Bonaparte in America

Biographical, Regional History, Social History

The association of America with Napoleon Bonaparte for most people probably revolves round the purchase by the US of huge swathes of territory (the Louisiana Purchase) from Napoleon in 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte (Italian: Nabulione Buonaparte) never came to the United States or to anywhere in the New World – although it was the core element of his Plan B in the event of his grand scheme to conquer Europe going pear-shaped (as it ultimately and irrevocably did in 1815)[1]. However Napoleon’s older brother Joseph (born Giuseppe), formerly King of Spain and the Indies, and before that, King of Naples and Sicily, did come to the American continent and moreover lived in the US for some 17 or more years after the Emperor’s fall from power.

King Joseph
Joseph succeeded in his getaway where Napoleon failed, slipping out of French waters and travelling incognito to New York, albeit narrowly avoiding detection by the British. In America Joseph styled himself the Comte de Survilliers … after living in New York and Philadelphia for a period Bonaparte purchased a palatial residence in Bordentown, New Jersey called “Point Breeze” – one of the finest country houses in the Delaware Valley. Joseph was able to afford (and subsequently vastly improve) one of the republic’s grand mansions because he had brought the Spanish Bourbons’ crown jewels with him which he had acquired when abdicating the Spanish throne. With his dubiously acquired riches Bonaparte made other land acquisitions in upstate New York on the Black River (a locale still known as Lake Bonaparte)[2].

‘Point Breeze’, Bordentown, NJ
Joseph AKA the Count of Survilliers largely led a quiet, uneventful and comfortable life in the US, taking no interest in a political role … when Mexican rebels and expat French supporters gave their backing to him to be made emperor of Mexico (1820), he demurred at the offer. In 1832 Bonaparte returned to Europe (although he did return briefly to the US and his much loved mansion ‘Point Breeze’❈ in 1839), living for a while in London and in Italy where he died in 1844. The ineffective, former ‘puppet’ king of Spain was never permitted to return to his native France again because of the French government’s concern that it might provoke a groundswell for a Bonapartist restoration[3].

Joseph was not the only Bonapartist to flee to America following his brother’s downfall in 1815. The return of the Bourbons with the ascension of Louis XVIII prompted a “witch-hunt” of Bonapartists in France. Many followers of Napoleon escaped to America to avoid arrest and recriminations … once there some of Napoleon’s loyal soldiers set up Bonapartist colonies in Alabama (Vine and Olive Colony) and Texas (Champ d’Asile) – which were uniformedly unsuccessful and short-lived[4].

PostScript: Napoleon’s “life in America”
A) Rescue plans – before and on St Helena
In the aftermath of the disaster of Waterloo rumours abounded about various plots and attempts to rescue Napoleon. One plot involved a mega-wealthy French-born banker Stephen (Étienne) Girard living in the US who supposedly hatched an elaborate plan to transport the deposed emperor to Virginia (claim made in the Baltimore American, 1902). According to some sources Girard played a role in the Louisiana Purchase machinations[5].

Napoleon’s island prison
By far the most bizarre plot involved a Brit of Irish parentage Tom Johnson, who as well as being a recidivist smuggler had a bit of a reputation as an escape expert. Johnson’s claim was that in 1820 he was offered £40,000 to rescue Napoleon from St Helena, using two primitive types of submarines he had designed as the “getaway” vessels. Johnson’s colourful account reads as highly fanciful and the plot was in any case never implemented … the one plausible element of the story being that Johnson’s underwater crafts (for which designs did exist) were inspired by Robert Fulton’s 1806 submarine – the American engineer and inventor had earlier worked for both Napoleon and the British government on armed maritime vessel projects (what is less certain is whether Johnson had actually met Fulton as he claimed)[6].

B) Exploring the “What If …” scenario for Napoleon
Devotees of alternative history have speculated lyrically about what might have happened had Napoleon made good his escape to the Americas. One of the early imaginative conjectures (1931) came from British historian HAL Fisher who hypothesised that the exiled emperor might have established a base in New York and then gone on to Spanish America to liberate the masses, finally drowning at sea whilst attempting to conquer India[7].

Outlawed in Europe after Waterloo, it would have been logical for Napoleon to gravitate towards America … the US had only recently engaged in hostilities with Britain (War of 1812), so the locals would probably have been disposed or at least neutral towards him, he would have been able to live as a free man. The US was a new country born of revolution (and one inspiring a revolution in his native France which promoted his own rise). An American base would position the ambiguous ex-monarch well to marshal his resources and launch an invasion of Central and South America which was ripe for revolution against the Spanish conquerors. One of Napoleon’s aide-de-camp in fact made the suggestion to him that he should make himself “emperor of Mexico”[8].

