Historical Markers
Fred Morgan Kirby (1861-1940) Historical Marker
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Fred Morgan Kirby (1861-1940)

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
202 South River St. (Kirby Hall), Wilkes-Barre

Dedication Date:
June 10, 2004

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas portrait of Kirby, dressed in robe and sash, seated, and holding a scrolled paper.
Fred Morgan Kirby, by Frank Salisbury.
Throughout the twentieth century, a Woolworth's Five and Ten Cent store was a prominent institution in numerous American cities and towns. In the late nineteenth century, the concept of selling merchandise at fixed and low prices was a radical idea. Many consumers considered haggling over prices as an essential shopping skill. But when the price was only a nickel or a dime, there seemed to be little incentive to bargain. Several retailers, including Fred Morgan Kirby and his competitor and future business partner, Frank Winfield Woolworth, developed this new approach to selling.

Kirby was born in Brownsville, New York, in 1861. He quit school at age fifteen to begin work at the Moore and Smith dry goods store. There he met F.W. Woolworth, who had worked at the store for some time. Kirby worked his way up from clerk to bookkeeper and wholesale manager. W.H. Moore ran a traditional dry goods store, but was receptive to the innovations of his young protégés.  

In 1878, Woolworth persuaded Moore to sell a line of goods all priced at five cents. The novelty of the five-cent table attracted a flood of customers. Having boosted store sales, Woolworth again approached Moore. He wanted to open a five-cent store of his own. Moore saw merit in the idea and funded him. Woolworth's first attempt failed, but he succeeded in Lancaster, Pa. He then expanded his stock to include ten-cent goods, and opened a series of stores throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
People stand outside in front of the doorway of a dime store,  posing for this photo.
F. W. Woolworth 5 and 10 Cent Store, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1879.

By the time Kirby left Moore's in 1884, he decided to follow in Woolworth's footsteps. Kirby entered into a partnership with Woolworth's brother Charles Sumner Woolworth. Their first store in Wilkes-Barre became the cornerstone of Kirby's five-and-ten empire. In 1887, Kirby bought out his partner and continued the business under his own name. In twenty-five years, he built his company into a chain of ninety-six stores.

For decades, Kirby and a few other merchants enjoyed what they called "friendly competition" with F.W. Woolworth's stores. The men agreed not to compete in each others' regions, establishing a cartel of sorts of five-and-tens. In 1911, Woolworth invited his competitors to form a single national corporation. They quickly created a chain of 596 stores from coast to coast. The new company was put under F.W.'s name and was headquartered in the fashionable Woolworth Building in New York, for a time the tallest building in the world. Kirby's Wilkes-Barre store became a regional headquarters. Until 1938, Kirby functioned as a vice president of the new company and served on its board of directors.

Shop girls stand behind a candy counter at the 5 and 10 cent store posing for this photograph.
Shop girls stand behind a candy counter at a Lehigh Valley 5 and 10 cent store,...
Like many entrepreneurs, Kirby gave money to charities and organizations, especially Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He was especially interested in supporting a libertarian philosophy that he called "civil rights," not to be confused with the modern association of civil rights with racial equality. Kirby died in 1940, not far from his first store in Wilkes-Barre.

Woolworth and Kirby changed the way Americans shopped. Like markerJohn Wanamaker, they convinced the public that goods could have fixed prices and were not necessarily subject to haggling. The five-and-ten also introduced "price lining," a practice of designing and producing products to sell at a pre-determined price. Over time, price lining led Woolworth to manufacture his own products and eliminate middle men. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the five-and-ten changed the role of the sales clerk in retail. No longer would dry goods clerks walk the aisles. Following Wanamaker's example, Woolworth kept his clerks behind their sales desks.

In a five-and-ten, so the theory went, the goods would sell themselves. Attractive window displays and careful in-store merchandizing did exactly that. Since low prices and effective marketing sold the goods, sales skills were no longer required. Five and Ten stores relied on young, unskilled women who worked for low wages to keep costs–and prices–down. Kirby pioneered in the practices that a century later would make Wal-Mart the nation's leading retailer.
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