him into contact with both suppliers and agents (wholesalers). He began to search for the original source of his most popular products, which prompted a trip across the Atlantic to Europe.
He found factories that made more luxurious pads and envelopes in the East End of London. The manufacturing process was very advanced compared to the USA. This reduced the cost price so much that he found it would be cheaper to buy in Europe and ship the goods across the Atlantic. The 5 and 10¢ imports were better made and had higher margins than local goods.
He made another discovery In Brixton, South West London. A local printer had developed a technique to hand-tint black and white photos, turning them into colour postcards. Before long stateside stores were selling large numbers of these 'pseudo-color' local views.
By 1900 forty percent of the Five-and-Ten's sales were generated on European goods. The higher margins on these lines meant that they also contributed more than half of annual profits.
Many picture views from the USA got the 'pseudo-color' treatment in the early 1900s, with Charles Sumner Woolworth a particular fan. The five-and-ten's increasing popularity meant that one of their most popular views was of the individual store itself. Some of the cards survive to this day, giving a unique insight into life and shopping at the time, and a surprisingly large number of them contain the same message on the back - "this is the store I was telling you about"!
It is probably little wonder that the buying trips prompted Frank to muse about a British Five-and-Ten (or 'penny and sixpence').
The first opened in Liverpool on 5 November 1909, with others added in a line across the North in Preston, Manchester, Leeds and Hull. After this, Brixton seemed the natural choice for the first London store. It was a fashionable, swanky suburb with green fields and blue skies, unlike the smokey City just three miles away.
The new stores displayed Stationery right at the front. Their lines included the British-made pads and pens sold in the USA for 10¢. Without shipping costs, they were offered at the lower price point of threepence (approximately 1¼p or 5¢ then, or £1 in today's prices).
Picture frames in many shapes and sizes, with or without glass were particularly popular in the first British stores. Other best-sellers included gummed labels, pencil sharpeners and india rubbers. Diamond W Exercise Books (illustrated at the top of the page) were an instant hit, along with another innovation, a highly adaptable ring-book folder (below).
The parent company had become accomplished at designing adaptable items that could be used for more than one purpose. Experience had taught them to use the same black binder cover in imitation leather around a variety on inserts, including ruled paper as a notebook, calendar pages to make a diary, white cartridge paper as a drawing book and black card for scrap books. Long before the filofax was invented, there were also special inserts for stamp and coin collectors. The new-start British operation was able to draw on this learning and either source stock from the same suppliers or, where appropriate, to find new manufacturers for the established designs. Thrifty shoppers were offered cheap upgrade options, like printed gummed labels for a penny to add an updated calendar inside the front cover.
Budget books became a great favourite on both sides of the Atlantic. They first appeared on the shelves in 1896. Frank Woolworth's drive to attract city dwellers led to him to cast the net more widely for items to suit people's leisure time as well as doing the chores. He bought a job lot of tiny 'Little Leather Library' books and put them on sale in New York. They sold out within hours. Before long he was buying books not by looking at the titles but in large job lots of publishers' surplus. Some were presented in miniature sizes, but most were simple bin-ends. The bumper stateside sales ensured that the British company incorporated books into its stores from day one.
Over time the firm started to review the performance of individual titles and genres. Alongside the classics needed for school, the most popular category in the USA was detective fiction. Meanwhile in Britain the all time winners were love stories from the Sixpenny Romance section.
One title proved a big hit with staff and customers on both sides of the Atlantic. Karen Brown's 'The Girl from Woolworths' had a good plot, linked to one of the first talking films and told of how a Woolworth shop girl hit the big time, finding true love after being talent-spotted while serving at her counter.
Frank Woolworth and his buying team adapted the offer in-store as the seasons changed. They capitalised on each of the big calendar events, with special displays in the windows and dedicated counters in-store to satisfy demand for Valentines Gifts, Easter Eggs, the holiday season, Back to School, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The approach was firmly embedded in the USA before the first British Woolworth store opened and, with the exception of the uniquely American Thanksgiving, each seasonal department made the transition into the High Street. The chain gained a reputation for its mastery of the events.
The Founder was particularly proud of his range of 'school sundries', which was a market that he had pioneered. Each store built its range during the summer ahead of the Michaelmas Term. They established big window displays in August, promoting their range of stationery. In the years before World War II the firm ran a window dressing competition each autumn, with prizes for the most elaborate and innovative displays. The best examples were photographed and circulated company-wide, with a letter of praise for the window-dresser. The layout on the left first appeared in Little Bluffs, Arkansas, USA in 1930. It went on to grace many British High Streets the following year!
The traffic in ideas stretched both ways across the Atlantic, with displays from Liverpool and Birmingham repeated stateside, and products chosen by the British Buyers often inspiring similar lines to be purchased by their counterparts in New York City, Montreal and, from 1927, Berlin.
In 1934 the six hundredth British outlet opened in Wallington, Surrey. The chain had become firmly established, with few customers knowing of its American heritage. One of the keys to success had been consistency of display and operation between one store and another. This meant that whichever branch a customer visited, whether in a rural corner of England or a big City like Edinburgh or Dublin, they would always find the stationery department on the right hand side of the store, straight inside the main entrance and next to the displays of toiletries and cosmetics.
The 'nothing over sixpence' formula and national presence gave unrivalled buying power. The stores sold huge quantities at very low prices. Theys attracted big crowds throughout the week and were always packed at the weekend.
The average sale of each stationery item exceeded one gross (144) per week. Most had high margins too. No wonder the counter was at the front !
By the 1930s Woolworth was highly profitable. It kept back some of the cash it generated to open more stores, and to upgrade the existing branches with more space and better counters. Fearsome Superintendents checked that the signs were sparkling clean, the counters were dust-free and the service was 'attentive'.
Although, of course, the product packaging changed regularly, many of the products pictured above in the Liverpool store in 1923 still appear relevant today. Many of the same lines remained in the store range for the next seventy-five years. The stationery department retained its position close to the storefront in virtually every layout operated by the company throughout its time in the High Street.
Shortcuts to related content in the Woolworths Museum
Stationery, Cards and Books Gallery