A recent alternative history (Shannon Selin, Napoleon in America) postulates three possible theoretical courses of action for Napoleon – settling on the eastern (Atlantic) seaboard, living peacefully, probably near his favoured brother Joseph (possibly biding his time, building up the necessary support for another go at overthrowing the French Bourbons and reclaim the throne either for himself or for his son); establishing a colony within the US peacefully (in fact Bonapartists later attempted to forge colonies in Alabama and Texas – both then controlled by Spain); and as with Fisher’s supposition, invading Spain’s American colonies and thereby securing a new throne[9].

⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒
❈ as boys Frank and Charles Woolworth (the future retail empire giants) lived close to ‘Joe’ Bonaparte’s abandoned Bordentown mansion, spending lots of their leisure time playing at ‘Point Breeze’

[1] originally Napoleon and Joseph had laid plans for the two of them to seek refuge together in America in the likelihood of a worst-case scenario … a location in New Jersey was picked out as the optimum place for settling. Napoleon missed a real chance to escape to the US by stealth, having prevaricated too long waiting for anticipated passports which did not come, and then making the fateful decision to give himself up to the British authorities, CE Macartney & G Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America, (1939), www.penelope.uchicago.edu (see also PostScript above)
[2] R Veit, ‘Point Breeze (Bonaparte Estate)’, (2015), www.philadelphiaencyclopedia.org; ‘Joseph Bonaparte at Point Breeze. New Jersey’s Ex-King and the Crown Jewels’, Flatrock, www.flatrock.org.nz
[3] ibid.
[4] ‘Bonapartist Refugees in America, 1815-1850’, www.napolun.com
[5] L Weeks, ‘What if Napoleon Had Come to America’, NPR, 10-Feb-2015, www.npr.org. Girard also underwrote the American war effort in the War of 1812.
[6] M Dash, ‘The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine’, Smithsonian Magazine, 08-Mar-2013, www.smithsonian.com
[7] H.A.L. Fisher, ‘If Napoleon had Escaped to America’, (Scribner’s Magazine, Jan. 1931), www.unz.org
[8] M Price, ‘How Napoleon Nearly Became a U.S. Citizen’, History News Network, 28-Dec-2014, www.historynewsnetwork.org
[9] Weeks, op.cit.

The American Cricket Club: Golf or Tennis Anyone?

Regional History, Sport

Given the United States of America’s origins as an English colony, it would hardly come as a surprise to learn that the colonists brought their English game of cricket to the “Thirteen Colonies” in the 18th century. But it was American citizens, albeit largely those of Anglo descent, who planted the foundations of the first cricket clubs and playing grounds all over the country and in particular the Eastern Seaboard. What also might come as surprising is that in the land of baseball quite a few of these have survived, at least in name, as cricket clubs.

The game itself brightly flickered (if not entirely thrived) in different pockets of the United States for long periods of the 19th century and briefly into the 20th century. Cricket was rooted in America long before the game of baseball was even close to capturing the nation’s imagination. By the time of the Civil War at least 20 of the American States played the game of cricket✿ – including the cities of Baltimore, Savannah, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and even as far away as San Francisco[1]. From about 1890 to the onset of WWI America experienced a “golden age” of cricket, with its focus being the city of Philadelphia[2].

In Hollywood during the thirties and forties ex-pat film actors from Britain and Australia (David Niven, Ronald Colman, Boris Karloff, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, etc) played for the Hollywood Cricket Club, a team formed by veteran Hollywood performer Sir C Aubrey Smith, a former first-class amateur player in the late 19th century who represented Sussex, the MCC and captained England in the inaugural test against South Africa.

In more recent times immigrants from the West Indies, from South Asia and elsewhere have been the lifeblood of the sport in the US, both playing and following the game … the series of exhibition matches in New York and elsewhere in 2016 between two international “All-Stars” teams, led by cricketing legends Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne, being an example of the sustained current interest.

Despite the decline of cricket from having once been a national sport in the US❂, to be replaced by baseball, a number of the old cricket clubs continue to exist, many transforming themselves into key venues for other mainstream sports and emphasising their social and commercial roles … what follows is a brief survey of the history of the more famous and historic American cricket clubs.

