The Man Who Gave Us Retail Therapy

       Department stores are part of our everyday life. But have you ever wondered how it all started? This is the story of how one man tapped into the female mind and changed shopping forever.

Harry Selfridge, the founder of Selfridges, one of the landmarks of shopping in London, was a multitalented, multitasking genius. Although he did not invent the department store as such, he was instrumental in creating the type of store we know today. Harry Selfridge grasped the concept of shopping as a sensual female entertainment better than anyone else in the business. He knew instinctively what women wanted and how they liked to shop. As a result, he changed the entire landscape of shopping forever.

Born1856 in the hamlet of Ripon, Wisconsin, USA, Harry Selfridge lost his father just after the Civil War. Shortly afterwards, Harry’s two older brothers died. He and his mother moved to Jackson, Michigan, where she worked as a primary school teacher. Harry grew very close to his mother during his childhood and adolescence, which might explain his deep understanding and love of women.

Harry Selfridge started his long career in retailing in 1885 at Marshall Field’s, Chicago’s prestigious department store, where he set about making it the biggest, best and most modern department store in America. He began by wiring the whole store for electricity, installing phone lines and elevators. He had the shop windows lit at night and the concept of ‘window shopping’ was born. He put central displays in the aisles, so women could touch and feel the merchandise, and introduced the ‘bargain basement’, allowing the less well off to shop for their ‘Sunday best’. The store had one of the very first in-house tea rooms, where ladies could eat out by themselves, rare in the late nineteenth century.

By 1903, Harry had made Marshall Field’s a landmark in Chicago and had built a huge fortune for both himself and the owner. At this stage, Harry wanted recognition and his name in lights. He asked for the store to be named Marshall, Field &Selfridge but was turned down. Deeply disappointed, Harry then made plans to leave not only Chicago but also America and, in 1907, moved with his family to London, where he started planning his very own department store. Two years later, Selfridges was opened in Oxford Street. As owner, Harry Selfridge had a free hand and could introduce every type of novelty he wanted. After a shaky start, Selfridges became the most important and fashionable department store in London.

Almost all the inventions and technological refinements we take for granted today emerged in the late Edwardian era; the aeroplane, the automobile, the telephone, electricity, the cinema. Harry Selfridge tapped into them all.

When the legendary French aviator Louis Blériot, the first man to fly a plane over water, landed on the Kent coast, he was met not only by the French and English press, but also by Harry Selfridge. A deal was struck, money changed hands and the plane was exhibited on the ground floor of Selfridges for four days, drawing huge crowds, greatly increasing sales.

In 1910, the public were dancing to big band music and now they could buy phonograph wax cylinders to play the music at home. Soon, the  phonographic department at Selfridges was one of the first to stock the new, improved  pressed discs in paper sleeves. The big hit in 1910 was ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, recorded by Clara Butt.

A maverick retailer, Selfridge was the finest seducer of all the great traders of his time but it was his private –or not so private – life that attracted most of the attention. Although devoted to his wife and family, he carried off a champagne lifestyle with great aplomb, embracing the double morality of his time. An attractive man with irresistible charm, his seductions extended much further than the shop floor. He had a string of mistresses, most of them from the world of show business. Most notable, Jenny and Rosie Dolly, otherwise known as the Dolly Sisters, danced their way into Harry Selfridge’s life in 1925. His last love interest was the Swedish–French actress Marcelle Rogez. He was also a compulsive gambler and won and lost several fortunes in the best casinos of Europe.

The Depression, overspending on extending the department store, combined with Harry’s expensive lifestyle, gambling and generosity to his mistresses all resulted in his downfall. He died penniless in 1947.


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