Morale Boosting during World War II
In 1934 F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. opened its six hundredth store in
During the 1930s the Woolworths Buyers went to great
There were many innovations in the
But by 1936 Europe
As factories switched production to armaments and the newspapers raised alarm through their reports about the political scene in Germany and Spain, demand rocketed for toys that related to war. Tanks overtook toy cars as the best-sellers in 1937, with the simple tinplate model selling for sixpence.
Castles, armaments and lead soldiers were week-in, week-out favourites for boys, leading also to growing sales of their sister products from Britain's Toys - farm animals and farmyard scenes.
Toy guns and gunslingers' belts were also popular, building on the success of Westerns in the cinema.
But the public appetite for war toys at Woolies was unaffected. Thousands of wooden battlecruisers and tinplate aeroplanes were sold at Christmas 1938.
Ironically the top seller was a tiny model of the Red Baron's bi-plane. It seemed no-one knew he was a German flying ace!
The outbreak of war in September 1939 saw a rush on the counters at Woolworths, as customers stockpiled items at home fearing shortages to come. With many factories signed up for war work, new supplies were limited.,The focus moved from luxuries to essentials. During the 'phoney war', after Britain declared war on Germany but before fighting starting in earnest, it appeared that the Toy Department would vanish until the conflict was over. But as the nation stood alone in the Battle of Britain, the Government sought a view from the Woolworth Board. Central hostilities stepped up with the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, Central Government invited Woolworth to share suggestions on how public morale could be maintained.
It was agreed that Toys could play an important part in helping children to cope with scary nights in air raid shelters during the blitz. By this time the Woolworth Chairman, William Stephenson, had been hired to aircraft manufacture for the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In the role he worked for the Daily Express Baron, Lord Beaverbrook. He was able to persuade his new boss to arrange supplies of special paper and card, which he promised the High Street chain would transform into simple, morale-boosting toys, which would be sold at cost.
The products were very basic. Most had a distinct war theme. There were caracature figures of John Bull, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler in a boxing game as well as many 'Lumar' jigsaw puzzles. Special collectables were sold to raise money for the RAF Spitfire Fund.
At Christmas 1940 the contrast between the Woolworth stores in Britain and America could not have been more extreme. Enemy action had destroyed twenty stores in the East End of London and along the South and East Coasts of England. The rest of the chain had limited stocks and had adopted a siege mentality. Three thousand miles away the USA was enjoying a period of prosperity. Public opinion was strongly anti-war, and the nation had declined to become entangled in what politicians considered to be a European conflict. F.W. Woolworth Co. published its first colour Christmas Catalogue, showcasing its extensive selection of gifts for all the family. In an ironic twist, the main toy feature was captioned "It's a Small, Small world at Woolworth's" and promoted the corporation's range of toy soldiers and tinplate aeroplanes, ships and submarines. These were photographed in a layout format, grouped around a model harbour.
It's a Small, Small world at Woolworth's
Forward! Toys in ACTION, advance from the sky, from the sea,
each 5¢ and 10¢ !
Most of the toys, including the planes and the rubber ships shown were Japanese made. The full irony became apparent on 7 December 1941, when Japan launched an unprovoked assault on Pearl Harbour.
Boxed games, including Battleships, Compendiums, and mini Chess Sets were reserved for blitz-torn areas.
The Woolworth Directors remained true to their word. The price of the austerity toys was held to sixpence, even when this meant selling at a loss. This was in sharp contrast with steep price rises on some other ranges as manufacturing costs rocketed. The toy stocks were directed to the towns and cities that were facing the worst bombardment.
Many believe that it was the firm's contribution to the war effort, and particularly the steps that they took to maintain the morale of the nation's children and their mums through the Blitz, that sowed the seeds of success in later years. The American-owned chain had become quintessentially British, and found a special place in the hearts of a generation of shoppers. Many continued to support the stores right into the twenty-first century.
"Sell a toy, spread some joy"