Mr Selfridge and Selfridges

In honour of the S4 premiere of ITV’s ‘Mr Selfridge’ this evening, I present to you my post and photos on ‘Mr Selfridge’, Harry Gordon Selfridge, and Selfridges & Co.

‘Mr Selfridge’ Series 4

The final series takes place in 1928, 9 years after S3, which saw Selfridges at the end of the Great War (WWI). In S4, Mr Selfridge is now aged 72 (with slightly powdered white hair) and sees the Dolly Sisters, the Hungarian-American identical twin cabaret dancers and film stars, again. (They had met 3 years earlier in 1925. In the series, both are blonde (wigs? Hair dye?) although they’re originally dark-haired.) Since the series is now in the 1920’s, we’ll be seeing shorter swishy hems, bobbed hair, and…. makeup for the ladies! Oh, by the way, have you heard the store is selling ready-to-wear dresses? How convenient!

Unfortunately, the series will be focusing on Harry’s downfall – gambling and extravagant expenditure – so one can only assume that the finale will have us in tears. (By the way, the Dolly Sisters had a rather tragic end but I’ll let you read that on your own.)

Mr Selfridge S3 will be available to American and Canadian viewers on PBS Masterpieces on 29 March. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.

A Short Biography on Mr Harry Gordon Selfridge

  • Born in 1856 in Wisconsin, Harry Gordon Selfridge was raised by his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, after his father abandoned the family.
  • He later moved to Chicago and worked at luxury store, Marshall Field’s (acquired by Macy’s in 2005 and renamed).
  • Opened Selfridges on Oxford St in 1909 (read below).
  • Finally became a British subject in 1937.

Sadly ever after…

  • Gambling and extravagant spending led to Harry’s downfall. He had charged any gambling debts of Jenny Dolly to his store until it was in debt in 1939. The poor 83-year-old Harry was asked by the Board to pay up or to leave. Not long after, he was not even allowed to visit his own store.
  • Unable to visit his own store, the least Harry could do was to bus from his home in Putney to Selfridges to look upon the store that was once his.
  • From rags to riches to rags again, Harry died penniless at the age of 91 in 1947. He is buried next to his mother and his wife at St Mark’s Churchyard in Highcliffe.

Selfridges & Co

A photo posted by V (@ladyandtherose) on

London (Shopping) Calling

The doors of Selfridges opened on 15 March 1909. Thanks to the genius advertising of Mr Selfridge, the crowds were dying to get in that 30 police officers had to hold them back.

Selfridges Advertisements

Selfridges Advertisements

Just 3 years prior, Harry arrived in London and noticed that the city was lagging in department stores like the ones in Paris. (God forbid the French outdo Britain!) The visionary Harry picked Oxford Street – at the time, not seen as an ideal location by contemporaries – for his dream department store. He had the old buildings demolished and replaced them with a magnificent neo-classical building.

Selfridges - Queen of Time

The Queen of Time, installed in 1931

Selfridges - pink light

A photo posted by V (@ladyandtherose) on

A photo posted by V (@ladyandtherose) on

Ornate ceiling

Ornate ceiling

Stairs near the side entrances

Stairs near the side entrances

Selfridges Bronze Lifts from 1928 - now at the Museum of London

Selfridges Bronze Lifts from 1928 – now at the Museum of London

How Harry Revolutionised Shopping [in London]

  • Today, many view shopping as retail therapy (and others just hate it, but that’s another story). Harry wanted the British public to see shopping as pleasure rather than necessity.
  • First store to provide lavatories for women.
  • ‘Only _ days until Christmas!’ These signs that we see everywhere reminding us to go Christmas shopping? Thanks, Harry!
  • 1910: First bargain basement. Who doesn’t love sales?
  • Speaking of sales, biannual sales at Selfridges (to this day) was his idea.
  • The egalitarian Harry welcomed all classes to his store. There’s always something for everyone, no?
  • 1911: Debut of beauty (i.e. makeup and fragrance) department on the ground floor, which then becomes the template for all department stores around the world. I must say, I love walking into a store and smelling fragrance!
  • An emphasis on customer service: don’t you hate being pushed to buy something when you’re not sure? In the past, one had to know what one wanted or be kicked out by floor walkers for browsing! Harry changed that. He encouraged browsing. Go ahead, touch that scarf. Try on the gloves.
  • Ideally for Harry, the customers stay for as long as the store is opened. Why not dine here? Take a rest? Buy tickets to the theatre? The list goes on.
  • Visitors to Selfridges this past Christmas 2015 may have noticed the orrery in one of the 21 windows. Harry was keen on education and science so his displays often had educational or scientific exhibits.
  • Publicity stunts work and Harry’s first one featured Louis Blériot’s monoplane in 1909. Welcome shoppers!

A Champion for Women

Raised by a single mother, Harry became more protective of women. These are some examples of how he helped women through Selfridges:

  • For the upper class women of the early 20th Century, Selfridges was a respectable space to be, chaperoned or unchaperoned. Therefore, shopping = freedom.
  • As the first store to provide loos, Selfridges was a lifesaver! In the past, women would simply have to call it a day and go home (then rush to the toilet).
  • With Bond Street station nearby, this answered transport problems for female staff and shoppers.
  • Harry supported suffragettes: from flying the flags (green, white, purple) to advertising in their newspapers. It is no surprise that in 1912, none of his store windows were smashed. (Think movie Suffragette.)
  • ‘Business as usual’: The store remained opened throughout the Great War and women filled the positions that were held by men.

Selfridges Today

Although the interior looks nothing like what we see in the TV series, we must remember that Harry was a visionary and wanted to have as futuristic a store as possible. It was he, after all, who first offered Televisions for sale in his store. Selfridges was also the first store to have a televised advert. Would he approve of Selfridges today? I think so.

Since 2003, Selfridges & Co has been owned by the British-Canadian Weston family. You may or may not have noticed the Canadian flags next to the Union Jack (which, in turn, is next to the yellow Selfridges & Co flags) on top of the building. Mr W. Galen Weston, by the way, also owns Holt Renfrew, one of Canada’s high-end department stores. Every Christmastime, Holt Renfrew will sell some items from Britain, including biscuits from Selfridges, and now you know why!

Today, the department store has twice been voted as the best department store in the world. It boasts 6 floors – 3 of which are for women – 9 restaurants, 21 windows (for window displays), and Europe’s largest designer shoe collection. One of the cafes at Selfridges is Dolly’s, on the Lower Ground floor, near the escalators. This is a popular cafe that offers afternoon tea so it looks like interested guests should reserve a table before going.

Dolly's Cafe

Dolly’s Cafe

As for the Roof Garden (original unfortunately blitzed and not reopened until 2009), when I visited recently, there was a temporary Forest on the Roof. The outdoor restaurant is completely covered and the hallway is beautifully decorated like a woodland forest with fairy lights and battery candles. The menu is quite pricey and, in hindsight, I should never have bothered ordering food (it was still delicious but too expensive for me). Were it not simply to see what it was like on the roof, I wouldn’t go back again. In many ways, I was let down by expectations of everything, from appearance to service. Perhaps it would be different during a summer’s day? Now I might never know. I hope you’ll have a better experience!

Forest on the Roof

Forest on the Roof

Lastly, the iconic yellow bags go back to 1992 though I prefer the older font and design (see photo). (But I’m old-fashioned and I think you’ve noticed that.)

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

  • PBS’ Secrets of Selfridges
  • ‘Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge’ by Lucy Woodhead (series is based on the book)