Staten Island CC of New York:
(Randolph) Walker Park (Livingston) is the home ground of the Staten Island Cricket Club (founded in 1872 as the Staten Island Cricket and Base Ball Club). The original club ground was the ‘Flats’ at St George (a different neighbourhood of Staten Is). SICC exists to this day as “the oldest cricket club in continuous use”[3]. And although world-famous cricketers such as Donald Bradman, Everton Weekes and Garry Sobers have played at the ground during visits to the US, it might be said that its fame in the US derives as least as much from its use as a tennis venue. The first national tennis tournament was held at the grounds in 1880, tracing its origins to the 1874 visit of a Staten Island resident Mary Ewing Outerbridge to Bermuda. Outerbridge observed this new game adapted by a British army major, W C Wingfield, in that North Atlantic Island. Returning to Staten Island with a net, balls and racquets, Outerbridge, with the assistance of her brother, created the first US tennis court[4].

The Metropolitan Baseball Club used Walker Park cricket ground in the early days. The Metro BC later evolved into a baseball major league identity – first as the New York Giants and later after relocation as the San Francisco Giants[5]. These days it’s a common spectacle at Walker Park to observe cricket-obsessed immigrant club members from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, decked out in cream or coloured flannels, wielding their “paddle-like” bats and taking “bare-handed catches” on the Staten Island oval[6].

St George’s CC Prospect Park ground, NY
St George’s CC of New York:
Among the other clubs in New York, there was one, St George’s CC (later Manhattan CC)❦, which rivalled the illustrious history of SICC in pedigree stakes. From its founding in 1838 up to the American Civil War, SGCC was one of the powerhouses of New York and American cricket. St George’s CC’s Bloomingdale Park was the venue for what was arguably the world’s first international sporting (and cricket) contest (USA V Province of Canada, 1844). Since 1865 the Club has continuously played the game based at its Prospect Park ground, its foremost cricketer in the late 19th century was bowling star M R Cobb (who also had a formidable stint spearheading the New Jersey Athletic Club attack)[7].

Philadelphia CC:
The celebrated ‘Philly’ Cricket Club (one of the oldest club in the US, founded 1854), today is a private country club with two locations, Flourtown and Chestnut Hill✥ – the latter was the Club’s cricket venue from 1883. PCC involvement in cricket emanated from the enthusiasms of young men of English descent who had played the game at the University of Pennsylvania. For over 40 years PCC competed with other clubs in the region for the prestigious Halifax Cup … by 1924 however the cricketing activities of PCC had been overtaken by other pursuits and came to an abrupt halt (until happily revived by South Asian immigrants in 1998)[8].

Philadelphia Club of gentlemen cricketers
As part of its “extra-cricketular” activities Philadelphia Cricket Club early on established itself as a centre for the hosting of top-level tennis and golf events. PCC was a founding member of the US Lawn Tennis Association (today the USTA) and hosted the US Women’s National Singles Championship from its inception in 1887 through to 1921. In addition it hosted the national doubles title for women and the national mixed doubles title during this period[9]. PCC has similar bragging rights for golf, St Martin’s was home to the US Men’s Open in 1907 and 1910, whilst Wissahickon has hosted lower-level professional tournaments on the US PGA men’s circuit.

Germantown CC:
GCC is another pioneering cricket club which competed with PCC in the prestigious Philadelphia comp. Originally located in Nicetown it relocated to West Manheim Street after merging with the Young America Cricket Club in 1890. Like a number of the other cricket clubs tennis overtook cricketing pursuits in the 20th century with GCC providing the venue for the US National Tennis Championship from 1921 to 1923. On the cricket front, by 1980 Germantown CC was one of only three surviving competing cricket clubs in the Pennsylvanian league.

Dwight F Davis, donor of the eponymous cup
The club’s main sporting activity these days is its tennis played in summer but it still fits in competitive cricket around the tennis (in spring and autumn). Tennis’s dominant position in the “cricket club” can be gauged by its total of 46 tennis courts on the complex, reflecting an important historic role played by GCC in the sport at the elite level – five times host of the Davis Cup Final, plus host of the 1964 Federation Cup (international women’s team tournament)[10].

Merion CC:
The Merion Cricket Club (Pennsylvania) played its first game in 1866 and in its early days repulsed an attempt to turn it into a baseball club. In the late 1890s-early 1900s the MCC’s Haverford ground was host to matches between the Gentlemen of Pennsylvania and Touring English XIs. But like PCC, the MCC from the 1890s moved inexorably to golf as its main sporting pursuit. Merion CC has hosted the US Men’s Golf Open five times (the latest in 2013). The Merion Cricket Club has also been the venue for elite tennis … in 1939 its Haverford courts hosted the Davis Cup (the premier men’s international teams event), the final between the US and Australia.

