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Stationery, books and cards in the austerity period after World War II

A display of greeting cards on new, luxurious fixtures at the new Woolworths store in Weybridge, Surrey in 1946


Victory in the World War came at a high price. Britain had taken on large debts in the early years, when America had provided munitions on credit. From 1945 the loan had to be repaid in instalments. As a result there was a major export drive, and retailers faced controls intended to reserve as many British-made finished goods as possible for sale abroad and to prevent merchandise from being brought in from overseas. These austerity measures left the displays in other retailers looking drab and depleted, while a new generation of Woolworth Buyers rose to the challenge, particularly in improving the firm's selection of Stationery, Cards and Books.


A new product for 1948 as Woolworths introduced Britain's first biros (ball point pens). The picture is from the Rampant Horse Street, Norwich store


Drawing ideas from the American parent company, the Buyers introduced lots of new products in the late 1940s, including colourful comics (to build on the success of Mighty Midgets during World War II), and brighter and more modern designs of Greetings Cards. But the biggest innovation of all was the Ball Point Pen. The Biro, which sold for ninepence (about 3p or 15¢), was said to incorporated new 'space age' technology. It was made primarily from plastic instead of the traditional bakelite. Customers were encouraged to test the new pens, with scribble pads provided on the counters and signage explaining that biros would right at an angle or even upside-down. Sales rocketed. By 1950 ball point pens accounted for almost half of the total stationery sales in-store.

Company bosses were so impressed with biros that they instructed store staff to abandon the pencils that they had traditionally used to complete their paperwork. It had long been the practice that when a customer requested an itemised receipt, instead of receiving the top copy, which was written in pencil, they were given the clearer carbon copy. As a result company receipt books had been stapled in reverse order, with the fancy printed copy appearing behind the sheet that was retained in-store. Most Store Managers insisted on retaining their fountain pens and bottles of ink, which had become a status symbol. They also grumbled that they would no longer be able to 'correct' stock counts by rubbing out the values above the assistants' signatures!

Bold displays of picture books and wrapping paper in the new Woolworths store in Warwick, which opened in 1952. (Note the patriotic picture of H.M. The Queen above the wall displayA large display of books displayed in the Woolworths store at Pontypool, Monmouthshire (Gwynedd) in 1955

Another range that got a makeover in the post-war period was the selection of books. The firm opted to concentrate on picture books and colour illustrated 'coffee table' volumes rather than the Penguin paperbacks which they had launched in 1937. By the mid 1950s City Centre and Seaside sroes mainly stocked job-lot budget paperbacks, rather than the latest titles. The smaller branches concentrated on Annuals, Cookery and how-to books, particularly after the commercial television station known as 'ITA' went on air on 22 September 1955. The Buyer identified the chance to stock books to complement the broadcasts and worked to guarantee a steady stream of titles. As a result, the book department became a key part of the Christmas gift offer. Personal service counters were adapted to make a browsable display, where customers could make a selection in comfort before paying an assistant nearby.


Stamp collecting kits on sale at the experimental self-service Woolworths in Queen's Square, Crawley, West Sussex in 1957


A surprise success arose from the launch of the British Commonwealth. The Buyer spotted a craze for collecting postage stamps from around the world, both from outposts of the former British Empire and from further afield. He duly obliged with pre-packed assortments of stamps, for sixpence (2½p) and a shilling (5p), along with packs of albums, gummed corners and tweezers. The range was superceded by electronic games in the 1970s. Perhaps the fashion for collecting stamps reflected simpler times in the days before computers and the net.


A wall display of stationery at Woolworth's in 1955