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Today in Food – Woolworth’s and the Lunch Counters

February 22nd, 2012 · 4 Comments

A Woolworth lunch counter in Durham, NC. /photo courtesy the Sun Herald.

Today we celebrate the birth of the store that brought about the lunch counter, or luncheonette – and eventually, the food courts at malls.

On this date, 134 years ago, Frank Woolworth opened his first “five-cent” store in Utica, N.Y. It failed, but the next year, he opened another one, in Lancaster, Pa., and succeeded. Items priced at 10 cents as well as a nickel earned these stores the “five and dime,” or “dime stores.”

These proved quite popular with shoppers, who could freely touch merchandise on the shelves without a shop clerk’s interference. They carried household goods common to the day – yard goods, string, storage tins, pipe cleaners, candy and mints, pens, party goods, office and school supplies. Soon, make-up, head scarves and perfume were included.

A Santa ornament from '50s Woolworth.

Basic tools and home decor, too, were featured such as hammers and upholstery tacks, flower vases, dresser scarves and pictures. For the kids, there were comic books, cheap dolls and toy cars and trucks, balsawood airplane kits, kites, and fish bowls – later, turtle bowls with turtles. Holiday items were trudged out to line shelves for Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July. Shoppers loved the variety of affordable, seasonal goods.

The chain expanded throughout the world, and though the company folded in 1967, edged out by bigger discount stores, the Woolworth name can still be found etched into buildings in downtowns across the country.

The lunch bunch

A store in Great Britain added a luncheonette, or lunch counter at an unknown date. When it proved popular as a local gathering spot, the directors saw the potential and installed the luncheonettes in many stores. Their success led to drug stores and others having in-store lunch counters for hungry shoppers, who typically bought something on their way in and out of the store.

A Woolworth lunch counter in Cape Girardeau, Mo., from 1964. /photo by G.D. Fronabarger, posted on the semissourian.com blog, f8 and be there, by Fred Lynch.

They were a fixture for downtown workers throughout the country during the 1940s and ’50s. Meals were cheap – sandwiches like tuna salad or a hot dog were a dime; coffee or a soda, a nickle.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable tuck into a meal at a Hollywood lunch counter frequented by studio employees; photo from 1932.

Teenaged girls of the ’40s flocked to them after a rumor started that Lana Turner was “discovered” at a counter in a Hollywood drug store.

The counters are probably most known for their crucial role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when a sit-in was staged at several Woolworth lunch counters that followed the segregation rules of the day.

A piece of one of the counters sits in the Smithsonian – a part of American history.

Counters still popular with some

The lunch counters were much copied – W.T. Grant’s, McCrory’s, Kresge’s – all were popular variety stores of the mid 20th century. While most went the way of the five and dime (or grew into mega discount stores like Kmart and WalMart), a few lunch counters from the golden era of luncheonettes can still be found sprinkled throughout the country.

Green's Pharmacy luncheonette in Palm Beach

One is here in Palm Beach – Green’s Pharmacy still has a counter and seating area in the drug store where lawn workers on the island rub elbows with the society types who hire them.

There are no more 10 cent sandwiches – but tuna and BLTs can still be found on the menu, along with shakes, fountain sodas and pie, at wallet-friendly prices.

After lunch, you can still buy a tin of mints, a rain bonnet, and a lipstick – along with an SD card for your camera.

Do you remember?

Got a memory of a lunch counter? I recall the McCrory’s in downtown Fort Lauderdale, my hometown. There was one in downtown West Palm Beach, where I would move as an adult.

As a child, I remember we bought party goods and thread there, and stopped in for a cup of coffee and tuna sandwich for my mother (cream was served in a little glass thimble-sized container), and a Coke and hot dog with relish for me. They toasted both the hot dog and the bun on the griddle – I recall that flavor to this day.

The counter seats, a red leatherette-covered stool, were low, and there was a hook under the Formica counter for my mom’s pocketbook. I remember once taking the tip – thinking she’d left her money behind. She turned 50 shades of red when she heard of it – and I was told not to do it again. In middle school, shopping with a girl friend, we stopped and had lunch at the counter – it was all two schoolgirls could afford. Their burgers were pretty satisfying. We bought Kleenex in little packages for our purses, and I bought a roll of Necco candy – my favorites of the day.

Tags: Talking Tables · Today in the World of Food

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff Boswell // Feb 22, 2012 at 11:58 am

    We still have one in metro Portland. http://hillsboropharmacy.net/

  • 2 lizz michael // Feb 23, 2012 at 6:12 am

    Remember the bannana splits? when I lived in NYC the 42nd street Woolworths had balloons hanging over the counter and you picked one to decide how much the Bannana split would cost. From one penny to 99 cents.

  • 3 Yolanda // Feb 23, 2012 at 8:30 am

    I was born in 1942, in Habana, Cuba, we had several
    Woolworth Stores throught the Island.
    My Uncle Urbano Ravelo (RIP) was a Manager
    to many of these stores as they used to rotate Managers
    from one Province to another.
    When we immigrated,to USA in 1960, He was offered a Job in NY City, as a Manager to one of their Stores . They relocated their employees from Cuba, those willing to do so.
    I remember going as a child to picked Him Up. We loved
    to go, as we always left with a small toy and as a teenager, after school for a delicious Shake.
    Lots of good Memories this article brought back. Thanks.

  • 4 Judy // Feb 23, 2012 at 11:37 am

    I remember sitting at Lincoln Row Woolworth with my mom in Miami Beach, having a grilled cheese sandwich whenever I visited her from the north, Thanks for reminding me of a good memory,

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