J Bart King
Belmont CC:
Belmont Cricket Club was one of the big four clubs in Philadelphia during the cricket “Golden Age’. Founded in 1874 BCC survived only to 1914 when it was disbanded (despite having America’s greatest practitioner of the sport of cricket, John Barton (Bart) King, among the ranks of its players). Bart King played in the Pennsylvanian comp for the Belmont Club from 1893 to 1913 [see also Footnote 2].

Longwood CC (Boston):
LCC formed in 1877 and later established its long-term cricket home ground at Chestnut Hill (Mass.). It was not long before tennis became the premier sport at Longwood (first lawn tennis court laid down the following year, 1878). That predominance of tennis was established when the Club held the first ever Davis Cup match (initially called the International Lawn Tennis Challenge) in 1900, and further consolidated by hosting the 1917 US National Doubles championship, the US Pro-Tournament (1964-1999), the Fed Cup and 15 Davis Cup ties in total. The brothers Harry and George Wright, famous as baseball players and managers in the early professional baseball era, were also prominent in the Longwood cricket team in the late 19th century.

With the diminishing interest in cricket as an American pastime many cricket clubs including those mentioned above switched their participatory activities to the new emerging sports like golf and tennis. Other cricket clubs from the 1890s on transformed themselves into athletics clubs, eg, Longwood CC became the Boston Athletics Association. The New Jersey Athletics Association started its organisational existence as a cricket club. The Cresent Athletic Club in Brooklyn Hts (NYC) followed a different course … formed as an (American) football club in 1884, it developed multi-sport fields at its Bay Ridge location, including cricket and lacrosse. The Cresent AC hosted the second ever Davis Cup world team tennis challenge (1902)[11].

PostScript 1: Cricket V Baseball
Sports historians and other interested individuals have put forward several theories as to why cricket was ultimately eclipsed by baseball in the US. Baseball’s rise to the status of national game was partly an unforseen consequence of the American Civil War – during the war it was difficult to get proper cricket equipment and to mark and maintain the pitch, so it was much easier for soldiers to set up simple games of baseball which they did increasingly during their ‘downtime’ from the fighting … post-bellum the game of baseball gradually took firm hold[12]. The elaborate accoutrement of cricket versus that of baseball was part of the answer: for a baseball game to happen required very little – a smooth, wooden bat, a ball and a few weighted bags … and no field or ground preparation!

Brian Palmer et al has pointed out the role marketing played in advancing the cause of baseball after the Civil War. The promoters of baseball sensing an opportunity at a formative point in its development, established the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871. This unified the sport as well as professionalising it (refer also to PostScript 2 for more on this), meanwhile cricket stayed regionalised and amateur, a sport of and for gentlemen and their social strata✧. Many top cricket players made the switch to baseball and the fans followed[13]. Cricket historian Tom Melville contends that a secondary element in baseball’s meteoric climb was that whilst many of the top baseballers succeeded in cricket, the opposite was less inclined to be the case[14].

Once it caught on, other factors seem to have contributed to tilting the matter in baseball’s favour … baseball was seen as faster and shorter than cricket – which could drag on for up to three to five days, whereas baseball comprised nine innings each side (around three hours all up), so you could, and they did, play “double-headers” on the same day! Cricket with its on-going stream of interruptions – lunch, tea break, drinks breaks, stumps – contrasts sharply with the continuity of baseball[15]. Are Americans temperamentally more suited to a game that is quick, dynamic and guarantees a winner? This is a hard one to argue conclusively for sports across the board, because although it fits the description of baseball and for matter basketball and tennis, American football with its stop-start, TV ad break-punctuated, drawn out nature, seems to refute this (to an extent a PGA golf tournament with its 72 holes of play over four long days also fits this exception).

The utter ‘Englishness’ of cricket features in some historians’ explanations of its rejection by Americans. The embryonic seeds lie perhaps with the American Revolution. After the severing of political ties with Britain a new-found patriotism led many Americans (Anglo-Americans aside) to distance themselves culturally from the mother country and some expressed this by jettisoning the ‘English’ game as well. Melville concludes that cricket’s British connexions contributed to the game’s demise in the US … cricket, according to Melville, ultimately failed to “establish an American character”[16]. The popularity of baseball saw it come to embody a spirit of nationalism that was unmistakably American.

Baseball relative to cricket has tended to have a less complicated set of rules, which are called Laws in cricket¶. Tom Melville makes the point that as baseball evolved from its nascent, native state to something more standardised, its exponents and practitioners tended to ignore those rules which hindered “the spirit and fun of the game”[17]. Cricket’s laws with their imperial British remnants tend for the most part to rigidity, eg, laws on stoppages due to bad light and rain are inherently not conducive to letting the game flow.

