Monday, April 1, 2013

Selfridges - The First Modern Department Store

Starting March 31st and airing every Sunday thereafter for seven weeks, we patient “ex-colonials” finally get to delve into the world of Edwardian London, in the form of the new TV miniseries, Mr. Selfridge. As a huge period drama fan, I have been intrigued by this series since it is based on a real person and I thought it might be fun to share some of the history behind it!
Before 1909 when Selfridges opened, well-bred Edwardians didn’t shop. Ladies visited their dressmakers and gentlemen their tailors. Walking into a shop and browsing around, the way we do today, simply wasn’t the fashionable thing to do.

But an ambitious American, Harry Gordon Selfridge, decided to change all that. And change it, he did.

Born in 1859, Harry Selfridge didn’t appear on the retail scene until he married Rose Buckingham, the daughter of a prominent Chicago gentleman.  He worked at the famous Field, Leiter, and Co (later called Marshall Fields). Off to a revolutionary start he introduced the maxims  “The customer is always right” and “Only ____ shopping days until Christmas.” J
The Selfridges visited London in 1906, but it wasn’t until financial worries began, that Harry considered opening a store in London. Selfridges was built on a loan of 400,000 pounds and was the first building in London to have a steel frame.

Selfridges was an instant hit to the people in London. It was the first department store to allow customers to handle items before purchasing – “try before you buy” and to display perfumes and cosmetics. The store included 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.

Mr. Selfridge played an active role in the store’s running, coming in daily and overseeing, directing, and inspiring his employees with his cheerful, ambitious attitude.
Many famous names of the day loved Selfridges – dancer Anna Pavlova was a big fan of the fur department and after Louis Bleriot became the first person to fly over water, his airplane was displayed at Selfridges for four days. This was very exciting since aviation was in its early stages. Having the plane on display drew crowds of 12,000 people. From then on, Selfridge was proud to sell anything “from an airplane to a cigar”. This is attested by the changes that have occurred at Selfridges over the years.

You can still shop at Selfridges in London today. A testament to the history of shopping and a man named Mr. Selfridge.

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