It's Black Friday, but you won't find me Kohl's at the butt-crack of dawn, which is how I define the practice of shopping at 4 a.m. If I could shop anywhere today, it would be at Woolworth's and it would be 1958. Actually, this picture is Woolworth's in 1960, which seems to be the year that it must have cornered the market on making your own ornaments. (See those signs: "It's Fun To Make Your Own" and "It's Easy to Make Your Own.")
For those who are too young to remember, Woolworth's was one of the original five-and-dimes. Its roots are in upstate New York. Frank W. Woolworth was a farm boy who grew up near Watertown, which is about an hour north of Syracuse. In 1879, Woolworth opened his first store in Utica, east of Syracuse. Despite selling everything for a nickle, the store lasted only a few months. So Frank moved south, to Lancaster, Pa., and tried again. This store, with items selling for 5 and 10 cents, was a success. Eventually, in cities big and small, all across the country, there was a Woolworth's, often on the downtown's main street.
If you're thinking that Woolworth's sounds something like Wal-Mart, well, in my memory, Woolworth's was a lot more charming, perhaps because times were simpler. Woolworth's was where you could buy virtually anything -- sewing notions and housewares, toys and school supplies, cosmetics and candy. Candy, by the way, was sold at a candy counter, where you would point to what you wanted and it would be weighed and put into a little white paper bag. And that made you feel very important, especially if you were just five years old.
And Woolworth's stocked everything for Christmas. In fact, so much of what we consider now to be vintage Christmas was likely once sold in a Woolworth's or one of the other five-and-dimes -- Murphy's, McCrory's and Kresge's. Woolworth's is also responsible for making it easy to still find Shiny Brite ornaments today. In 1939, Max Eckardt, who imported ornaments from Europe, struck a deal with Corning Glass to make ornaments domestically and Woolworth's placed an order for more than 200,000 ornaments.
If you want to learn more about Woolworth's, I recommend reading "Remembering Woolworth's," by Karen Plunkett-Powell. Although I've read it three or four times, If find myself drawn to it every year right around Christmas. My favorite chapter is Chapter 9, A Store for All Seasons, which details how Woolworth's employees prepared for all the holidays, including Christmas, Easter and Halloween.
So what happened to Woolworth's? Sadly, it moved away from its five-and-dime roots, which eventually led to its demise. By 1997, the last of the Woolworth's stores in the U.S. closed. There are still some Woolworth's in Britain and Australia but apparently those are in financial trouble and could be closed soon.
Thanks to the Internet, you can get a look at Woolworth's was like in its heyday. Two sites that you should visit are the Woolworth's Virtual Museum and the National Christmas Center, which has re-created a Woolworth's store with holiday items circa 1930-1950.
Personally, if I could go back, I'd buy everything, especially those bottle brush trees, tinsel tree toppers and of course the Shiny Brite ornaments. What about you?