AG Spalding
PostScript 2: AG Spalding and the baseball origin myth
One of the most ardent advocates of professional baseball was Albert G Spalding. Spalding, a former MLB player and team manager, was a master of “spin-doctoring”, constantly preaching the merits of baseball and extolling its supposedly ‘democratic’ spirit, compared to the ‘elitist’ nature of cricket. In 1888 he organised an “All-Star” world tour, a series of baseball games between his Chicago White Stockings and an “All-American” side, aimed at popularising the game internationally. Spalding’s much hyped tour was personally rewarding to him as he used it to promote and sell the sporting goods that his company manufactured. Later, the influential baseballer-cum-businessman lobbied for the formation of a national commission to investigate and resolve baseball’s obscure origins (which were in dispute at the time). The Mills Commission, with Spalding’s guiding hand, erroneously credited an undeserving Union general from the Civil War, Abner Doubleday, with the invention of baseball. The myth has long been comprehensively deflated – the most likely candidates for baseball’s antecedents reside in either the archaic British game of rounders or the old monastic French game, la soule (D Block, Baseball before We Knew It)[18].

________________________________________________________________________________________
✿ and/or the modified regional form of it known simply as ‘Wicket’
❂ international cricket’s inaugural governing body, the Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC), did nothing to aid US cricket’s development or popularity in 1909 by restricting test level cricket to member countries of the British Empire only
❦ the Manhatten Cricket Club building today is a bar in W79th Street New York, downstairs from an Australian-themed restaurant named “Burke and Wills” – after a couple of ill-fated explorers of the Australian continent in the 1860s
✥ and three golf courses, St Martin’s (in Chestnut Hill), Wissahickon and Militia Hill (both in Whitemarsh Township, Flourtown)
✧ this introduces a different factor contributing to baseball’s success, a class-based one. In becoming ‘universal’ the sport made an appeal to all Americans, to all classes – cf. the more restrictive social reach of US cricket
¶ this can be measured quantitatively as well – the MLB (Major League Baseball) has nine main rules (with subsets), compared to the MCC’s (Marylebone Cricket Club’s) 42 Laws. The “Laws of Cricket” which extend back to the 18th century tend also to have more arcane laws on its books

[1] R Noboa y Rivera, ‘How Philadelphia became the unlikely epicentre of American Cricket’, The Guardian, 28-Mar-2015, www.theguardian.com
[2] the Gentlemen of Philadelphia cricket team played first-class cricket for 35 years including three tours of England. The Philadelphians’ star player was fast bowler Bart King, a pioneering exponent of swing pace bowling. King, considered by most judges the best ever American cricketer, topped the English 1908 season bowling averages, ahead of all first-class bowlers in Britain (his record lowest average stood for 50 years!), ‘Philadelphian cricket team’, Wikipedia, www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[3] as claimed by SICC, ‘Staten Island C.C. A Brief History’, (R Bavanandan), www.statenislandcc.org
[4] M Pollak, ‘Rocking the Tennis Cradle’, New York Times, 27-Aug-2006, www.mobile.nytimes.com
[5] ‘Staten Island C.C.’, op.cit.
[6] J Yates, ‘GET OUT: Swingers Club’, 12-Jun-2008, www.silive.com
[7] P David Sentance, Cricket in America, 1710-2000 (2006); ‘The Cresent Athletic Club’, (BrooklynBallParks.com-CAC), www.covehurst.net; M Williamson, ‘The oldest international contest of them all’, (Cricinfo), www.espncricinfo.com
[8] ‘PCC History by J S F Murdoch, Historian’, Philadelphia Cricket Club, www.philacricket.com
[9] ‘Philadelphia Cricket Club’, Wikipedia, www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[10] ‘Germantown Cricket Club’, Wikipedia, www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[11] Sentance, op.cit.
[12] J Marder & A Cole, ‘Cricket in the USA’, www.espncricinfo.com (Adapted from Barclays World of Cricket, (1980))
[13] B Palmer, ‘Why don’t Americans Play Cricket?’, Slate, 24-Feb-2011, www.slate.com
[14] In the second half of the 19th century there was a lot of crossover between cricket and baseball by the players (including composite matches incorporating both forms of the bat-and-ball contest), T Melville, The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (1998)
[15] Palmer, loc.cit.
[16] Melville, op.cit.
[17] ibid.
[18] ET Smith, ‘Patriot game’, The Guardian (UK), 02-Jul-2005, www.theguardian.com; ‘Albert Spalding’, Wikipedia, www.em.n.wikipedia.org

