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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 559


This is the grave of Frank Woolworth and Barbara Hutton.

Born in 1852, Frank Winfield Woolworth grew up in an abolitionist home in upstate New York. In fact, his younger brother was named Charles Sumner Woolworth. From the time he was a child, he wanted to be a salesman. Like most children in the mid-nineteenth century, he didn’t have a lot of formal education, though he did take some classes at what passed for a business school at the time. He got a job as a clerk in a store in 1873. As it turned out, he was a terrible salesman. But he was extremely good at displaying goods. The idea of displaying goods in an attractive way was something that hardly anyone had thought of before. The 19th century American store was mostly just a bunch of random stuff, much of it behind the counter. Woolworth started creating attractive window displays and this improved sales at the store.

Having success, he more or less invented the five and dime store business. People speculate on whether Woolworth really originated this. It doesn’t really matter. He is the one who made it work. He opened his first store in Utica in 1879. It was a total bust, closing in a few weeks. Undeterred, he moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania later that year and opened another. It went gangbusters. He started opening new stores under his own name. By 1911, he had 586 stores and he incorporated the entire chain. He became an extremely rich man. And he was good at spending that money. In 1913, he built the Woolworth Building in New York, still one of the city’s iconic skyscrapers. At the time, it was merely the tallest building in the world, a sign of Woolworth’s equally tall ego. It cost him $13.5 million. He paid for all of it himself.

When Woolworth died in 1919, a few days before his 67th birthday, he was worth a mere $76.5 million, which was a tremendous amount of money at that time. It’s about $1.2 billion in 2019 currency. In 1883, his wife had the last of their three children, Edna. She lived an unhappy life and in 1917 died, possibly from suicide after she discovered her husband’s philandering. Many believe she poisoned herself, but the family did not allow an autopsy.

Edna’s daughter Barbara Hutton was four years old when her mother died and seven when her grandfather died. She inherited 1/3 of his estate. And she was a total mess. Unloved and unwanted, rich and in the way, Hutton grew up to infamy in the American public as “The poor little rich girl.” It was Barbara who discovered her mother’s body. She was raised by a governess, shipped off to boarding school, and shown no love at all. By the time she came into her inheritance, it was over $50 million. She was one of the wealthiest women in the world. And she spent like it. Her lavish trips and shopping extravagances got media attention. That this was during the Great Depression made her extra unpopular. When women at a Detroit Woolworth’s store sat down on the job in 1937 to demand a union, they used Hutton as a reason why they had every right to make a livable wage. They won that strike too. Hutton married seven times, once to Cary Grant, four others to minor European nobles, one to a Dominican diplomat, and then some other guy at the end of her life. Several of these men physically and emotionally abused her and stole her money. She developed anorexia in the late 1930s, during his horrific second marriage.

At the end of her life, Hutton was living in a Los Angeles hotel suite and giving away large amounts of money to total strangers. She died of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 66.

Frank Woolworth and Barbara Hutton are buried, with all the subtlety we should have expected from that family, in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this story to visit other department store capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Aaron Montgomery Ward is in Chicago, as is Alvah C. Roebuck. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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