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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

February 22, 1878

Welcome to this week's Wayback Wednesday entry - the final one of the year.  But that's not to say that we're going to say farewell to the pop culture history lessons for good.  I'll get to more about this at the end of today's entry.

For now, grab yourselves a seat and enjoy today's specials, starting with a heaping appetizer of events that took place on February 22.

1632 - Galileo's "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems" is published.

1848 - The French Revolution of 1848 begins

1856 - The United States Republican Party hosts its first national convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

1862 - Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as the first President of the Confederate States of America

1872 - The Prohibition Party hosts its first national convention in Columbus, Ohio

1918 - Announcer Don Pardo (d. 2014) is born in Westfield, Massachusetts

1924 - Calvin Coolidge becomes the first American President to deliver a radio address from the White House

1932 - Politician Ted Kennedy (d. 2009) is born in Boston, Massachusetts

1943 - Christoph Probst and Hans and Sophie Scholl are executed in Nazi Germany for being members of the White Rose Resurgence during World War II

1944 - American aircraft make the mistake of bombing several Dutch communities resulting in loss of life in the cities of Arnhem, Deventer, Enschede, and Nijmegen

1959 - Lee Petty wins the first Daytona 500

1962 - Steve Irwin (d. 2006) - "The Crocodile Hunter" is born in Essendon, Australia

1976 - Former Supremes member Florence Ballard dies at the age of 32

1980 - The "Miracle on Ice" takes place during the 1980 Winter Olympics where the American hockey team defeats the Soviet Union team with a final score of 4-3

1983 - The Broadway play "Moose Hunters" makes history in the worst way possible - it becomes one of the first plays to open and close in the same night!

1986 - The People Power Revolution begins in the Philippines

1987 - Artist Andy Warhol passes away at the age of 58

1997 - Scottish scientists make the announcement that they have successfully cloned a sheep (named Dolly)

2002 - Animator Chuck Jones dies at the age of 89

2011 - At least 185 people are killed in Christchurch, New Zealand when an earthquake strikes - the second deadliest in the country's history

2014 - New Zealand born television personality Charlotte Dawson takes her own life at the age of 47 following a personal struggle dealing with cyberbullying

And celebrating the day with a slice of birthday cake are the following famous faces; Paul Dooley, Bruce Forsyth, James Hong, Sheila Hancock, Ishmael Reed, Judy Cornwell, Jonathan Demme, Julius Erving, Julie Walters, Ellen Greene, Kyle MacLachlan, Rachel Dratch, Thorsten Kaye, Jeri Ryan, Thomas Jane, Clinton Kelly, Lea Salonga, James Blunt, Chris Moyles, Drew Barrymore, Jenny Frost, and Shamari Fears.

All considering that today is the final Wayback Wednesday of the year, I thought I would make this date worth the trip.  How would you all like to go back in time to the 1800s?

The date?  February 22, 1878.  By my calculations, that date was exactly one hundred and thirty-nine years ago today.

Now, before I go into why this date is so important, I would love to share with you a personal story related to the subject of this date.

And no...I wasn't around in 1878.  Or, 1978 for that matter. 

But when I was a kid, I definitely had my favourite places that I liked to go to in my little town.  I loved going to the park to swing on the swing sets.  I loved throwing pennies into the town fountain in the middle of Court House Square to make a wish.  I loved going to the movie theatre whenever a movie that I really wanted to see was out.

And I loved our little
Woolworth's store that was located downtown.

Okay, so obviously this is a very old photo of the store.  I found it on the website for our town paper and the photo was taken by a local town historian, Doug Grant.  If I had to wager a guess, it was taken sometime in the 1950s or 1960s just based on the cars driving down the street.  But when I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, it was a place that I loved to go to.  I think I loved going to that store more than I did other big named department stores that existed back in those days.

I think one reason I loved Woolworth's so much was because of the lunch counter inside.  I remember once a month, Mom would take me to the lunch counter where I could order anything I wanted for a special lunch.  I always got the cheeseburger, and to this day, their burgers were among the best fast food burgers that I can recall eating.  And the food was relatively cheap as well.  At least, it was back in the 1980s anyway.

And I also had fond memories of perusing the toy department of Woolworth's, deciding on what toy I wanted.  Sometimes I'd spend tooth fairy money there, and other times I would spend allowance money there.  Back when I was a kid, there were endless choices.  I could have bought a gigantic balloon with a Wuzzle or a Sesame Street character on it for a dollar.  I could have bought a couple of storybooks to add to my growing book collection (had the store sold Archie comics, I'd have been in heaven), or I might have even bought a colouring book and a 64 count box of their store brand crayons (which I maintain were better quality than Crayola crayons and would happily pay four times their price for a box of them today). 

