31 Days of History: 17 July

On this day in 1997, the F.W. Woolworth Company closed after 117 years in business.

Woolworth's was founded in 1878 by Frank Winfield Woolworth, and it pioneered the “five and dime” store genre: they were the first to set merchandise out for customers to handle. Stores at that time usually kept goods behind counters, which necessitated asking for service from a sales clerk or providing a clerk with a list of items one wanted to purchase. Woolworth’s is considered the “parent” of many large chains today—K-Mart, Wal-Mart, and Target are all in some way based on ideas and patterns that Woolworth’s started.

Twelve years ago, Woolworth's closed its remaining department stores in the U.S. and changed its corporate name to “Venator”. The company now concentrates chiefly on athletic clothing and footwear, having owned or currently owning some of the biggest names in retail: Eastbay, Foot Locker and Champs Sporting Goods.

In the early 1900’s, Woolworth's began operating lunch counters. These served as a forerunner to modern food courts. You could come to the store, do your shopping, and eat lunch at the same time. Just check out some of the prices on this menu, c.1940.

Click on the menu for a bigger version

A chicken salad sandwich for 65¢, a banana split for 39¢—a king size Coke for a dime! You can’t beat those prices….what could be better? Great service in a small town atmosphere.

Of course, those prices were only for white people. If you happened to be born black, or brown, or yellow, or any of a thousand other colors that you had no control over when you were in your mother’s womb, then you weren’t welcome at the Woolworths lunch counter. Yes, you could shop there and they would willingly take your money—you just weren’t good enough to order a 15¢ piece of apple pie.

On 1 Feb 1960, this began to change. Four African-American college students sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Of course, they were refused. When told to leave, they refused and spent the entire day sitting at the lunch counter. The “sit-in” protest was born.

After the first day

The next day, they came back. The story repeated itself—over and over—until friends and family and community leaders began to get involved. A week turned into several weeks which turned into months. By the summertime, there were several hundred people taking up all the space at the lunch counter. Woolworth's began to get worried—they couldn’t continue with business as usual with the chaos and commotion at the lunch counter.

You can read the headlines in the Greensboro paper here:

So on 25 July, perhaps for moral reasons or perhaps for economic reasons, Woolworth's integrated their lunch counters. Anyone, of any color or ethnicity, could come and enjoy that great Woolworth's coffee...isn’t that what America is all about? The success of this sit-in, and others throughout the South, helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bringing the dream of our Founding Fathers, where “all men are created equal”, one step closer to reality.

When the Greensboro Woolworth's closed in 1993, a section of the lunch counter was cut out and donated to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. You can find it on the 2nd Floor East. . .

Part of the original lunch counter

And interestingly enough, the site of the Greensboro Woolworths? It's under renovation to become the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

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