Franklin Winfield Woolworth (April 13, 1852 – April 8, 1919) was an American merchant. Born in Rodman, N.Y., he was the founder of F.W. Woolworth Company, an operator of discount stores that priced merchandise at five and ten cents. He pioneered the now-common practices of buying merchandise direct from manufacturers and fixing prices on items, rather than haggling.
The son of a farmer, Woolworth aspired to be a merchant. In 1873, he started working in a drygoods store in Watertown, New York. He worked for free for the first three months, because the owner claimed "why should I pay you for teaching the business". He remained there for six years. There he observed a passing fad: Leftover items were priced at five cents and placed on a table. Woolworth liked the idea, so he borrowed $300 to open a store where all items were priced at five cents.
Learn more about Woolworth's history in England, free from the Woolworths Virtual Museum. Woolworth's first five-cent store, established in Utica, New York on February 22, 1879, failed within weeks. At his second store, established in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in April 1879, he expanded the concept to include merchandise priced at ten cents. The second store was successful, and Woolworth and his brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, opened a large number of five-and-ten-cent stores. His original employer was made a partner.
In 1911, the F.W. Woolworth Company was incorporated, uniting 586 stores founded by the Woolworth brothers and others. In 1913, Woolworth built the Woolworth Building in New York City at a cost of $13.5 million in cash. At the time, it was the tallest building in the world, measuring 792 feet, or 241.4 meters.
Woolworth's wealth also financed the building of his mansion, Winfield Hall in Glen Cove, New York in 1916. The grounds of the estate required 70 full time gardeners and the 56 room mansion required dozens of servants just for basic upkeep. The home's decor reflected Woolworth's fascinations with Egyptology, Napoleon and spiritualism (a huge pipe organ that Woolworth learned to play late in life combined with a planetarium style ceiling to provide an intentionally eerie effect) and was built with no expenses spared: the pink marble staircase alone cost $2 million to construct. In 1978 the abandoned and largely gutted mansion became the home of Monica Randall, a squatter who wrote a memoir of her experiences there entitled Winfield: Living in the Shadow of the Woolworths.
Married with three daughters and several grandchildren, his granddaughter Barbara Hutton would gain much publicity for her lifestyle, squandering more than $50 million.
Woolworth died on April 8, 1919, five days before his 67th birthday. At the time, his company owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States and other countries and was a $65 million corporation. Bronze busts honoring Woolworth and seven other industry magnates stand outside between the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, Illinois.
By 1997, the original chain he founded had been reduced to 400 stores, and other divisions of the company began to be more profitable than the original chain. The original chain went out of business on July 17, 1997, as the firm began its transition into Foot Locker, Inc..
The UK stores continued operating (albeit under separate ownership since 1982) after the US operation ceased under the Woolworth name and now trade as Woolworths.