Waltzing through Woolworth: Or, How I Learned to Love the Five and Dimes!

by Barbara L. Rothschild


Looking back to my childhood in Newark, one of the most favorite of my memories recalls the occasional trips to the five and dimes, better known in those days as the "five and ten cent stores." I cannot hardly ever recall mother calling these stores by their trademarked names, be it F. W. Woolworth, Mc Crory, W. T. Grant, or H. L. Green. In today's parlance, in the southern regions of these United States, stores of this type were colloquially called "WoolSworth", adding a middle "S", as opposed to the name Northerners most associated with stores of this type.

Whatever the name, as a child, for me, only a trip to Olympic Park could cause more excitement, than an anticipated trip to the downtown Woolworth's, or further down Broad Street, to its slightly smaller and lesser known "sister," Mc Crory's. A trip to the five and dime on a Saturday afternoon, forecast the highlight of great adventure venturing into the world of every necessity known to man, and especially entry into a child's vision of paradise on earth.

The Broad Street Woolworth store location stood out as the jewel- in- the- crown of all the lesser neighborhood five and dimes, which were undoubtedly much smaller in square footage than the main branch store. All other five and dimes, such as H. L. Green and others, paled in comparison to the Woolworth chain. Accordingly, the neighborhood five and dimes were not held in the same esteem, and definitely not revered for the diversity of stock, as the vast central emporium offered. The Broad Street store contained virtually hundreds of items to awe, inspire and definitely entice a child to become lost in its wonders and variety. One only went to the more local shops when one was rushed, or needed items in a "pinch", and could not spare the time of a bus ride to Broad Street. In our family's case, this meant the much smaller Woolworth, which was located on Clinton Avenue, in the Clinton Hill Section, within walking distance from our home on Belmont Avenue, or on more "affordable" days, a short bus ride away.

Saturdays were the "all out" occasion to shop downtown Newark. The highlight of this trip for me would be a visit to the food service or "lunch" counter at Woolworth. The Saturday "special" was always my favorite. Served on a pale green glass platter, with separate partitions, the featured special of the day would be a triple decker toasted white bread, ("Club") ham salad and egg salad sandwich. In the middle circular partition of the same serving platter, would be a generous dollop of potato salad. For 25 cents, a banana split or a "Tulip" (the flower-like shaped glass ice cream dish), sundae might follow. M-m-m-m, what a yummy treat for an eager child or hungry adult!!

To this very day, the memory of the delicious taste of that club sandwich remains . I have never quite yet savored the deliciously fresh taste and quality of that potato salad since those childhood days. I wonder still until today how it was made so very tasty back then? The completed toasted sandwich, sliced into equal quarters, would be placed in the individual serving partitions of the platter, centrally crowned by the potato salad with watercress garnish for eye appeal. All this preparation and presentation would make this sandwich most appealing to the hungry palate and visual appeal of the shopping public. Although being one of the more "expensive" items on the menu, at $1.25 the platter (!),the sandwich would become a deliciously abundant and wholesome bargain meal, to be shared by mother and myself. Along with the sandwich, mother would "splurge" by the purchase of a "large" soda, usually Coca-Cola, served in the familiar trademark wide mouthed Coke glass, requesting straws for two,with the almost overflowing beverage costing a mere ten cents ! As of that day , iced tea was not as yet a popular beverage available at the Woolworth lunch counter. Later in the era, in lieu of the drinking glass, a permanent aluminum base would hold a disposable paper cup, (taken from a conveniently placed and inverted stack of like paper beverage cups), which purpose was to hold the beverage of choice, cutting down the time and cost of washing individual serving glasses. After customer use, the waitress would simply discard the allegedly more "sanitary"(?) paper drink container,stacking the metal holder back on the serving shelf ,( usually without washing this outer base), to stand ready to be served to the next customer. So much for sanitation!!

