Ritu will no doubt be chagrined with the direction I take her prompt for today, “self.” I’m not going to use it as an excuse to talk about myself, not that that’s ever a problem for me. No, I’m going to talk about department stores and one man who started one, Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Harry was born in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1858. Harry’s father was a major in the Army duuring the Civil War, but abandoned his family after the war, leaving his mother Lois to raise their three sons. Two of the sons died young, leaving Harry and Lois by themselves. They had a very close relationship, and Lois lived with Harry the rest of her life.
He got a job with Leonard Field in his dry-goods store when he was 12. After leaving school at 14, he worked at several different jobs, and when he was 17 Field wrote him a letter of introduction to Marshall Field (apparently no relation), senior partner at Field, Leiter & Co., which eventually became Marshall Field & Company (where I first saw Mary 100 years later). Selfridge started as a stock boy and, over the next 25 years, rose to be a partner in the store, popularizing the slogan “The Customer Is Always Right.” (Field popularized the slogan “Give The Lady What She Wants.”) Selfridge also popularized the phrased “Only ___ More Shopping Days Until Christmas.” He married Rosalie Buckingham, of the Chicago Buckingham family (among other things, the Buckingham family is responsible for Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park).
He opened his own department store in Chicago in 1904 and sold it to Carson, Pirie & Co. (Later Carson Pirie Scott & Co., another former employer, now defunct) a couple of months later, and went into retirement until 1908, when he and his wife took a trip to London and he saw that, for all its status as a commerce leader, it didn’t have a department store of the quality of Field’s. Bored with retirement, he invested £400,000 ($50 million today) and started Selfridges at the then-unfashionable west end of Oxford Street. He got prominent Chicago architect Daniel Burnham to build the store.
Harry ran the store until he retired in 1941, and died in 1947 at the age of 89. Selfridges is still going and has four locations and a website. ITV in the UK and PBS in the US created a TV series, Mr. Selfridge, that ran from 2013 to 2016, some of which can be seen on YouTube.
And now, to bring this all together, here’s Julia Roberts for Lancôme Paris. Her fragrance, “La Vie Est Belle,” is available at Selfridges.