H. Gordon Selfridge, Sr., retail entrepreneur

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Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr.

Birthplace: Ripon, Wisconsin, USA
Death: Died in London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom
Place of Burial: Highcliffe, Dorset, England
Immediate Family:

Son of Col. Robert O. Selfridge (USA) and Lois Frances Selfridge
Husband of Amelia "Rose" Selfridge (Buckingham)
Father of Viscountess Violette de Sibour (Selfridge); Rosalie de Bolotoff (Selfridge), Princess Wiasemsky; H. Gordon Selfridge, Jr. and Beatrice Buckingham (Selfridge) Lovell-Lewis
Brother of Charles J. Selfridge and Robert Benjamin [or Oliver] Selfridge

Occupation: retail entrepreneur
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About H. Gordon Selfridge, Sr., retail entrepreneur



Harry Gordon Selfridge was born in 1858 in Ripon, Wisconsin, on January 11, 1858, but within months of his birth moved to Jackson, Michigan. His father did not return home after the Civil War, although he had been honorably discharged, so his mother supported the family by teaching school.

In 1879, Selfridge joined the retail firm of Field, Leiter and Company (which became Marshall Field and Company.) in Chicago. Over the following 25 years, Selfridge worked his way up the commercial ladder. He was appointed a junior partner, married Rosalie Buckingham (of the prominent Chicago Buckinghams) and amassed a considerable personal fortune.

While at Marshall Field, he was the first to promote Christmas sales with the phrase "Only __ Shopping Days Until Christmas", a catchphrase that quickly was picked up by retailers in other markets. Either he or Marshall Field is also credited with originating the phrase "The customer is always right." He didn't make up that phrase out of whole cloth. Hotelier César Ritz advertised in 1908, 'Le client n'a jamais tort' ('The customer is never wrong'). He translated the slogan and gave it a positive twist. John Wanamaker took note of the advertising, and was soon using that phrase in promoting his Philadelphia-based department store chain.

In 1906, Selfridge travelled to London, England with his wife. He was unimpressed with the quality of existing British stores and decided to invest some £400,000 in building his own department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The new store, Selfridges, opened to the public on March 15, 1909. It set new standards for the retailing business.

At that time, women were beginning to enjoy the fruits of emancipation by wandering unescorted around the city of London. A canny marketer, Selfridge promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. The store was extensively promoted through paid advertising.

The shop floors were structured so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, 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. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, but not too aggressively, and to sell the merchandise.

Selfridge's innovative marketing led to his success. He tried to make shopping a fun adventure instead of a chore. He put merchandise on display so customers could examine it, put the highly profitable perfume counter front-and-centre on the ground floor, and established policies that made it safe and easy for customers to shop — techniques that have been adopted by modern department stores the world over.

He attracted shoppers with educational and scientific exhibits. He was himself interested in education and science, and believed that the displays would introduce potential new customers to Selfridges, generating both immediate and long-term sales.

In 1909, after the first cross-Channel flight, Louis Blériot's monoplane was exhibited at Selfridges, where it was seen by 12,000 people. The first public demonstration of television was by John Logie Baird from the first floor of Selfridges from 1-27 April 1925.

Selfridge's wife died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. As a widower, Selfridge had numerous liaisons, including those with the celebrated Dolly Sisters and the divorcée Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who would later become better known as the decorator Syrie Maugham. He also began and maintained a busy social life with lavish entertainment at his home in Lansdowne House located at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, in Berkeley Square. Today there is a blue plaque noting that Gordon Selfridge lived there from 1921 to 1929. At the height of his fortune, he also leased, as his family home, Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire. In addition, he purchased Hengistbury Head, a mile-long promontory on England's southern coast, where he planned to build a magnificent castle. The land was put up for sale in 1930.

A Milne-Shaw seismograph was set up on the Selfridge store’s third floor in 1932, attached to one of the building's main stanchions, unaffected by traffic or shoppers. It recorded the Belgian earthquake of 11 June 1938 which was also felt in London. At the outbreak of war, the seismograph was moved from its original site near the Post Office to another part of the store. In 1947, the seismograph was given to the British Museum.

