I am a bit obsessed with the PBS series “Mr. Selfridge,” starring Jeremy Piven. My obsession does not come from the intrigue, but from the history behind the show. My son teaches Business courses, and he and I have been talking about some of Selfridge’s marketing techniques. So, below is some of the things I have discovered about the “Real” Mr. Selfridge:
Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr., (11 January 1856 – 8 May 1947) was an American-born British retail magnate who founded the London-based department store Selfridges. His 30-year leadership of Selfridges led to his becoming one of the most respected and wealthy retail magnates in the United Kingdom. His property portfolio included Highcliffe Castle in Dorset.
Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, Selfridge delivered newspapers and left school at 14 when he found work at a bank in Jackson, Michigan. After another series of jobs, Selfridge found a position at Marshall Field in Chicago, where he stayed for the next 25 years. In 1890 he married Rose Buckingham of the prominent Chicago Buckingham family.
In 1906, following a trip to London, Selfridge invested £400,000 in his own department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The new store opened to the public on 15 March 1909, and Selfridge remained chairman until he retired in 1941. In later life, Selfridge lost most of his fortune.
He died in 1947, in Putney, London, aged 91 and was buried in St Mark’s Churchyard at Highcliffe, Dorset.
Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, on January 11, 1856, one of three boys. Within months of his birth, the family moved to Jackson, Michigan, as his father had acquired the town’s general store. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, his father Robert Oliver Selfridge joined the Union Army. Rising to the rank of major, although he had been honorably discharged, he chose not to return home after the war ended.
This left his mother Lois to bring up three young boys. Unfortunately, Harry’s two brothers died at a very young age shortly after the war ended, so Harry became his mother’s only child. She found work as a schoolteacher and struggled financially to support both of them. She supplemented her low income by painting greeting cards, and eventually became headmistress of Jackson High School. Harry and his mother enjoyed each other’s company and they were good friends; they lived together all their lives.
At the age of 10, Selfridge began to contribute to the family income by delivering newspapers. Aged 12, he started working at the Leonard Field’s dry-goods store. This allowed him to fund the creation of a boys’ monthly magazine with schoolfriend Peter Loomis, making money from the advertising carried within.
Selfridge left school at 14 and found work at a bank in Jackson. After failing his entrance examinations to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Selfridge became a bookkeeper at the local furniture factory of Gilbert, Ransom & Knapp. However, the company closed down four months later, and Selfridge moved to Grand Rapids to work in the insurance industry.
In 1876, his ex-employer, Leonard Field, agreed to write Selfridge a letter of introduction to Marshall Field in Chicago, who was a senior partner in Field, Leiter & Company, one of the most successful stores in the city (which became Marshall Field and Company, later bought by Macy’s). Initially employed as a stock boy in the wholesale department, over the following 25 years, Selfridge worked his way up the commercial ladder. He was eventually appointed a junior partner, married Rosalie Buckingham (of the prominent Chicago Buckinghams) and amassed a considerable personal fortune.
While at Marshall Field, he was the first to promote Christmas sales with the phrase “Only _____ Shopping Days Until Christmas”, a catchphrase that quickly was picked up by retailers in other markets. Either he or Marshall Field is also credited with popularizing the phrase “The customer is always right.” Later, Hotelier César Ritz advertised in 1908, ‘Le client n’a jamais tort’ (‘The customer is never wrong’). John Wanamaker also took note of the advertising, and was soon using that phrase in promoting his Philadelphia-based department store chain.
In 1906, Selfridge travelled to the United Kingdom on holiday with his wife. Unimpressed with the quality of British retailers, he noticed that the large stores in London had not adopted the latest selling ideas that were being used in the United States. Selfridge decided to invest £400,000 in building his own department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The new store opened to the public on 15 March 1909, setting new standards for the retailing business.
Selfridge promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. The store was extensively promoted through paid advertising. The shop floors were structured so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, but not too aggressively, and to sell the merchandise. Oliver Lyttleton observed that, when one called on Selfridge, he would have nothing on his desk except one’s letter, smoothed and ironed.
Selfridge also managed to obtain from the GPO the privilege of having the number “1” as its own phone number, so anybody had to just dial 1 to be connected to Selfridge’s operators. In 1909, Selfridge proposed a subway link to Bond Street station; however, contemporary opposition quashed the idea.
In 1941, Selfridge left Selfridges. The provincial stores were sold to the Lewis Partnership in the 1940s, and in 1951 the original Oxford Street store was acquired by the Liverpool-based Lewis’s chain of department stores, which was in turn taken over in 1965 by the Sears Group owned by Charles Clore. Expanded under the Sears group to include branches in Manchester and Birmingham, in 2003 the chain was acquired by Canada’s Galen Weston for £598 million.
In 1890 Selfridge married Rosalie “Rose” Buckingham of the prominent Buckingham family of Chicago. Her father was Benjamin Hale Buckingham, who was a member of a very successful family business established by her grandfather. A 30-year-old successful property developer, she had inherited money and expertise from her family. Rose had purchased land in Harper Ave, Hyde Park, Chicago and built 42 villas and artists cottages within a landscaped environment. The couple had four children, three girls and a boy.
At the height of his fortune, from 1916 Selfridge leased as his family home Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire (now Dorset), from Major General Edward James Montagu-Stuart-Wortley. In addition, he purchased Hengistbury Head, a mile-long promontory on England’s southern coast, where he planned to build a magnificent castle; the land was put up for sale in 1930. Although only a tenant at Highcliffe, he set about fitting modern bathrooms, installing steam central heating and building and equipping a modern kitchen. During World War I, Rose opened a tented retreat called the Mrs Gordon Selfridge Convalescent Camp for American Soldiers in the castle grounds. Selfridge gave up the lease in 1922.
Selfridge’s wife Rose died in the influenza pandemic of 1918; his mother died in 1924. Selfridge did not do well after this, and squandered his money. As a widower, Selfridge had numerous liaisons, including those with the celebrated Dolly Sisters and the divorcée Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who would later become better known as the decorator Syrie Maugham. He also began and maintained a busy social life with lavish entertainment at his home in Lansdowne House located at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, in Berkeley Square. Today there is a blue plaque noting that Gordon Selfridge lived there from 1921 to 1929.
Later Life and Death
During the years of the Great Depression, Selfridge watched his fortune rapidly decline and then disappear—a situation not helped by his continuous free-spending ways. In 1941, he left Selfridges and moved from his lavish home and travelled around London by bus. In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St Mark’s Churchyard at Highcliffe, Dorset, next to his wife and his mother.
Selfridge’s grandson, Oliver, who died in 2008, became a pioneer in artificial intelligence.
Selfridge authored a book, The Romance of Commerce, published by John Lane-The Bodley Head, in 1918, but actually written several years prior. In it, he has chapters on ancient commerce, China, Greece, Venice, Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Fuggers, the Hanseatic League, fairs, guilds, early British commerce, trade and the Tudors, the East India Company, north England’s merchants, the growth of trade, trade and the aristocracy, Hudson’s Bay Company, Japan, and representative businesses of the 20th century.
Among the more popular quotations attributed to Selfridge:
“People will sit up and take notice of you if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.”
“The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.”
“The boss depends upon authority, the leader on goodwill.”
“The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.”
“The boss says ‘I’; the leader, ‘we.'”
“The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.”
“The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.”
“The boss says ‘Go’; the leader says ‘Let’s go!'”
“The customer is always right.”