The Mass Appeal of Woolworths: A Brand Name Worth Copying

Popular Culture, Retailing history

The seeming ubiquity of Woolies?
Woolworths is an internationally known name synonymous with traditional merchandising expertise. When I was a kid I thought that the Woolworths variety store-cum-supermarket chain in cities and towns strewn all around Australia and New Zealand was an offshoot of the famous pioneering Woolworths “dime and nickel” company in the US. Until I actually went to South Africa I wasn’t even aware that there was Woolworths in that country as well. When I did discover its existence travelling around the RSA garden route I initially assumed that it too was a spoke in the far-reaching American F W Woolworth imperial retail wheel.

A traditional urban myth punctured
Only much, much later did I learn of the total absence of any business or corporate connection between the three ‘Woolworths’ entities. Both the retail chain in Australasia and the one in South Africa got the name ‘Woolworths’ through the same legalistic loophole. When a collection of businessmen began the Australian retail enterprise they acquired the name because the original American company had not registered the name in NSW (or anywhere in Australia). Thus the first store in Sydney CBD’s Imperial Arcade in 1924 was called Woolworths Stupendous Bargain Basement. The transition to the eventual nomenclature used (simply ‘Woolworths’) was not quite that simple. Before settling on ‘Woolworths’, the first notion that came to Percy Christmas (Woolworth’s inaugural CEO) and his directors was to call it ‘Wallworths Bazaar’, a pun on the American retailer’s name[1].

Somerset Mall Woolies
Western Cape RSA
Similarly, the South African ‘Woolworths’ acquired the name because there was no legal trademark impediment to it using the name in South Africa. Founder Max Sonnenberg and his son Richard started the first Woolworths store in Cape Town in 1931, and like the Australian namesake it has never had any financial connection to the prior existing F W Woolworth Co business. Woolworths South Africa-style was a different sort of retail animal, modelling itself on the upmarket British Marks and Spencer rather than the F W Woolworth bargain basement store concept[2].

Woolworths ground zero: Creating the retail template
The American phenomenon started in 1878 when Frank Winfield Woolworth, son of a poor potato farmer, started his first store in Utica, New York, the basis of his business strategy was to sell a wide selection of items at low price (initially all the merchandise was set at 5 cents each). The store was poorly located and failed abjectly but Woolworth persisted, opening a second dry goods and variety store the following year in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the formula eventually caught on. The entrepreneur expanded his store concept to a “five-and-dime” one (items set at 5¢ and 10¢ each).

The early F W Woolworth & Co
Woolworth’s brother Charles (known as ‘Sum”) got in on the business, starting up his own retail stores soon after his older brother’s. Frank expanded F W Woolworth Co into a chain by mergers and partnerships with his cousin Seymour Knox I and with other relatives and friends❈. By gathering together a little club of owners Woolworth could purchase large quantities of goods directly from the manufacturers. As the US stores multiplied and prospered, Frank, remembering his own disadvantaged childhood, took pride in the fact that the “ordinary man” could afford to buy from Woolworth stores[3].

From 1890 FWW would embark on annual (sometimes biannual) large-scale buying trips to Europe, always paying the suppliers in cash on principle. Exposure to European manufacturers promoted awareness of market potentiality in other countries and may have prompted Woolworth’s eventual decision to branch out internationally. Anglophile Frank had his eye firmly on Britain as his 1890 trip diary indicates: “a good penny and sixpence store, run by a live Yankee, would be a sensation here”[4]. The chain had already extended north to Canada and subsidiaries were launched in the UK, Germany, Austria, Mexico and Cuba. The UK Woolworth sub-set itself opened stores in the Republic of Ireland, Palestine, Cyprus, the British West Indies and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

British F W Woolworth
Woolworths came to Britain in 1909 with the first store, selling clothing, stationary and toys, opening in Liverpool in northern England (family cousin Fred Moore Woolworth was the British arm’s first managing director). The pricing strategy matched the US “five-and-dime” one with items selling at 3d and 6d. The British chain flourished from the 1920s on, becoming a household name through the UK, so much so that most consumers in Britain and Ireland believed that their ‘Woolies’ shops were a local invention, “where sixpence once went a long way”[5].

Like the parent company in America, British Woolworths proved a retail innovator. The Liverpool store introduced lunch counters (followed by Blackpool and other large UK stores)回, which were the precursor to the standard food courts which became integral to shopping malls later in the 20th century[6]. The Woolies restaurants also adhered to the 3d and 6d price formula, although by 1941 there had been some increases, eg, a split lobster salad had risen to the princely sum of one shilling (12d or 1/-)[7].