During the years of the Great Depression, Selfridge watched his fortune rapidly decline and then disappear -- a situation not helped by his continuing free-spending ways. In 1941, he left Selfridges and moved from his lavish home and traveled around London by bus. In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St Mark's Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.

The Oxford Street store was acquired in 1951 by the Liverpool-based Lewis's chain of department stores.

Selfridge authored a book, The Romance of Commerce, published by John Lane-The Bodley Head, in 1918, but actually written several years prior. In it, he has chapters on ancient commerce, China, Greece, Venice, Lorenzo de Medici, the Fuggers, the Hanseatic League, fairs, guilds, early British commerce, trade and the Tudors, the East India Company, north England’s merchants, the growth of trade, trade and the aristocracy, Hudson’s Bay Company, Japan, and representative businesses of the 20th century.

Among the more popular quotations attributed to Selfridge:

   * People will sit up and take notice of you if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.
   * The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.
   * The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will.
   * The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
   * The boss says "I"; the leader, "we."
   * The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
   * The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.
   * The boss says "Go"; the leader says "Let's go!"
   * The customer is always right.

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Two biographies:

Selfridge by Reginald Pound, London: Heinemann, 1960. This has the feel of an official biography, and there's evidence that Selfridge's children cooperated in this production.

Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead (Profile, £17.99). ° 2007, Lindy Woodhead. This is more sensational, but the material exists for kind of short treatment.

Online, also a bit sensational: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-492141/Harry-Selfridge-The-man-sex-shopping.html#ixzz1JiWVPqnA

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The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, has in its collection (Accession 87-156), the following items from the exhibition "Return to Albion: Americans in England, 1760-1940." These might be accessible online in future.

  • Portrait of Harry G. Selfridge, Sir Wm. Orpen (Selfridge's, Inc.)
  • Montage of Selfridge Ads (Kenin)
  • Photos: Selfridge's Paramours(2) (Radio Times Pict. Library)
  • Photo: Lansdowne House Dining Room (in color) (Metropolitan)
  • Photo: Selfridge's Decorated for Coronation of King George VI (Selfridge's Inc.)

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The following is from handwritten notations or marginalia in copy of Selfridge: A Biography, by Reginald Pound, 1960, Heinemann, London, Melbourne, Toronto.

On the inside of the first cover/board is handwritten in pencil, and signed “MaryJane M. Foote, 1993”:

This is a book about Our Cousin Harry G. Selfridge. He grew up with Mother Katharine Manierre (Newbury) Katherine Manierre (Newbury)] — in Jackson, Michigan. His Mother, Aunt Lotie (Lois), was my great grandmother’s sister — Mary Jane Baxter Kellogg for whom I am named. She [Lois] was divorced, was the principal of the high school and lived with her sister where Mother [Mary Jane B. K.] lived with my Mother [KNM] and 3 brothers (Newbury) after Grandfather died at age 32 [sic]. Harry went to work at Marshall Field’s in Chicago, was president. Married Rose Buckingham (Buckingham Fountain) in Chicago. Had a huge estate at Lake Geneva — then went to London and founded Selfridge’s store — was knighted — and lived in famous Lansdowne house. I met him in 1938 when he came up from Chicago on a trip from England at the beginning of WWII.

The leaf facing the cover/board is inscribed in pen, “To the Manierre Family, May 1960 / With much love and Happy Memories from Carl & Elizabeth” then in Katharine Manierre (Newbury)’s hand, in pencil, “Larsen” — Carl & Elizabeth’s surname.

At the bottom of this leaf is an unrelated note probably in Sukey’s hand, “Holworthy House, Harvard Yard — Daddy’s initials GM, he carved them when an undergraduate.” [See photos of this in the profile for George Manierre, III.

