Mrs. Woolworth, meet Sarah

Commerce has a way of making capital colourless. Here’s a corrective. (All names and figures are sheer guesswork and offered for illustrative purposes only. With apologies to Frank Capra.)

Sarah Zupko is a little girl in Red Deer, Alberta. Her Dad took her into town today. It’s January 4, 1948. Her Dad stops at Woolworth’s for a coffee at the counter. He falls into conversation with his friends, other farmers, there: crops, water tables, combines, silage, almanacs, Indian summers and spring.

Sarah is pretty sure she couldn’t care less. She wanders though the aisles and comes eventually to rest in front of an illuminated glass case. There under glass is a watch, its perfect little numerals marching around the dial, delicate hands now still, and a metal band of cunning silver, a bracelet really. It is $9.60.

Sarah visits the case and the watch on every visit into town and magically on her 9th birthday, in late March, the watch is hers. The birthday party, thunderous with farm children and festivity, falls silent. The watch is hers.

The rest is economics. The Woolworth’s store in Red Deer keeps half of the $9.60 and the Chicago distributor keeps half of what’s left. By the time Mr. and Mrs. Zupko’s $9.60 finds its way into the Woolworth’s fortune, it has become 33 cents.

Value has migrated from a glass case to a large vault. But it does not stay there.

The Woolworths are building a summer home and 7 cents is spent to help hire men to clear the land that runs down to the point. The value Mr. Zupko extracted as winter wheat from prairie soil will actually now return to the ground as Mrs. Hudson, wife of one of the laborers, spends part of it to buy the seed for her summer garden. A dime will go to help pay for Mr. Woolworth’s dues at the Century Club and part of this will be spent on that bee’s wax that is used to give club chairs and tables the glow they give off in the light of the fire that burns all day in the library. Another dime will go to the grand tour that the eldest Woolworth daughter will take to Europe that year, a trip from which she will return with a taste for poetry and men who are a little bit dangerous. A few cents will even go to help pay for the clasp that holds the necklace that Mrs. Woolworth wears to the social event of the season, where it will be eclipsed by the still more magnificent jewelry worn by that jumped up Mrs. Chetwin, a creature who has finally pushed Mrs. Woolworth from her accustomed place of splendor.

The Woolworth’s family are a little like the mouth of the Fraser River, the place from which the tiny purchases made upstream by little girls in obscure places come rushing into the world, released from transit and their colorless state as mere capital, into labor, summer homes, spring vegetables, bee’s wax, grand tours, poetry, necklaces and social failure.

We’ve said nothing of the upward flow, how the value created by Woolworth’s working it’s way into a glass case and a watch…and from there into parental solicitude, and a little girl’s sense of herself. The watch that played the conduit for this flow upwards and downwards now sits in an antique store in Winnipeg, Manitoba, once more in a glass case, waiting for another chance to turn commerce into culture.

2 thoughts on “Mrs. Woolworth, meet Sarah

  1. maria

    The delta, in this case, the mouth of the Fraser River, certainly makes for interesting analogy for where economic and cultural values pool in abundance — if I am reading your post correctly.

    It seems to me, that the watch — which started its journey as a commodity first (or as pure economic value for the Woolworths) turned into cultural value for the girl (which added more pure economic value for the Woolworths, for that’s how I read it), in its current state in that antique store in Manitoba may well have more cultural value than economic, be it pointing upstream or downstream.

    Now, if a cultural icon such as the pop music sensation of the second were to find this watch and wear it in the media for all to see so that other 9-year-old girls will want to have a watch just like it — then, yes, the cultural value will open the floodgates to the economic stream … though I have a feeling that the current of the economic value will be narrower, faster, and more furious than that first sojourn in the delta of abundance.

  2. Grant and CxC

    Grant’s comment on Maria’s post

    I think the watch had to have cultural value to wow Sarah in the first place. Which is to say, Woolworth’s were peddling something more than a time piece, something more than a commodity. Their fortunes (and their fortune) rose or fell on their ability to sell a trinket that would win the heart of an 8 year old.

    Certainly, Sarah invents value of her own and certainly the passage of time and the tastes of another generation will do the same (in the antique shop in Winnipeg). And certainly any given celebrity could charge the watch with some of their fame…and their very particular meanings. The watch continues to give off and take on.

    And finally I agree everything is faster…and for me the interesting news is that that there is less cultural distance now between Sarah and Mrs. Woolworth. The meanings of contemporary culture are faster and more various, but, strangely, Sarah and Mrs. Woolworth live in subcultures that interpenetrate much more. This is a paradox, I know.

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