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.