The son of a farmer, Woolworth aspired to be a merchant. He worked for six years in a drygoods store, where 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.
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 S. Woolworth, opened a large number of five-and-ten-cent stores.
Woolworth died in April 1919 at the age of 66. At the time, his company owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States and other countries and was a $65 million corporation.
The UK stores continued after the US operation failed and now trade as Woolworths.