Monday, June 13, 2016

The Five and Dime

By Matt Shoen

In the last blog published by Preservation Studios we discussed the Newberry Building, our project in Batavia. Built in 1881 the building was used as a storefront for over a century before closing in 1997, though rehabilitation plans are in place to ensure the restoration of this lovely commercial block. The building's history can be neatly divided into two eras, the first lasting from 1881 to 1929 when it was owned by three different furniture makers/undertakers, and the second spanning 1929 to 1997 when it was used by the J.J. Newberry Company. The last blog didn't spend too much time on the history of Newberry's and so today I think it's best to give this chain store its due and look at the history of five-and-dimes.
The Newberry Building in Batavia

The original five-and-dime was owned and operated by F.W. Woolworth, a Watertown native who began his business in Utica. The Utica five-and-dime quickly fizzled and Woolworth moved shop to Lancaster, PA where it caught on. Woolworth followed up the success of his first store by expanding rapidly, building new stores in towns and small cities throughout Pennsylvania. The rationale behind his building frenzy was with more stores he could purchase more product, earning discounts from suppliers and ultimately making it easier to sell goods cheaply. Additionally, rather than sell one consistent line of products, i.e. clothing, or groceries, Woolworth introduced the idea of the variety store, selling all manner of useful household items for the magic price of a nickel or dime. This wide product line, combined with inexpensive goods, was a new model of American shopping. Previously, people outside major cities made their own goods or took trips into cities to shop at large department stores when the occasion called for it. The five-and-dime brought downtown shopping to smaller communities and impoverished sections of cities such as Buffalo. Five-and-dime stores transformed frugal Americans into consumers, stretching dollars and allowing them to mean something. Better living, culturally and materially was ushered in by the five-and-dime store as newfound purchasing power helped connect people in small ways to the American dream of ownership.

The five-and-dime chain store offered another counterpoint to the downtown shopping experience. In downtown malls shoppers were guided through the experience by attendants, saleswomen who were responsible for making the shopping experience pleasant and encourage a shopper to make a few splurge purchases. This was attractive to to the upper crust, but a bit off-putting to less affluent shoppers. The five-and-dime, often operating in the early years out of hole-in-the wall establishments, or tiny rented storefronts didn't have the space or staff to guide shoppers around. Five-and-dimes allowed women to browse at their own leisure with only a sharp-eyed cashier watching to ensure none of the store's products slipped into a pocket or purse. In many ways it was a more familiar system for immigrant women, used to wandering through markets and picking through a vendor's goods before making their final purchase.

In these ways the five-and-dime model proved itself successful. It offered a clear counterpoint to the elite department stores of the era both in price and presentation, converting millions of Americans into consumers in the process. These Americans, often immigrants and poor took to the five-and-dime stores for the bargains they offered, and oftentimes for the travel convenience as five-and-dimes were often built in smaller communities that couldn't support a department store.

Around the Lunch Counter from
Ultimately, the success of Woolworth's inspired many businessmen to begin their own five-and-dime chain stores, among these businessmen was John Josiah Newberry. Newberry was a Pennsylvania man who began opening five-and-dime stores in 1911. The chain grew rapidly and by 1930 there were 335 Newberry stores, including our building in Batavia. Growth peaked in the 1960s when there were 565 stores in the chain and it was the fourth largest five-and-dime chain in America. The model for the success of a five-and-dime didn't vary much from company to company. Savings were the draw, and savings were what each five-and-dime chain store offered its patrons.

In Batavia, Newberry's sold all manner of household goods, from clocks to brooms, cloth, griddles, and random knickknacks. Oftentimes these goods were not essential to the household, but for the price, they couldn't be beat.

Newberry's Popular Logo from

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