It was fun to sit at the red vinyl covered seats of the Woolworth "lunch" counter, featuring swivel chairs. Almost immediately, I would begin to amuse myself and " revolve," round and round, with mother firmly and just as quickly reprimanding me to STOP! I recall the abutting chairs where other customers sat closely together, with a front undercounter ledge or "step", which would enable my short little legs to climb upon the seat. At the time, in consideration of my smallness, it sometimes felt as if I were scaling Mt. Everest! I would watch the waitresses in their familiar and perky green uniforms, with pinned handkerchief "corsages",wearing hairnets and little tiara-like checkered hats. Constantly bustling about, taking orders, and first scooping uniform sized and shaped ice cubes into glasses ,the serving girls and women would fill the drink orders of the many customers, before bringing out the food selection of choice. Behind the counter were the familiar box-like soda dispensers, with their brand names prominently displayed on the front and sides of the dispenser box. Coca-Cola would be served from a red dispenser, with the distinctive Coca Cola trademark script written on its sides. Hires Root Beer would be served from an orange dispenser box with a Hire's trademark black phonograph record depicted on its front and sides, (think 78 R.P.M., for this was the era before the popularity of the 45 smaller vinyl, large hole-in-the-middle records). Most fascinating were the fountain-like beverage machines, which magically recirculated either the orangeade, lemonade or tropical punch beverages, available in lieu of the more popular branded drinks. Needless to say, I sat in rapt attention and fascination by all these exciting sights., in hunger and anticipation of my piece -de-resistance club sandwich, shortly to be delivered into my tummy.

The advent and rapid popularity of the sale of much loved pizza pie, then called "tomato pie", hit the Woolworth store like an asteroid from space, beginning in the mid-1950's. Never before was pizza sold commercially outside of the traditional neighborhood Italian pizza shop! Offered at 15 cents a slice, welcoming the customers to make a purchase, the alluring aroma of garlic, cheese, slightly burned crust, and fragrant tomato sauce at the pizza stand, accompanied by a musical strain of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and verbal "spiel" touting the pizza, would play over and over, attracting the patrons in droves. I never could figure out why that patriotic song would be associated with the sale of pizza: however, it seemed the signal for mobs of people to stand in line to make that single delicious purchase, which always beckoned the purchase of yet an additional second slice or two of pie. To this day, whenever I hear "Yankee Doodle Dandy", it hastens my thoughts back to the pizza counter at Woolworth's on Broad Street.

After sating the appetite, it was then forward with the serious business of shopping. Arrayed on wooden oak counters, featuring glass partitions and little metal price indicators, merchandise offering a world of wonder and desire, drawing near even the most disinterested children, for closer inspection. From cosmetics to coloring books it was all there. Anything one's fancy could conjure could be reasonably had. Of course, the toy counter would hold the most allure, later to be followed by the Pet Department. In that basement level, I was introduced to my first beloved pet, my little blue parakeet, Butchie Boy. His sweet, melodious ,cheerful and slight raspy voice daily greeting me with a chirping"good morning", was the inspiration of my love for birds today. Now so many years later, I still cherish the memory of that tiny bird..... And then there was the bulk candy counter. Between the attraction of the toys and pets and candy, mother had a difficult time, undoubtedly so,attempting to extract me from the endless and enticing varieties of merchandise, which kept my interest and attention totally rapt and fixated.

The Mc Crory's five and ten cent store near Kresge's Department Store, (Kresge's, the forerunner of the contemporary K-Mart), was the locale for the purchase of a first Lionel train set, given to me as a Christmas/Hanukkah gift. I recall this little all metal and realistic looking train set, with its metal interconnecting tracks and bridges, and actual "smoking" locomotive smokestack, became a prized possession of mine for a number of years. Purchased by my father for me, prior to his devastating illness and paralysis, it was especially cherished and dear to me after his death. Rounding the bend of our parlor radiator, which stood covered by a wooden radiator cover, a few inches distant from the window, the little train chugged along, amusing and fascinating me each time that it ran. I wish I still had that very set, for currently on the collector's market, this formerly very inexpensive Lionel train ,set merits a very hefty price, and is a highly sought after item by toy train aficionados.

The Mc Crory five and dime also had a large and centrally located first floor level candy counter, the tops of which were always decorated with seasonally appropriate holiday candy displays. Of special memory to me, are the Halloween paper mache pumpkins filled with all variety of candy, black cat metal noisemakers holding a plastic type tube filled with multicolored sugar sprinkles or chocolate candy. At Christmastime, rows of smiling Santa Clauses seemed to reach out, Christmas candies in plastic red and green wrap, with curling ribbon topped ties. Mother could never pass this counter without buying me a lollypop or some other small treat, avoiding the more costlier and more sugar-laden offerings.