Woolworth UK’s rise and fall
The 1930s marked a high point for Woolworth in the UK … outside of the Christmas season the chain was opening a new store every five days! During the price inflation of the late 1930s the Woolworth giant kept the sixpence limit on its prices by asserting its buying power to coerce suppliers into accepting lower margins for their goods¤. By 1958 F W Woolworth Co had amassed 1,000 branches in Britain[8].

The first signs of the downturn in Woolworth UK’s fortunes can be traced from the 1960s, the parent company forced the British arm into introducing Woolco, a series of one stop shops usually located out-of-town. These did not succeed, as they had in America because the UK lacked the US’s higher car ownership which suited out-of-town shopping. This was also an unwise move away from Woolworth UK’s strength, its high street stores. The UK business’ problems continued in the 1970s – Britain’s decimalisation in 1971 caught Woolworth unprepared because unlike other retailers it had resisted the move to self-service. The upshot was costly to Woolworth (£5 million and a five-year process trying to replace their over-abundance of store cash registers. Also in the 1970s a number of Woolworth stores in Britain and Northern Ireland burned down, attributed at least in part in incompetent and short-sighted management … resulting in brand damage to the trusted F W Woolworth name from which it never entirely recovered[9].

Closing down: Bromsgrove store (Worcs.)
British elements (principally Kingfisher plc) finally gained a controlling interest in the UK enterprise in 1982, but Woolies, this British institution on the retail landscape ultimately fell foul of intense competition from cut-price retailers … many customers defected to British supermarket giants Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Falling sales❀ and a cash-flow crisis affected its entertainment arm. The downturn was exacerbated by the adverse effects of the Global Financial Crisis of the late 2000s. In 2007 Britain’s Woolworth Co experienced its first trading loss in 95 years … and much worst was to come. Over Christmas 2008 807 stores in the UK closed. With Deloitte’s administrating, the whole Woolworth chain had a complete shutdown over a 41 day period (months short of what would have been 100 years of operation in the UK). The carve-up saw restructure specialists Hilco Capital acquire the retail business and the Shop Direct Group (owned by the Barclay brothers) taking over the online retail sector … this too however was closed down in 2015[10].

Rise and fall of the prototype organisation
The America parent Woolworth company was spectacularly successful in creating a chain of “cash-and-carry” dime stores. By 1977 there were 3,414 stores in the US, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and 1,884 outside of the US[11]. The pioneering merchandising methods of F W Woolworth with the founder’s emphasis on sales and customer service, and direct purchasing, established a solid base to enable his successors as CEO to continue to sustain and grow the Woolworth retail empire. However after WWII there was shift in the nature of shopping propelled by the burgeoning car culture … retailing in America and elsewhere moved on from the high street stores which had been the mainstay of Woolworth to the new malls located in the suburbs. Woolworth tried slowly to adjust but found itself less able to adapt to this change than its major competitors.

By the 1960s the original five-and-dime stores had morphed into other commercial entities: whilst the Woolworth flagship was retained there was a move into speciality stores and the large discount retail chain Woolco, which had a measure of success. Through the eighties and into the nineties the ailing FWW giant lingered on.

In 1997 F W Woolworth Co in the US folded, following years of diminishing competitiveness with its rivals (the chain in 1996 posted a crippling loss of $US37 million). The Venator Group took its place and F W Woolworth ceased to be a trading name. Venator’s retail focus fixed on the foot ware market with Foot Locker and Kinney Shoes. This was a sudden end to a gradual process by which Woolworth Five-and-Dimes were overtaken by the likes of more dynamic enterprises, Wal-Mart, Kmart (formerly Kresge), Target and other commercial players who adapted to change far better than the veteran Woolworth[12].

F W Woolworth Co ultimately suffered the same fate as the British Woolworth – an accumulated obsolescence. As Jennifer Steinhauer summarised its plight, it had “faded in the collective memory of a nation warmly nostalgic for old stores but not willing to shop in them”. The pioneering retailer had become increasingly irrelevant to American consumers … the advantage of convenience it once possessed (where shoppers could get “lipstick, diapers and a milk shake at a discount, all under the one roof”) was now all-too-easily available at the abundance of handy drugstores, supermarkets and discount stores popping up everywhere[13].

