When I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I looked forward to a trip to Woolworth’s with great anticipation. I loved sitting at the lunch counter for a tasty hot dog on a buttery toasted bun and an orange drink or even a milk shake delivered in a metal container with a separate glass. This bliss was followed by time spent perusing the aisles with my allowance or birthday money clutched in my hand. Miniature bottles of “Evening in Paris” perfume, tiny tea sets, small stuffed animals and elegant (to my eyes) costume jewelry, novelty pencil sharpeners and ceramic cats for my collection…and the Pet Department! You could hear the squaking parakeets the minute your entered the store. The hamsters and white mice running on their wheels, the large tanks full of goldfish and guppies….bliss to an animal-crazy child like me.
My mother didn’t want birds in the house, so I was unable to wheedle her into a noisy green and yellow parakeet. I did, however, bring home a number of small green turtles (juvenile red-eared sliders, with pretty markings), none of whom lived very long although I tried my best to take good care of them. They lived in a container like this one, which I purchased some years ago and which traveled as part of the “Pets in America” exhibition. The condition of this example suggests that the residents didn’t live too long….which I’m afraid was the fate of most of the little green turtles that other children carried home from Woolworth’s or a souvenir shop at the beach. (Those little green turtles often had designs painted on their back, similar to what you see on the shells of hermit crabs sold as “souvenir pets” in beach towns today. This probably killed them off even faster….)
This container is more complex than it seems at first glance. It is designed so that the turtle has an “island,” and the ridges on the slanted approach make it easier for the turtle to climb up. The island also has a palm tree, a whimsical touch that has nothing to do with red sliders’ preferred habitat of mucky ponds with rotting logs for perches. The palm tree reminds me of those “desert island” cartoons published in Life and The New Yorker, and there is a certain metaphorical rightness about this. The turtles were indeed marooned — in suburbia, on a kitchen counter or in a child’s room.
Because the turtles could go without food for a few days and could retract into their shells to protect themselves, someone got the bright idea that they could be shipped through the U.S. mails as premiums. The High Turtle Food Company sent painted “good luck” turtles through the mails, advertising its turtle food for 10 cents. Buying a pet generally initiates a series of expenditures that soon outstrip the initial cost of the pet. In this case, I wonder whether the turtles were advertised in the back of comic books; I’m going to look into this. Since most of them died quickly, I doubt that High Turtle Food was a big money-maker.
Where did the small green turtles come from? By the time I made my purchase, they were captive-bred in turtle farms in the deep South, particularly Louisiana where turtle farming still thrives, mainly serving the Asian food market. Woolworth’s pet departments had been limited to goldfish until 1935, when price limits on the cost of items ended and more expensive creatures could be offered for sale along with cages, collars and leashes, pet toys, and packaged food and medicines. While Woolworth’s pet departments survived until the entire chain closed in 1997, little green turtles ceased being part of the stock in 1975, when the Food and Drug Administration banned pet stores from selling turtles smaller than four inches in length because children picked up salmonella from playing with their pets and failing to wash their hands.
Does anyone out there own a reptilian survivor from Woolworth’s? Send me a photo, and I’ll post it.
I just signed-up to follow your pet blog. In perusing previous stories, I came across this one. I remember in the 1950s or 1960s having a small, green pet turtle for awhile, kept in a glass bowl in the house. I think it had a pink design painted on its shell. We probably got it from our local 5 & dime store in Horseheads, NY. Or we might’ve gotten it as a souvenir on one of our summer trips when we would drive to NYC, camp in Bear Mt. State Park to save money, and drive into the City during the day to see the sights and museums. One of my older sisters played a trick on me once by catching a big turtle in the marshlands near our house and swapped it out for my little turtle in the bowl, just to see the surprised look on my face. The big turtle barely fit in the bowl! I think both turtles were then returned to their previous abodes.
Don’t know of any turtle survivors of Woolworths but thanks for a great nostalgia piece. Enjoyable and will be passed on to others
I actually knew of a Woolworth’s survivor owned by Dennis and Diane of the Chicago Turtle Club. As for myself, when I was a tyke my mom bought countless baby turtles for me. After some number she got tired of having baby turtle funerals in the back yard and despite my cries, she stopped getting them for me.
Annabelle was my beloved first pet. She came my way around age 7 (my age, not Annabelle’s). She especially loved grilled hamburger meat cooked by my Dad. Maybe that treat caused our yellow dog, Sandy, to bolt into a fit of rage. Or it’s likely Sandy saw a “surf & turf” hors d’ouerve beckoning. Before I knew it The Jaws of Sandy included poor Annabelle. Alas, the poor tortoise succumbed. My mother could see my grief and helped me construct a Popsicle-stick crypt in her little rose garden in an attempt to keep menacing pests out (re: Sandy).
Sandy soon met his maker that fall when he was killed by the school bus I was about to exit. It was horrible and I didn’t I know what’d occurred until after I exited the school bus. Sandy was killed instantly, my mother surmised.
Meanwhile, I did get another turtle (NOT as smart as Annabelle) and Pogo, another dog (MUCH smarter than Sandy).
I know that this is an old post, but I wanted to let you know that we had one red slider turtle from the 5&10 that actually survived. Romeo was given to my brother from his friend, Rob Fenza, when Rob tired of caring for him. This was in the 1960’s. They usually were about the size of a quarter when you bought them. But Romeo was about twice the size that he’d been when Rob got him. He ate lettuce and hamburger. He was about 4 inches long when he died. We were in college by then. I’d say he lived 10 or 15 years. He did start out in the exact kind of aquarium as in your article, but as he grew we got him a bigger aquarium. Romeo’s turtle friend, Juliette, died young like most of these turtles. I have no pictures of him, but my brother may have some.
Oh my gosh, I must say to you I had so much fun reading this article that you wrote about those poor little green turtles. I was just on Facebook and something was going on about one of them and I just thought about my pet turtles when I was small. We had to many of them. They reading your article brought back so many memories it was like I was in the store once again. The sound of the parakeets came back right away. I see the fish actively swimming in the tanks. Orange ones white ones some with black spots. The mice were on the wheel spinning it as some of them ate the cedar chips in the bottom of their cage. The smell of the luncheonette, and food cooking. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. If you have anymore please send them to me. Again thank you wonderful read!!
You are so welcome! I have very strong memories of the Woolworth’s pet department, too.
I love this blog. I am sculpting a ceramic dime store scene and my memories are so much like yours. I remember the Evening in Paris and Christmas in July perfumes, the parakeets and turtles, the plastic dolls, the bins of merchandise to peruse with my change purse of had saved coins. I collected those TV pencil sharpeners to unhinge the “wiggly pictures ” for my collection. I am so sad that the dime store no longer exists. The dollar stores pale in comparison and smell like moth balls! Kudos on a real piece!
Thank you! After a layoff, I am about to begin adding new posts to the Pet Historian blog, and I hope you will follow me. I have BERY fond memories of shopping in the Woolworth store as a little girl.