Site Map   Help   

The Woolworths Museum logo(click for the home page)

Morale Boosting during World War II

In 1934 F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. opened its six hundredth store in
Woodcote Road, Wallington, Surrey. The chain was a phenomenon.
The shops bustled. They were busy every weekday and packed on
Saturdays. The firm's sheer scale allowed bulk-buying and prices
that rivals just couldn't match. To cope, many branches were
extended or moved to larger, brighter premises. This made
space to expand the product the number of items stocked.

During the 1930s the Woolworths Buyers went to great
lengths to keep prices under sixpence. As the cost
to make some household products rose, they
compensated by increasing the range
of toys and games in the stores.

There were many innovations in the
product range, with an early plastic,
bakelite, starting to replace some
of the items made of celluloid,
composition and tinplate. The
new material was the key
to a wide new range of
items from cameras to
toy cars and trains.

But by 1936 Europe
was re-arming
and everyone
feared the
of war.




Tinplate tanks - one of the top selling toys at Woolworths in 1937 and 1938



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.


A toys window from Christmas 1937, featuring castle and lead soldiers on the left and another range from Britain's on the right - a selection of farmyard animals made from lead


A flotilla of Woolworths sixpenny wooden boats from the 1938 rangeToy planes, made of tinplate - best sellers from the shelves of Woolworths in 1938
PM Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy culminated in his famous 'piece of paper' on 30 September 1938. This brought a short reprieve.

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.


New, simple Woolworths toys reflecting the austerity of 1940

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.


In marked contrast to the austerity and rationing encountered by customers of their European subsidiaries, the American Woolworths treated customers to their first ever full-colour Christmas Catalogue in 1940.

Page 10

It's a Small, Small world at Woolworth's

Forward! Toys in ACTION, advance from the sky, from the sea,
from the ground! Uniforms, ammunition, and ships taken from
U.S. Army and Navy models. Lead soldiers with searchlights,
parachutes, cannons, radio, antennae, motor units, tanks, trench
mortars, motorcycles, machine guns, planes ... a whole army in
battle! Rubber battleships painted navy gray, lead toys, khaki colour

each 5¢ and 10¢ !

Putting the iron into irony, Japanese tinplate aeroplanes attack American GIs and rubber boats in an American Harbour. A page from the F. W. Woolworth Co. 1940 Christmas Catalogue. You couldn't make it up.


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.


Patriotic Lumar-brand Jigsaw Puzzles from F.W. Woolworth in their original boxes. One shows a Luftwaffe plane sinking in the ocean and a British cruiser racing to rescue the survivors, and another showing an RAF plane and aircraft carrier. Price, just sixpence.


Snap Cards were a popular favourite for long nights in the air raid shelter
Snap cards were sold under Woolworth's Diamond W brand throughout World War II
Most wartime British toys were made of paper or card. As well as playing cards there were special editions of Snap and Happy Families.

Boxed games, including Battleships, Compendiums, and mini Chess Sets were reserved for blitz-torn areas.



The favourite design of playing cards from Woolworths in World War II featured a patriotic image of 'the British bulldog' - Prime Minister Winston Churchill




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"
Frank W. Woolworth, Proprietor

Shortcuts to related content in the Woolworths Museum

Wonders from Woolies

What our great grandparents used to buy   Got to believe that it's magic

The first character merchandise    In and out the windows    The Lion and Albert

There's a war on   Fifty years ago    Mum and dad's toys    The race for space

Cool for School   Woolies by Woolies at Woolies   Eighties and Nineties Toys   

Wooly and Worth    Kids and Celebrations    Century of Toys Video

Bonus Items - The History of Chad Valley

Although now owned by the Argos parent Home Retail Group, Chad Valley was
rescued by Woolworths and a key part of the firm's offer for 21 years

Toys for Toffs    TV changes everything

Museum Navigation

Toys Gallery Home     Home Page    Interactive