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Frank Woolworth

Frank Winfield Woolworth

Founder of F.W. Woolworth Department Stores

Paternal 7th cousin, 4x removed

My 10x Great Grandparents, Henry Burt & Eulalie Marche, were Frank Winfield Woolworth's 6x Great Grandparents, making Frank and I direct blood relatives.

Frank was born on April 13, 1852 in Rodman, New York. Rodman is located on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, north of Syracuse where I have also located a large number of my American cousins. Frank, along with his younger brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, were raised under modest conditions but Frank apparently had an interest in retail sales from an early age.

Frank finished his schooling at age 16 and then attempted to gain employment in retail by applying at a number of shops in the area, but he was turned down by everyone. Frank then received a loan from his mother, Fanny, and attended two terms at a business college in Watertown, New York.

In 1873, at the age of 21, Frank was employed as a stock boy at a general store called Augsbury & Moore's Drygoods in Watertown, New York. Apparently Frank was not a great salesman so he was given more menial tasks until his employer found that Frank had a knack for arranging the store's front displays. Afterwards, the store's owner assigned this task to Frank.

During his time at the drygoods store in Watertown, Frank realized that the standard practice of the day in which pricing a few items were marked with a selling prices made sales transactions difficult, requiring the involvement of a sales clerk to confirm the price to a potential customer. Frank felt that products should sell themselves and this idea formed a foundation from which Frank would later build his retail empire.

After his mother, Fanny, died on February 15, 1878, Frank developed his idea of a five-and-ten cent store (also referred to as the "Five and Dime"). Only a week after his mother's death, Frank borrowed $300.00 from his employer and opened Woolworth's Great Five Cent Store in Utica, New York. The store failed after only a few months in July, 1878. Frank did not give up on his idea and opened a second store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on July 18, 1879 which this time was successful. Frank used the same name for the Lancaster store as he did with his failed Utica store. At the end of the first day in business, Frank was pleased with his profits and invited his brother, Sumner, to join him and together they opened a second store in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Not long after opening the second store (managed by his brother, Sumner), Frank decided to add ten-cent items for sale on a devoted table. The ten-cent items were a hit and were soon part of both the Lancaster and Harrisburg stores. The success of the Harrisburg store did not go unnoticed by the store's landlord who soon demanded more rent from the brothers. A disagreement ensued and the Harrisburg store was shut down and a new store opened in York, Pennsylvania. The York store closed 3 months later and relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Scranton store was the first store formally called the "5¢ & 10¢ Woolworth Bro's Store".

In 1881, Frank suggested to Sumner that he buy him out of his share of the Scranton store as Frank wanted to have many such stores, all owned and run by friend's and family, as he envisioned the great success such a model could become. Sumner agreed and by 1905, Frank incorporated what had now become a fast growing series of five and dime stores into "F.W. Woolworth & Co." after inviting a series of close friends and family to invest in his idea. Frank allowed Sumner to develop the front end of the business, interacting personally with customers on the floor and soliciting ideas from them. Many of these ideas were then incorporated into the stores and Frank used Sumner's successful store as a model for all future Woolworth stores. Frank also aggressively worked on expanding his chain of stores. By 1912, the Woolworth syndicate of stores was numbered at 596 at which time they were all incorporated as one entity, the "F.W. Woolworth Company".

Frank and Sumner had, in the years leading up to 1912, spent a great deal of time working directly with manufacturers in Europe (starting in 1890). This unorthodox method of purchasing products allowed the Woolworth brother's better control over their product supply. They would also often purchase excess inventory from their suppliers which they would then sell in their stores at cost, using the items as "loss-leaders" to bring more customers into the stores. Sumner's contribution to the success of the Woolworth stores cannot be understated; he continually worked on improving the customer service, working closely with his customers and his staff, and from the experience he gained he trained all Woolworth managers, maintaining and setting the style and tone for all Woolworth stores. Sumner also served as Chairman of the Woolworth Company for 25 years after his brother's desk, running the company in his ever steady manner.

The Woolworth brothers built a retailing empire which eventually spread into Europe, Canada and Cuba with a total number of stores reaching over 3,000 worldwide.

The merger of the stores in 1912 raised $30 million for the 5 syndicate owners, instantly making them all very wealthy. In 2017 dollars, that is over $732 million.

Frank's new wealth allowed him to live the lifestyle he had always wanted. He had a mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue as well as mansions for each of his 3 daughters. Frank built one of the great Guilded Age mansions on Long Island which he named "Winfield Hall" (one of the few that still remain today). In 1913, Frank built the Woolworth Building in New York City at a cost of $13.5 million which was paid for in cash. When the Woolworth Building opened, it was the tallest building on earth.

Frank Winfield Woolworth died on April 8, 1919, just 5 days before his 67th birthday. At the time of his death, Frank was worth $76.5 million ($1 billion in 2017 dollars), all of which was left to his widow, Jennie Creighton (Canadian). Frank had failed to sign a copy of his latest will, so the older copy dated from 1889 was in effect, and Jennie was, at the time of Frank's death, quite mentally ill.

Frank's estate would eventually work its way down to his 3 daughters - Helena Maud, Jessie May and Edna (my 8th cousins) and their families. Tragically though, the Woolworth fortune that Frank had worked so hard to attain during his life, was wiped out by the time his grandchildren came to inherit their portion of the Woolworth fortune. I will write further about the 3 Woolworth girls and their lives in a subsequent post.

Sumner Woolworth outlived his brother Frank by almost 28 years, living until January 7, 1947, when he died in his sleep at the age of 90.

While Woolworth stores were common place when I was growing up, today they are but a distant memory. Like the F.W. Woolworth family fortune, all that remains today of the Woolworth Five and Dime empire in North America and the UK are fond memories, the Woolworth Building in New York City, Frank and Jennie's Fifth Avenue mansion and Winfield Hall which served as inspiration for Cove Point Manor in my novel of the same name.

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