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Some of the 200 different project books that were sold exclusively in Woolworth stores during the 1970sThe back cover of every project book explained that the series was sold exclusively in Woolworth in Woolco stores

 

 

Project Books

a Seventies phenomenon

 

The Woolworth Buyers were always on the lookout for new and interesting products to sell in the stores. Part of the challenge was to draw on their experience to predict whether a new line would be a hit or not. From time to time they got it wrong, buying 'lemons' which had to be unceremeniously cut in price or even sent to the tip. But occasionally they struck gold and found something that captured the public imagination and sold in much larger quantities than anyone could have predicted. They did not have high hopes for the Project Book series when it was introduced in 1970, ordering just a handful per store. To their surprise sales lifted off at once. The books became one of the surprise best sellers of the decade, with more than a million copies sold, for the princely sum of just 5p each. After spotting the winner, the short series was rapidly extended to cover a huge variety of topics, growing to a remarkable 200 different titles!

Perhaps reflecting simpler times, before computer games and the Internet, each little booklet contained a series of things to do on a given theme, starting with something quite simple and building up in some cases to very complex projects. The simply-printed black and white layout offered a mix of text and line drawing diagrams to explain what to do.

 

A list of the full range of 200 different Project Books sold in Woolworth and Woolco British and Irish stores in the 1970s

 

The breadth of subject matter was remarkable, with everything from "Build your own Computer", long before the invention of the PC (illustrated below), to 'how to build of home museum'. There was something for everyone. In fact the list of titles, which is illustrated above, gives an insight into the subjects that inspired the young minds of today's parents and grandparents when they were growing up. Some of the subjects remain highly fashionable today - researching your family tree, taking good photos, sport, or even how to be a weatherman, along with an obsessive interest in space travel and scientific instruments. There were also many ideas for would-be explorers, visiting the countryside, a river or some of the country's major tourist destinations. At just 5p each, parents would often buy their children a book to read in the car on a long journey, sometimes to help them to prepare for another seventies phenomenon, a British holiday. Just one thing was missing 'how to make an umbrella'!

 

The principles behind an abacus - considered essential training for would-be computer builders in the 1970s

 

A Woolworth mechanical calculator from the 1950s. This model proved a big hit and remained part of the range until the early 1970s

 

Despite their simple layout, which now appear rather quaint, many of the books remain topical, give or take the move from imperial feet, inches, ounces, and pints to the metric system, and the invention of labour-saving devices like the microwave. But some demonstrate that the world was very different in the Seventies. When children talked about computers, these were expected to be mechanical in nature, with adding up cash registers widely believed to be the ultimate in modern technology. To help readers to prepare to build a computer, the Project Book authors explained the principles behind an abacus and another marvel of science from the Fifties and Sixties, the mechanical calculator (right).

 

Building a mechanical computer - Woolworth-style- in the 1970s, before the invention of the PC

 

Many of the books remain in circulation today. If you spot one in the charity shop it's well worth a read and will give you more of a flavour of growing up in the Seventies than any number of web pages! One last thought - while the computers were all mechanical in the book, other booklets in the series included everything you need to know about transistors, publishing your own book and developing a crystal radio. The generation who read them went on to invent PCs and mobile phones to publish websites. Indeed some readers of the Woolies books from the Seventies are today's rocket scientists. They probably weren't inspired by one title in the series 'How to be a little mother'!