Singing for nickels and dimes

Shortly after I wrote the post about song pluggers in Tin Pan Alley, a man in my audience mentioned that he remembers the sheet music departments found in five-and-dime stores like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s in the 1930s. Singers and piano players, mostly young women who doubled as sales clerks, performed for customers who wanted to hear a song before purchasing the music. Sometimes these store performers went on to bigger and better things. Mel Tormé, for example, sang once in a while as a little boy at Woolworth’s in Chicago, where his mother played the piano.

Music-loving Frank Winfield Woolworth started selling sheet music in his stores in the late 1880s. His managers didn’t share Woolworth’s enthusiasm for the product. They found that customer demand ebbed and flowed, flowing only when a hit song like “After the Ball” or “The Band Played On” (Casey would waltz with a strawberry blond…) or “The Merry Widow Waltz” appeared. Undeterred, Frank Woolworth indulged his musical interests by commissioning “The Woolworth March,” a piece composed for full orchestra. It was first played in 1900 at the opening of his New York City store on Fifth Avenue, and was heard for years at Woolworth’s special events.

It wasn’t until around 1910 that sales of nickel-and-dime sheet music took off, thanks in part to the popularity of ragtime. But most of the success was due to Woolworth’s idea of providing live performance of music to entice customers. During World War I, patriotic tunes like “Over There” flew out the door. By the 1930s, when Billboard Magazine launched its hit parade, Woolworth stores could predict exactly what their customers wanted to buy, and quickly added the sheet music for the songs on each week’s list to their shelves.

References to five-and-dime stores have found their way into a few songs over the years, most famously in the Depression-era tune “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store,” which Fanny Brice sang in the Broadway musical Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt. Dorothy Fields mentioned Woolworth’s specifically when she wrote the lyrics to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” in 1928. A young man laments to his girlfriend:

Gee I’d like to see you lookin’ swell, baby.
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn’t sell, baby

Woolworth’s also stars in “Love at the Five and Dime,” written in the 1980s by country and folk singer Nancy Griffith:

Rita was sixteen years, hazel eyes and chestnut hair
She made the Woolworth counter shine
And Eddie was a sweet romancer and a darn good dancer
And they’d waltz the aisles of the five and dime

Emmylou Harris’s “Boy from Tupelo” includes this nostalgic line:

I’ll be gone like a five and dime, it’ll be the perfect crime.

The five-and-ten, the five-and-dime … I grew up calling it simply the dime store. For me, that often meant the local Ben Franklin variety store, so named after Ben Franklin’s saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” It offered less variety than a Woolworth’s, but plenty of choices for simple childhood needs in the 1960s: candy, school supplies, glitter and ribbon for a crafts project. No sheet music.

Now we have dollar stores. I doubt future nursing home residents will enjoy reminiscing about them.

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Music history, Sheet music and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Singing for nickels and dimes

  1. Riff Noggin says:

    Ha! The dollar store in the nearby strip mall certainly lacks the cache of our childhood’s Ben Franklin, located on a busy street about 12 blocks from home. Our cautious mom would not hesitate to send my sister or I on an errand to pick up thread or some other “notion” item. We’d walk over or hop on a bike, linger longingly in the Barbie and Ken aisle, calculating the allowance we still needed to save. But we also knew that mom would sew a better doll outfit than what our coins could buy. Except for those plastic shoes.

    • My Ben Franklin store was too far away to walk or bike to, so as I remember it, my mom drove us there. Whenever she suggested that destination, we piled into the car without hesitation, always anticipating a fun shopping expedition, even if we only looked, rather than bought. Does anyone say “notion” anymore? 🙂

  2. Sandy Shores says:

    I grew up calling it the “dime store” also Those days are gone forever, I’m afraid. The dollar stores don’t even tempt me to go in….LOL.

  3. Aunt Evie Kimball says:

    I do remember the sheet music being sold at Woolworth’s in the 40’s, but not the dancers. Maybe that was somewhat earlier–pre-war. Interesting blog. I’m amazed at your detailed researching.

  4. Judie says:

    I have learned so much about music from you. Thank you!!

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