PostScript: South Africa and Australia – Higher and Higher
Whilst the Woolworths brand name no longer decorates the urban commercial landscape in the US and Britain, the Woolworths name in the Southern Hemisphere is a different story. Over the last 20 years both Woolworths Holdings Limited (RSA) and Woolworths Limited (Australia) have experienced impressive growth through expansion and diversification.

Woolworths Holdings Ltd (WHL) achieved a net income of R3.12 billion in 2015 as a provider of clothing, footwear, accessories, groceries, beauty products, home wares and financial services. WHL has pursued an aggressive campaign of expansion, taking over companies in South Africa (Mimco, Trenery) and Australia (David Jones stores, Country Road, Witchery).

Woolworths Casula (NSW)
Woolworths Limited (WL) made a net surplus of A$1.2 billion in 2016 with its variety stores (Big W), supermarkets (Countdown, Food For Less, Safeway, Flemings, etc), grocers (Thomas Dux). Part of the company’s impressive growth has come from diversification – into petrol stations (Caltex-Woolworths) and into liquor stores (taking over BWS and Dan Murphy’s), hotels and gambling (Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group)[14]. The Aussie Woolworths brand currently maintains a presence in Australia, New Zealand and India▤.

Business success aside, it has not been all smooth sailing for the RSA and Australian companies … both WHL and WL have been embroiled in controversies in their home countries from time to time. In 2010 WHL removed Christian magazines from its shelves (a financial decision by Woolworths), provoking a huge outcry from the powerful Christian community in South Africa with WHL having to back down[15]. WL’s move into alcohol has been extremely profitable (together with Coles it is estimated to account for ¾ of Australian liquor sales). Allied to this is Woolworths’ impact on poker machine gambling … through its ALH arm it has in excess of 12,650 pokies in pubs. Anti-gambling campaigners have accused WL of targeting children to push up pub sales by offering loyalty reward cards to frequent gamblers (and placing “Kid’s Club” playgrounds close to the poker machine areas in its hotels)[16].

﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌﹌
❈ FWW’s mergers absorbed Knox & Co, Kirby & Co, Charlton & Co, C S Woolworth & Co and Moore & Co
回 the concept was an elaboration on F W Woolworth’s ‘Soda Fountain’ introduced in his Lancaster (US) store in 1907
¤ a similar bullying practice to that used by Woolworths Australia (and its rival Coles) this decade against local manufacturers
❀ one exception being the old Woolies favourite, the pick ‘n’ mix confectionary lines
▤ in 1989 Industrial Equity Ltd (IEL), part of the AdSteam Group (Adelaide Steamship Company), successfully took over Woolworths Australia … however the Woolworths company was subsequently publicly floated several years later

[1] ‘Woolworths Limited’, Wikipedia, www.em.n.wiki.org
[2] after WWII the South African firm actually had a business relationship with Marks and Spencer for a number of years, ‘Woolworths (South Africa)’, Wikipedia, www.em.n.wikipedia.org
[3] One incident in particular resounded with him, being unable to afford an item in a Watertown store as a child, ‘Biography of F.W. Woolworth’, (Woolworths Museum),www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk
[4] J Robinson, ‘Woolworths: the rise and fall of the departmental store giant’, The Guardian (London), 20-Nov-2008, www.theguardian.com
[5] ‘Christmas Past and Christmas Presents’, (Woolworths Museum), www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk
[6] ‘The British Lunch Counter 1938-41’, (Woolworths Museum), www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk
[7] ibid.
[8],’A potted history of F.W. Woolworth’, (Woolworths Museum), www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk
[9] ibid.;’Preparing for decimalisation “D-Day” on 15 February 1971′, in ibid.
[10] ibid.; Robinson, op.cit.
[11] J N Ingham, Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders, Vol. 4
[12] F W Woolworth also tended to cling to outmoded lines, eg, in its toy department old-fashioned puzzles and no action figures, J Steinhauer, ‘Woolworth’s Give Up the Five-and-Dime, New York Times, 18-Jul-1997, www.nyt.com
[13] Woolworth Co’s competitors ultimately offered more choice of products, quicker checkouts and often lower prices,ibid
[14] Woolworths’ move into hardware stores via Masters Home Improvement was far less successful with the retail giant getting badly singed, E Stewart, ‘Masters: Five reasons Woolworths is pulling the plug on struggling hardware chain’, 18-Jan-2017, ABC News, www.mobile.abc.net.au
[15] ‘Woolworths (South Africa)’, op.cit.
[16] L Mulligan, ‘Woolworths under fire from anti-poker machine groups for introducing gambling rewards card in pubs’, ABC News, 17-Sep-2015, www.abc.net.au