The Woolworth chain, in a sense, became an ongoing passage in one's life cycle. Hair ribbons to adorn little girls' sausage curls so popular in the day, were sold by the yard, in all colors, plaids and widths. The luster and allure of satin and silky ribbons on spools, usually held and draped on a lengthy pole, catered to the customers desire of length and style. A yardstick, mounted on the countertop, was handy for the cutting convenience of the sales' clerk, to meet the customer's demand. Usually, new hair ribbons signified a special occasion or holiday, heralding an exciting "dress up" day for little girls. This is how it was for me! A popular song of that era was "Scarlet Ribbons", by Harry Belafonte, telling a tale of a little girl and her love of scarlet hair ribbons, so popular at that time.

Later,in the growing teen years of young women, the Woolworth cosmetics counter became the focal point for checking out the latest in lipstick , foundation, and eye makeup colors. In particular, I recall the "Cleopatra" look in eye makeup, inspired by the Elizabeth Taylor Egyptian movie extravaganza of the late 1950's. Old Newark devotees will recall such brand names as Hazel Bishop, Pond's Angel Face Foundation, Westmore, Max Factor and so forth,all available at the dime store. Crowds of high school age girls would crowd around the cosmetic counters appraising the various shades of (especially blue) Maybelline eye shadow, or seek the then popular shade of a tube of pink or pink-orange lipstick. Especially popular, following the Elvis Presley era, Elvis lipstick in "Hound Dog Orange" and "Tutti Frutti Pink" were one of the best sellers offered as Woolworth merchandise. The hair notions counter was also a popular place to congregate, since the popularity of "pin curls" required the purchase of bobby pins, the later hair "rollers"(invented by Conair), were not as yet developed or in use.

Woolworth seemed to be up on all fashion trends and fads. As silly as it seems now, Woolworth sold what was then called a "Wig Hat." A salesgirl would demonstrate to an eager crowd of women, a type of hat, which when combed, would appear as a wig hairstyle! The wig hat came in blond and brunette shades. Earlier, when the Disney Davy Crockett fad was raging in the mid fifties, Woolworth sold Davy Crockett raccoon tailed hats. I recall that I wore mine wherever I went, and mother laughingly humored me for the duration of the fad. And the sale of Elvis Presley merchandise, (hats, scarves, etc.,) brought swift sales and great profit to the Woolworth chain stores and coffers, while meeting the demands of the most devoted Elvis fans.

Woolworth was the place to purchase school supplies for the new school year. Loose leaf notebooks, pencil cases, briefcases, and especially metal lunch boxes with Thermos bottles, were high on the list of needed items. Again, today, those Howdy Dowdy, Hop Cassidy or Gene Autry lunch boxes, are worth a minor fortune on the antiques market! Book report due based on a "classic?" Many students' necks (and behinds) were saved by the purchase of an abridged "Cliff" summary of the required reading classic. It was often heard that students did not do the required assignment, or procrastinated and then faced the due date of a book report with much trepidation. The convenience of the Woolworth paperback book and coloring book rack saved the day for many students of that era, myself included!

For mothers, a favorite gathering place in Woolworth might be the Mc Call's dress pattern department. Surrounded by multitudinous, weighty and thick books of sewing patterns and all types of sewing and yarn notions, mothers stood facing tall blond wooded display furniture, examining voluminous page of styles; which catered to every sewing occasion known to womankind. Those who delighted in and were talented at craft work, found the Notions Department a wonderful haven for a lazy afternoon, maybe even while the kids were at school.

With the passage of time, and the advent of many competitors gaining popularity, the Woolworth chain met its final and unfortunate ending, as did all those exciting times of our childhood in Newark. Despite several attempts to reorganize in bankruptcy, the Woolworth chain of five and dime stores could not survive. Price competition and the ability to hold to its appeal offering "five and ten cent" items, or merchandise costing not much more, became unrealistic in the days of burgeoning inflation and the beginnings of gasoline"shortages" and the higher prices of the 1970's. All these factors hastened the demise of that long lived and amazing Woolworth chain of stores. A victim of "modern times", a wonderful era had finally come to its close.

Wall Mart, anyone?


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