Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

By Mark Carnes | Go to book overview

Frank W. Woolworth
[13 APRIL 1852–8 AUGUST 1919]

Frank Winfield Woolworth, revolutionary retailer, entrepreneur, visionary—by the end of his life the concept of the five-andten-cent store was synonymous with his name.

Woolworth's: this was place you went for everything, the most necessary and the absolutely unnecessary. This is where I learned to shop, where my mother, remembering the Woolworth's of her youth, let me loose on Saturday mornings, to wander, to explore. A phantasmagoria, an education, a treasure chest of temptation, a wide expanse with counters that went on forever, wooden floors, oiled to keep dirt from sticking, the whole store filled with the scent of fresh popped popcorn, of roasting peanuts, the sweet tweak of dark chocolates. Every row was an adventure, from buttons and bobbins, to pencil cases, lunch boxes, poster-board, glue and glitter, Halloween costumes, valentines, parakeets and goldfish that seemed to live forever. There was something for everyone and then some, things you could find nowhere else, things you never knew existed, things you never knew you needed until you saw them there.

With more than a thousand stores across the country, Woolworth's was a multi-generational American icon visible in the civil rights struggle when four black students were refused service at a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter. Its red logo lodged deep in our imaginations. The five-and-dime was a general store on steroids, bridging the gap between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, laying the groundwork for our consumer culture. When the last of the Woolworth's stores closed in the late 1990s, it was as though some piece of the American spirit of had died. The only remaining stores are in Germany and Mexico.

And now, in the early part of the twenty-first century, the Woolworth Building, the tallest building in the world when it was constructed in 1913, stands firm and proud next to the ruins of the

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