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The Birth of Harry Gordon Selfridge

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 11 Jan

The Birth of Harry Gordon Selfridge


  -  11 January 1858  -  


6thJanuary 2013 nearly 8 million people watched the first series of Mr Selfridge – an ITV series that lasted 3 series with another in the pipeline. What many may not have known is that the birth of Harry Gordon Selfridge took place 155 years earlier – nearly to the day. Selfridge revolutionised the shopping experience in England in the early part of the twentieth century and is credited with famous phrases such as “The Customer is always right”, (What he actually said though is ‘Assume that the customer is always right until it is plain beyond all question that he is not’.) "The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm", "The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them" and "The boss depends upon authority, the leader on goodwill." These are all phrases that you will hear trotted out in business and management seminars today, yet Selfridge was using them a hundred years ago. He certainly was a man ahead of his time; a visionary. However he died penniless in a flat in Putney and there was no money in his estate for a fitting headstone on his grave.


Having been born in Ripon, Wisconsin his family soon moved to Jackson, Michigan, where his father, Robert, took over the town’s general store. However the Civil War (1861 – 65) in the US led to him joining the Union army where he reached the rank of Major. He never returned home and his mother, Lois, was forced to bring up the 3 young boys on her own. Harry’s two brothers died young and whilst his mother was grieving for her sons she learnt that he husband had been killed in a train crash seven years after the end of the Civil War and not during it as she had thought. She had been abandoned. She took a job as a teacher and painted greetings cards too to try and make ends meet. Eventually she became a Headmistress and Lois and Harry lived together for the rest of her life. 


In order to help her financially Harry took a job delivering papers at the age of 10. By 12 he had a job at a local store and also printed a boys’ monthly magazine, making good money from the advertisements they ran in it. At 14 he had left school and worked in a bank in Jackson. He then failed the exams to join the US Naval Academy and became first a bookkeeper and then, when that company went bust, went onto insurance.


When he was 18 his former employer, Leonard Field, whose store he had worked in, recommended him to Marshall Field who owned the large, and well-known, Marshall Field + Company in Chicago. This was a store known for its customer care. They were also the first to introduce unconditional refunds and competitive pricing. It is a bone of contention whether it was Selfridge or Marshal Field who coined the phrase “Give the lady what she wants”. In 2005 Macy’s acquired this store. 


He joined as a stock boy in the wholesale department and stayed for over 25 years eventually becoming a junior partner and earning him a considerable fortune. He married Rosalie, “Rose”, Buckingham, the daughter of a wealthy property developer from Chicago, further developing his own funds. Whilst working for Marshall Field’s he was the first to promote Christmas sales and used the phrase “It’s only _ days until Christmas” to promote it.


In 1904 he opened his own store, Harry G. Selfridge and Co. in Chicago but sold it for a profit two months later and retired. He pottered about for two years in his houses, sailed his yacht and played golf. He was bored. It was then, whilst on holiday with his wife in London, that he noticed a gap in the English market – large department stores with great customer service and large galleried rooms. He invested £400,000 in a shop in the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street and Selfridges was opened on 15 March 1909. To design the new building he brought over from America the architect Daniel Burnham, who had created Marshall Fields, in Chicago. It was one of the first structures to have a steel frame, was five floors high with three basement levels and a roof terrace – enough space for one hundred departments.


This store was about shopping for pleasure not necessity. He wanted to make the whole shopping experience a memorable one and not a chore. He used lots of advertising, the shop floors were structured allowing for a greater display of goods, browsing was encouraged and customers were allowed to handle the goods. He also put the profitable perfume department centrally on the ground floor – a move that is still copied today. The store was the first to install female toilets so that the women would stay for longer and supported the Suffragette movement – even flying their flag from the roof of the building. Selfridge’s was also the first store to display a working TV, in April 1925, and when they lost the contract for army uniforms in World War One they gained the contract to make underwear for the French army. The store also contained elegant restaurants, a library and reading room and a ‘silent room’ with plush furniture. In 1937 Selfridge was made a British citizen.


During World War Two soldiers from the US Signal Corps were stationed in the basement sixty metres below the ground. This was close to the US Embassy, was safe and had secure telecommunications. 


Macintosh HD:Users:RobertLW:Desktop:selfridge-family-graves.jpgLife was not always good however. His wife Rose died of Spanish Flu in the pandemic of 1918 and his mother died in 1924. The depression in the 1930s led to a serious reduction in his fortune and by 1940 he owed £240,000 in unpaid tax and was in serious debt to the banks. He had gambled a lot – and lost - and lived a particularly sociable lifestyle. In 1941 the board at Selfridge’s forced him out. He retired to a 3 bedroom flat in Putney with his eldest surviving child, also called Rosalie, where he died of pneumonia, penniless, on May 8th1947, aged 89. He was buried next to his wife and mother at Highcliffe, in Dorset, where he had gone to avoid the bombing raids of the Second World War. He had rented a house there and had intended to build his own property in the area but this never materialized. His estate could not afford the lavish headstone his wife had and he has a simple grave alongside. 


In 1951 the original Selfridge’s was purchased by the Lewis Group and after various other sales the chain was acquired for £598 million by the Canadian firm Galen Weston. Twice, in 2010 and 2012 Selfridge’s has been voted Department Store of the Year at the annual Department Store Summit. It has the largest women’s shoe department in the world, stocking over 100,000 pairs and selling more than 7000 pairs a week. Today the shop windows are nearly as famous as the store itself. It is the second largest department store in England, behind Harrods, which is twice the size.


Harry Gordon Selfridge was a visionary and an entrepreneur. What he created was certainly ahead of its time. That a popular TV series has been based on him is testament to a life lived to the full. Like so many people of genius, however, his final years never reflected what he had built and achieved as he had frittered it all away. The door at Selfridge’s though sees 250,000 a week go through it. His legacy lives on.

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