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Working for Woolworth's in the 1930s

In Britain Woolworth maintained cordial labour relations, despite a strict, benign dictatorship in-store;
while in North America the five-and-ten became a hotbed of unrest as staff demanded better conditions

A typical appointment letter for a stockroom man (management trainee) in the 1930s. The starting salary £2 per week.  (With special thanks to Mr. Ray Gallanders, in memory of his late father Reg, a very distinguished servant of the Company in a career spanning forty years service.)

High Street Harmony

In the Thirties Sales Assistants were paid between 30 shillings (£1.50) and £2 a week. Learners (trainee managers) and stockroom men were paid an extra pound for mobility. They could be moved to another store miles away at very short notice.

The chain doubled in size during the decade, which led to plenty of career opportunities. Woolworth demanded a consistent operation in every outlet, whether in London, or on the west coast of Ireland. Store Managers made sure staff were trained and that standards were maintained. The regime was authoritarian but benign. A safety net provided support for loyal workers who were taken ill, or who fell on hard times, but any breach of the rules prompted a stern rebuke.

Many tasks that are automated today were done by hand. For example assistants had to add up purchases in their heads or using 'ready reckoner pads'. Instead of scanning a bar code, they had to record what had been sold in a log and re-order it by filling and posting a form.

To become a 'learner' applicants had to show a good knowledge of every product, its rate of sale and margin. These management trainees also had to command the respect of the staff, and show they could get the job done. The Directors were proud that they had started out by sweeping the stockroom floor and had worked their way up.


The Manager and staff of the Woolworths in Northwich, Cheshire, pictured in the early 1930s

Most assistants were young, unmarried women. Women rarely kept on working when they married, meaning it was normal to get a combined wedding and leaving present. Very few women returned to work after bringing up a family. Most staff worked full time, five and half days a week. Typically all the stores in a town closed at lunchtime on either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, which was called 'early closing day', to give the staff a break.

Assistants were given maroon uniforms or stockman's coats, backed by a free laundry service. They were also served a hot lunch which had been prepared by a cook in the staff canteen. They were encouraged to learn about the products they sold. To become a supervisor they had to have worked on every counter.


A day in the life of a Sales Assistant in the 1930s


A day in the life of a sales assistant of the 1930s.  The store and colleague were never identified .


In the days before widespread car ownership most store staff walked to work or rode in on a bicycle. The great majority lived within a mile or so of the store where they worked. Typically they set out from home at 8.15am, allowing time for a quick cup of tea in-store before their shift began. They had to don their uniform and to be on the salesfloor for morning inspection at 8.45am, 15 minutes before opening time.


The store manager inspects the displays of kitchenware before the store opens and give instructions about how to improve the layout. Most of the day is spent serving customers at the personal service counter, but there's time for a mid-morning coffee break in the staff canteen.


Morning inspection gave the Manager the chance to sharpen the displays, check the availability of best-selling lines and give topical tips for the day's trading. In between serving the customers the Assistant would spend the early part of the day preparing a stock list, which was sent to the stockroom. A Stockroom Assistant would gather the goods into a trolley and take it to the salesfloor. Neither Sales Assistants nor Supervisors were allowed access to the stockroom until many years later.


A day in the life of a sales assistant of the 1930s.  The store and colleague were never identified .


Lunch breaks were staggered, starting shortly after 11am. The approach helped to keep the store well staffed during the peak hours between noon and 2pm. Most branches employed a cook and a cleaner and provided a hot lunch at a subsidised price. After a brief lull in the early afternoon, the store would be packed again from just after 3pm, as mums and children visited after school. In between serving customers, staff would fill the counter from their stock trolley, prepare orders for any missing lines, and double-check that every item was priced. Each week work built toward the weekend. Stores had to be picture perfect by Friday afternoon. At the time most shoppers got their pay packets each Friday. Some hurried to Woolworth's at once, while most made Saturday their shopping day. Most stores closed at 5.30pm. Staff had to wait on the salefloor until all the customers had left before making their way upstairs to fetch their coats and heading off home. The next day the cycle began again. Click for more pre-war pictures of Woolies at work.


Mayhem in Main Street

The F. W. Woolworth Five-and-Ten in Kingsville, Texas, pictured in 1927

In North America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal rocked the foundations of the Woolworth 5 & 10¢. It had always kept its costs ultra-low, hiring young clerks on a very low wage. The Founder simply replaced any assistant who became difficult or lazy. He paid "a little extra" to retain the best people, but only if they agreed to start early, work late and "do other chores like window-washing in dull season".

The formula remained consistent for fifty years, Woolworth was slow to add 15¢ and 20¢ lines, which held wages down. The New Deal forced a rethink. The new laws imposed minimum wages in key industries, collective bargaining and empowered trade unions. This gave the staff a voice.


The Wedding and Bridal Department at Woolworth's in the 1930sCompany publicity portrayed a happy workforce. But the reality was very different. Popular press reports of the extravagance of the 'Woolworth Heirs' caused great resentment. The media dubbed Frank Woolworth's heiress granddaughter, Barbara Hutton, 'the poor little rich girl'.

Barbara's mother Edna had died in tragic circumstances when she was a small girl. At twenty-one she had received two legacies, one directly from her grandfather and the other from her mother. Her father, Edwin Laws Hutton, encouraged her to sell her large holding of Woolworth stock shortly before the Wall Street crash. This effectively ended her link to the firm, and saw her fortune grow as others lost out.

Hutton's lavish parties and failed marriages became the talk of the town. Store staff struggled to understand how their bosses could refused to pay them $8 a week and recognise their union when the 'owner' could spend $21,000 on a frock. Trade unions exploited this and mobilised the workforce.


Five-and-ten girls took over the large Woolworth store in Detroit, Michigan in a sit-in and sleep-in protest in March 1937. They were fighting for union recognition and a minimum wage of $8 a week.

The rage boiled over in March 1937. City centre store staff held sit-ins. Placards demanded union recognition and $8 a week. The grievances of the '5 & 10¢ girls' received extensive press coverage, including many photos of the makeshift sleeping arrangements on the famous mahogany counters.

Initially Executives dismissed the furore, saying Hutton was no longer connected to Woolworth. But ultimately they gave in. The union was recognised, as the law required, hours were cut and a wage increase was phased in. This ended the strike.

Savings were required to fund the settlement. Secret plans were hatched to halve the number of clerks. This lay behind a trial of 'self-selection' at some displays and central cash and wrap desks. Early results encouraged the management to go further. After 1945 every new store adopted the 'self service' principle, and in 1950 they began to convert existing stores.

Ironically, in the final assessment, the increase in wages in the late 1930s resulted in a lower wage bill. The campaign had won better wages and improved working conditions, but for a much smaller workforce.


Battlefront Woolworth, as five-and-ten staff take on their management with demands for union recognition and $8 a week in March 1937. Frank Woolworth once said that all publicity was good, but might have considered this type of coverage an exception!