February 22: from small things, Mama, big things one day come

2012/02/22 § 3 Comments

On this day in 1879 Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852–1919) opened his first store in Utica, New York.

A true monument of American architecture and society, this was the first five and dime store (precursor to today’s dollar stores), as well as one of the first places where Americans could go and fondle merchandise before buying them (or not).  Amazingly, Uticans did not go for it, and the store closed.  Undeterred, Woolworth opened a similar store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the following year; clearly Pennsylvanians are better bargain-hunters and merchandise-fondlers and, let’s just be honest: probably better Americans.

Woolworth’s business grew markedly during the following decades, expanding into something called the Woolworth Syndicate that comprised 596 stores.  Woolworth had building in his blood and, not content with his empire of  five-and-dimes, coveted the idea of a single big building.  He started as early as 1900, buying up a bunch of properties in Lancaster and built a soaring tower of a whole five stories (store, offices, roof garden and open-air theatre).  After wading in to the architectural pool, he dove into the deep end, commissioning a really tall building from Cass Gilbert, the elegant and famous Woolworth building, which opened on April 24, 1913 (and served as company headquarters all the way until 1998).  At 792 feet, it was the tallest building in world until 1930.

Famously nicknamed the “cathedral of commerce,” it had a special place in the New York skyline as being one of the great symbols, not only of business success, but of the kind of self-made success that Americans like so much.  In their February 28, 1914 issues, the Dry Goods Reporter (Chicago) recorded that:

The tallest building in the world is built on nickels and dimes.  Of course, you’ve heard of the big Woolworth Building with its sixty-five towering stories, but perhaps you did not know that the owner of it has made his money exclusively from the sale of merchandise retailing at the popular five and ten cent price.

The writer went on to explain that, as Woolworth had shown, a fortune could be made with small sales (as long as there were enough of them), built on a very small outlay of cash (as long as the entrepreneur was clever, ambitious and hard-working. The Dry Goods Reporter explained that only a little capital was necessary: “combined with brains and energy, $500 is enough.  Backed by originality and perseverance, it is a safe bet.”  Who could argue with 792′ of brilliant terra cotta?  Frank Woolworth is the model of early-twentieth century American business; his stores are his monuments, and this is his (and the country’s) theme song.

Image: the Woolworth store in Utica (from this source)

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You are currently reading February 22: from small things, Mama, big things one day come at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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