The Toys our Great-Grandparents bought from Woolworth's
When our great great grandparents shopped at Woolworth's before the Great War of 1914-1918, the store chain was already thirty years old. Frank Woolworth opened his first branch in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the United States of America in 1879. One of the first items ever sold was a toy dustpan. The same day he also sold several baseballs and police whistles!
What set Woolworth's apart from other stores is that all of their items were simply made and at very, very low prices. All three sorts of toy sold on the first day were just five cents. This was less than one penny at the time or (taking into account the rising cost of living over the last 130 years) about 35p today.
When the first Woolworth opened in Great Britain in 1909, Frank had already established a big toy range. He travelled the world in search of new designs and opportunities to make luxury toys more cheaply so that everyone could afford to buy and play with them. Most of the range sold in America was imported from Europe, with metal and glass toys from England and dolls and fancy items made in Germany and modern-day Russia. This helped get the British Woolies off to a flying start.
A hundred years ago families were poorer than they are today, and toys were considered a luxury that not everyone could afford. As a result, rather than displaying toys all the year round, Woolworth's would only display them at certain times of year. The same counters were used for gardening and seeds in the Spring and Autumn, with Toys at Easter, during the Summer school holidays and, of course, in the run-up to Christmas.
Whenever Toys went back on sale, the displays were highlighted by a big bunch of balloons tied to the till and, more often than not, bold displays in the windows too.
Some of the toys sold were just one old penny (half of a modern penny), while the most expensive items were sixpence, (2½p), which was much cheaper than in specialist toy shops and department stores.
The toys were very simple. A favourite item was the glass marble, which came in many sizes and colours. As a special offer in the first stores, in 1909 and 1910 children could choose four marbles for one old penny (½p). The firm also sold string bags of around 30 marbles for sixpence (2½p).
There was no television and no radio. Families often played games in the parlour (living room) during the long winter evenings. Woolworth's were there to help. There were things to play together, like darts and simple table tennis, and board games for family fun. Some of the favourites included 'Lotto', a type of bingo, ludo, draughts, snakes and ladders and tiddlywinks.
Items were mostly made of paper and card, with tiny dice made of wood or 'composition' (a kind of cardboard). Boxed games from a posh toy shop used wooden tokens or counters for tiddlywinks and players' pieces, The Woolworth line used cardboard to keep prices low. New games reflected the latest crazes, for example Speedway (motorcycle racing) in the 1920s.
Many of the customers buying at the Woolies Toy Counter weren't actually buying for children at all. The range was designed to appeal to all ages, with playing cards very popular in the firm's range, along with crib (cribbage) boards, pads to keep score and counters to use as tokens for gambling games.
People would buy a combined chess and draught board and a separate cardboard box of wooden pieces, or even the firm's cheap cardboard dartboard, complete with three darts for sixpence and take them to their works canteen.
Many a Works Ping-Pong Club was equipped with bats and balls from the local Woolies store. The items were so cheap that when they wore out they could be replaced for sixpence.
Building a layout was a popular pastime in both Britain and America. Kids made their ownimaginary world. For some the choice was farms and country scenes, for others it was soldiers and battlefields. The picture above shows the American ten cent selection in 1914. The picture below shows the British 1930s equivalent range. The toys were made out of lead. Britain's made them in England, and exported soldiers right around the world. Woolworth kept prices low by carrying seconds (items rejected by quality control from the more expensive range). You can normally recognise a Woolies soldier because the letter "S" or "W" is etched into the base. The markings on the cattle are harder to find!
This display above, which was photographed at the Woolworths store in Rushey Green, Catford, South London in 1936, includes more than a thousand individual toys from Britain's. Cattle and tropical animals graze on the right hand side along with lead soldiers, cannon and the horsemen of the Royal Horse Artillery. The signs say 'All British Lead Toys'.
The range of soft toys and dolls was also very simple. It was- mass produced used cheap materials. Cuddly animals were generally filled with straw, while dolls were made from 'composition', which was a cross betwen cardboard and papier maché . Others, like the tiny two inch (5cm) dolls on the right, were made of rubber. These were dressed in clothes sewn from scrap lace from the cutting room floor.
20s and 30s kids loved Woolies' Scrap Books and Stamp Albums. Collecting was easy and cheap. 'W University' branded multi-purpose loose leaf binders were sixpence, the equivalent of 2½p at the time or £2.11 today. Inserts were sold separately. There were sheets for stamps and coins, file paper, cheap drawing paper, and black sheets to make a scrap book.
Girls cut out pictures of their favourite movie stars from glossy magazines, or opted for paper cut-outs for a penny for Woolworth's. A million cut-out the child star Shirley Temple dolls were sold. We didn't have one in our collection, but there are great examples in a lovely site we found at http://www.shirleytempledolls.com.
The luckiest girls got their dads to cut a piece of plywood to make a Shirley shape, stuck on her face and dressed her differently each day!
Every Easter saw an invasion of chicks and rabbits. The wicker baskets held chocolate coins in shiny gold paper.
Left: six Easter Specials, two pairs of three chicks, two chocolate coin sets and two baskets. Total price: three shillings (15p).
The picture on the left was called "Woolworths recommends..." and is from 1936. It suggests items to go into a child's Christmas Stocking. As well as a bag of toffees, there's a small leather-look rubber football, a pair of roller-skates which were sold as a left and a right foot, each for sixpence, and a mouth organ in the left of the foreground. The wrapping paper and stocking itself were extra. The selection would have set a parent back two shillings and ninepence - about 13¼p at the time, the equivalent of about £9 at today's prices.
You can find more details of the cunning ways that Woolworth kept prices under sixpence, and see the number one 'Fancy Goods Item' that many parents gave as a toy, the Woolworths Sixpenny Camera, in our Keeping Prices under Sixpence feature.
Among the novelties were Chinese-made ceramic animal ornaments, There was a dinosaur, a 'Cinderella' coach and a performing circus elephant.
1937 hit toy was the Palm Lounge Set (->). People buying six of the bakelite miniature apes for sixpence each received a free palm tree to shade them from the sun.
"Sell a toy, spread some joy"