Like many of my posts, this one started off in one simple direction and wound up with a profound memory.
In the ‘50s and 60’s we didn’t go to the mall. We didn’t even know what a mall was. Most stores were mom and pop operations, and they weren’t large. There were catalogue stores, like J.C. Penny and Sears, with local storefronts in smaller towns, and there were department stores, also known as “five and dime” stores, throughout the country.
Depending on where you grew up, there were regional stores that didn’t have national reach. My formative years were in the northeast, specifically, Pennsylvania, and that’s where my familiarity lies. Our department stores were J.J. Newberry’s, F.W. Woolworth’s, and W.T. Grant’s. And yes … there was also E.J. Korvette’s.
W.T. Grant opened his twenty-five cent store in Lynn, MA in 1906. By 1972, when “W.T.” died, his chain of stores had grown to over 1,200. Shortly after, in 1976, as a result of extending credit to customers with no related investigation to determine whether that customer could actually pay for purchases, the company became infamous as the then-second largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
J.J. Newberry’s started in East Stroudsburg, PA in 1911. By 1918, there were seven stores in the chain and seventeen stores by 1919. When “J.J.” died in 1954, there were 475 stores, and by 1961, 565 sported the recognizable gold letters on a red background. The chain was eventually purchased by McCrory stores that ultimately entered into bankruptcy. The last Newberry store closed in 2001.
I’m going to move out of sequence for a moment to speak about E.J. Korvettes. Founded in 1948 in New York City, it was the first store to challenge the “suggested retail pricing” commonly in practice. By so doing, Korvettes displaced the earlier “five and dime” stores and preceded discount stores and warehouse clubs. Korvettes was a “membership store” and it was quite easy to become a “member.” The membership concept legally skirted fair-trade laws. There were a lot of competitor lawsuits, and while they did not cause Korvettes’ demise, the company went bankrupt in 1980.
And then there was F.W. Woolworth’s. It was started in Utica, NY in 1878 as “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store.” That store failed, but a second identical store opened a year later in Lancaster, PA. It became an international company and grew to be one of the largest retail chains in the world before going out of business in 1997.
Woolworth’s eventually incorporated lunch counters into their stores.
One of those lunch counters became quite infamous, and that’s where the profound portion of this post is. It was the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC where on February 1, 1960, four students from all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College walked in with the intention of ordering lunch. The students stayed until closing and came back the next day with fifteen other students. On day three, there were 300 and then 1,000. The Greensboro Woolworth sit-in was not the first in the Civil Rights Movement, but it did play a significant part of similar actions that spread across the country. That Woolworth store is now the location of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
Here are some other department stores you might recognize.