I can't recall a single time in which I left Woolworth's without a huge smile on my face.  It was such a great store that contributed to so many memories for me.  I actually cried when Woolworth's closed up shop in the early 1990s and was replaced by the substandard "Bargain Shop". 

So, I'm sure you've already guessed that Woolworth's is the subject of today's blog post.  And the date that I've chosen - February 22, 1878 - is an important one in the department store chain.  It was the date that the very first Woolworth's Five and Dime store opened its doors.

Now, five and dime stores are not exactly a new thing.  It was how Walmart got their start, and back in the 1870s, it was how a lot of businesses operated.  The idea for them was to charge consumers a fixed price on a variety of different kinds of merchandise - usually for nickels or dimes - as an effort to undercut other merchants who sold the same items for higher prices.  The F.W. Woolworth Company was actually one of the first retailers to display merchandise on the sales floor of their store locations WITHOUT the assistance of a sales clerk.  Prior to those days, people would often line up behind a counter with a list of the items they wished to purchase, and the person behind the counter would grab the items themselves.

I suppose looking back on it, the old way of selling merchandise is similar to putting stuff on layaway at Kmart or Walmart locations.

In 1878, Frank Winfield Woolworth obtained credit from a former boss and combined the money loaned to him with his previous savings to purchase the building and merchandise for the grand opening of Woolworth's Great Five Cent Store in Utica, New York on February 22, 1878.  Woolworth had high hopes for the new business, but it closed up shop just three months later in May 1878.  Despite the failure of the initial business, Woolworth refused to give up on the idea, and so the following year, he reopened the Great Five Cent Store in the community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and unlike what happened in Utica, the store quickly became a success.  So much so that a second location was opened in nearby Harrisburg (this time his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth) would run it.  Unfortunately, the Harrisburg store was forced to close after a disagreement with the landlord, and a couple of other stores opened up without much success.  But in 1880, when the Woolworth brothers opened up a five and dime store location in Scranton, Pennsylvania, their fortunes improved.  By the turn of the twentieth century, a total of six chains of affiliated Woolworth's locations had opened up in the United States and Canada. 

By 1962, Woolworth's had expanded to include Woolco stores - single floor discount stores that specialized in fashion, electronics, toys, and some household merchandise (the store would later become famous for their $1.44 sales which were held every Monday for many years).  By the time of the company's 100th birthday in the late 1970s, it was considered to be the largest department chain in the world, with the company having expanded across North America, Europe, and Australia. 

Woolworth's was also the location of the first of the sit-in protests that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina (the event in which four black students from a nearby college sat down at the lunch counter that was reserved for white customers and refused to leave in protest of the segregation laws that existed back in the early 1960s.

Unfortunately, the company ran into some major financial trouble during the 1980s.  Having tough competition from other retailers who were offering similar products and employing similar business methods, stores began to close up throughout the 1980s.  Although Woolco was still doing quite well in Canada, in the United States, all stores bearing the Woolco name were closed up by 1983.  In addition, the store sustained some bad press following a devastating fire at one of the largest Woolworth's locations in the UK, and despite the store being rebuilt, it was closed for good in the mid-1980s.  Though the incident caused the UK chains of Woolworth's to break away from the parent company and as a direct result of this, the Woolworth's name remained in the UK until January 2009.

Here in North America, the 1990s signified the end of what was once a very powerful company.  Restructuring in 1993 meant the end of the Woolworth's name for a good many stores.  In the United States, almost all Woolworth stores were shut down by 1993, and the last of the stores bearing the name were closed for good in the summer of 1997.  In Canada, many Woolworth's locations had been transformed into "The Bargain Shop", and in 1994, the majority of Woolco stores were rebranded as Walmart locations (save for the few that turned into Zellers locations - a chain that became defunct in 2013 when Target Canada took it over for two years before it pulled out of the country in the spring of 2015). I've shared up above, I do miss the Woolworth's name.  I miss the lunch counter.  I miss the toy department.  I just miss having that childhood staple around.  I don't care what people say.  Ordering a Quarter Pounder at McDonald's is no comparison to sitting at a lunch counter stool and eating a burger that you see made right in front of you. 

But I suppose that like most things in this world, they never truly die if you keep the memories close to your heart. 

So, this marks the finale of Wayback Wednesday.  But fear not.  Next week, the day shifts again to Thursdays.  And the first "Throwback Thursday" post will be shared on Thursday, March 2.

Stay tuned.  There is more to come!

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