January 11, 2012

Watching the store

Harry Selfridge, born this date in 1864 in Wisconsin, was raised in Michigan and made his fortune in retailing in Chicago.  He was, in short, quintessentially Midwestern.

Harry Gordon Selfridge

But somewhere in Harry lurked a continental bon vivant, so after becoming a partner in Marshall Field’s department store and amassing a personal fortune, he went to London. He and his wife saw the usual sights, but Harry couldn’t help noticing how unimpressive turn-of-the-century retailing was in Britain.

He was, after all, the man who had introduced ‘Only — shopping days ’til Christmas!’, which had been a brilliant way to draw customers into Field’s, and he was also (probably) the man who coined ‘The customer is always right.’ So he decided to show the Brits how it was done.

Selfridges opened in 1909, with a perfume counter as you walked in the door, goods on display (no more asking clerks to fetch things off tiers of shelves), reasonably priced restaurants, reading and writing rooms and staff who were trained to assist rather than sell.

Selfridge's rental

Best of all, Selfridge got the Post Office – which managed the telephone system – to give him the number “1” for the store – ask the operator for ‘One’ and Selfridges picked up.

He kept on getting rich, but he also spent lavishly, leasing a castle for the family and indulging his propensity for gambling.  After his wife died in the flu epidemic of 1918, Harry Selfridge took up with the notorious vaudeville dancers The Dolly Sisters – both of them – a subject on which Wikipedia is strangely silent.

Selfridges Birmingham

When the Great Depression hit, Selfridge lost most of his money, but none of his spending habits.  By 1939 he had been eased out of management – while owing the store thousands and thousands more in back taxes.  In his declining years he lived in a small flat, cared for by his daughter. He died in 1947 at the age of 83.

An excellent detailed history – with pictures – is to be found on the store’s website – but really, what were they thinking with that Birmingham branch?



  1. Interesting man…. But it’s really your way of writing about him that make him so
    alive with wit and charm!


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — January 11, 2012 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  2. A fine looking man with plenty of good ideas to his credit. How do people like that fall so far apart? Surely he didn’t approve that funny looking shop in Birmingham!


    Comment by Carol — January 12, 2012 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  3. Up close and personal it would be a lot like the dIseny center down town, brite shiny modern & newwwww. Great story.


    Comment by avery zia — January 15, 2012 @ 9:50 am | Reply

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