Sunday, November 13, 2016
With continuing news of change in British retailing (Marks and Spencer are among the latest to announce store closures and a change of emphasis), it’s time to look back over the history of another great name on the British High Street. So here’s a new history of the impact the Woolworth’s chain made in our towns...
Kathryn A Morrison, Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street
Published by Historic England
From 1909 until their demise in 2008, Woolworth’s* was a ubiquitous and familiar name on Britain’s High Streets. Selling, at various times, everything from children’s clothes to gardening equipment, recorded music to sweets, they were famous above all for low prices and good value. Woolworth’s red-signed store fronts and signature lines (pick n’ mix) were so familiar that they were taken for granted. Everyone was shocked when they closed.
Kathryn A Morrison, historian of retail architecture, is well qualified to chronicle the American company’s story in this country, with special reference to the way in which they designed, decorated, and arranged their stores. She begins with the man himself, Frank Winfield Woolworth, the American entrepreneur who built up a huge and successful chain of fixed-price nickel-and-dime stores before exporting the idea to Britain. She charts the company’s progress through the challenges of World War I, the subsequent recession, World War II, the post-war reconstruction, and the peak of the 1960s when the company had some 1130 outlets and had reached saturation point in Britain. There follows the sad decline, with the company making repeated attempts to revive the business with new names and approaches (Woolco, Shopper’s World, Woolworth by Post, Savermarket, Furnishing World, Kidstore, etc, etc), restructurings, and redesigns, before the final closure in the relentless economic crash of 2008.
This story, fascinating in its own right, is just the background to the main subject of this book, which is the history of the way Woolworth’s designed and presented their stores. At the beginning it’s a canny tale of careful choice of sites (near bus stops and railway stations), enticing signs and window displays and notices assuring the customer that everything inside cost just 3d or 6d, of drawing customers in with weighing machines in lobbies, of creating an identity with Classical facades and carved stone lions. Morrison shows how the stores were distinctive inside too, with goods laid out on open counters rather than out of reach as was normal then. This arrangement proved an irresistible temptation to shop-lifters (early reports showed stolen items ranged from soap, combs and scissors to a tortoise – a revealing snapshot of the sort of stock that was carried).
Later highlights from the history of Woolworth’s architecture and design include big Art Deco and Moderne frontages from the interwar period, more stylized Classical fronts for smaller shops, and a restrained neo-Georgian style that seems to have been adopted in response to the increasingly strong 1930s conservation lobby. All these styles were being built at the same time, but the stores were unified visually by motifs from the bright red signage to the use of a distinctive ‘W in a diamond’ monogram that became closely associated with the company. The design of everything from cafeterias to counters, window frames to pressed-steel relief panels, is noted along the way, and illustrated in a rich array of period photographs.
Period photographs, indeed, dominate – a lot of these stores have gone, or have been very thoroughly adapted. But there are hints and traces of these formerly glorious stores all over the place, and Morrison shows us what to look for and where to find it. She also features some of the outstanding stores that remain with little alteration to frontages at least. The 1930s shop in Monmouth (original windows at street level, stylized Classical brickwork above), the flagship store in Lister Gate, Nottingham, all faience fins and mouldings like an Art Deco cinema, and Ledbury’s small-town neo-Georgian outlet are the stars here.
I have space only to mention a tiny fraction of the fascinating things in this book, which throws light on subjects as varied as the company’s treatment of its staff in the early days to their change from leasehold to freehold properties and how this affected their growth. Morrison’s book is wonderfully revealing about the design and history of a business that was a familiar, and much loved, presence in Britain for a century and is essential reading for its insights into architectural, retail, and social history.