There is a photo of a portrait of H. Gordon Selfridge below which KNM wrote, “Cousin Harry” and on the title page, beside the title, Selfridge, KNM wrote “(1856 - 1947)”

There is more of KNM’s marginalia below the captions to two photos opposite page 24. Below the photo of “Mrs. Selfridge, senior, about 1906,” KNM wrote “My dear Aunt Lotie.” Below the caption “Selfridge’s wife and family, about 1908,” KNM wrote, “Sweet Cousin Rose” Below the caption opposite page 153, “Selfridge with his mother in the library at landsdowne House,” KNM wrote “Aunt Lotie and Cousin Harry.” Below the caption of the photo opposite page 184, “Selfridge at Deauville in 1926 with his eldest daughter, princess Wiasemsky,” KNM wrote ”Rosalie.” Below the caption to the photo aoopsite page 248, “Selfridge as grandfather,” KNM wrote, “Tatianna de Bolotoff.” There are other smaller marginalia — x’s and —‘s marking passages of special note to one reader or another, though their special significance eludes this reader. — MRD, 2011, Oconomowoc, WI

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Jeremy Piven Series ‘Mr Selfridge’ Debuts To Strong Ratings On UK’s ITV

By NANCY TARTAGLIONE, International Editor | Monday, 7 January 2013 11:55 UK    Jeremy Piven made his debut as Harry Selfridge on ITV’s Mr Selfridge last night, drawing over 7M UK viewers. According to overnight figures, the period department store drama had a 28.6% share from 9PM-10:30PM with an average audience of 7.27M. The 10-episode series is about the eponymous American entrepreneur (aka “Mile a Minute Harry”) who in 1909 empowered women through retail at his London shopping mecca, Selfridge’s. [Based on the book Shopping, Seduction And Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead. Publisher: Profile Books, 2007, hardcover, ISBN 186197888X] It’s running in the Sunday night time slot that’s occupied by Downton Abbey in the fall and while it didn’t exactly pull Downton-style numbers, The Guardian notes it was down a marginal .4% on the time slot’s three-month average which had been boosted by Downton‘s strongest season yet. It also bested BBC One’s Ripper Street which aired its second episode last night. That show, co-produced by BBC America, is an 8-parter that’s set in 1899 London in the aftermath of the Jack The Ripper murders and stars Matthew Macfadyen. It drew a 19.9% share in the 9PM hour with 5.37M viewers. Ripper Street premieres Stateside on January 19 while Mr Selfridge bows on PBS March 31 (2013).

Source: Downloaded January 9, 2013 from http://www.deadline.com/2013/01/jeremy-piven-series-mr-selfridge-debuts-to-strong-ratings-on-uks-itv/

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Synopsis of Mr. Selfridge First episode of ten:

Flamboyant Harry Selfridge, after transforming Chicago's Marshall Fields into a modern department store, realises London needs a modern store. He decides to build the biggest and finest department store in the world at the "dead end" of Oxford Street but his business partner pulls out of the project. Via a pressman he receives help from socialite Lady Mae Moxley and her contacts, one of whom invests in his plans. With his wife, four children and his mother arriving in London Selfridge begins to assemble his staff as the building is completed in record time.

Second episode of ten :

The store has now been open for a few months and the displays are still as seductive as on opening day, and the staff are poised for action. The only thing the store is missing though is customers. Harry is confident though on the outside but privately he is worried. He goes to the country with Frank, where they wait in a field and then a flying machine emerges from the clouds and flies overheard. Harry manages to secures it for a grand exhibition in store.

Third episode of ten:

Harry and Ellen are enjoying their new love affair and dance into the night at an apartment that Harry has got Ellen. She ends up talking about her father and reveals that her real name is Joyce. Agnes's nasty drunk father called Reg has been fired from his job and he ends up losing his temper with his daughter, hitting her across the face.

Source: Downloaded Jan. 13, 2013 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr_Selfridge

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Mr Selfridge comes to Masterpiece Classic on Mar. 31. Creator Andrew Davies said he was already writing season two and has a four-season plan for the character in mind.

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Watch the TV series's preview on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=sLborDbtx3M

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1860 United States Federal Census about Harry Selfridge Name: Harry Selfridge Age in 1860: 2 Birth Year: abt 1858 Birthplace: Wisconsin Home in 1860: Liberty, Texas Gender: Male Post Office: Liberty Value of real estate: View image Household Members: Name Age H Holliman 40 L A Holliman 23 John Holliman 4 H B Holliman 3 Jas H Holliman 1 Wm Alnoch 26 R O Selfridge 38 L F Selfridge 24 Harry Selfridge 2 C B Smith 29

1870 United States Federal Census about Harry Selfridge Name: Harry Selfridge Age in 1870: 11 Birth Year: abt 1859 Birthplace: Wisconsin Home in 1870: Jackson Ward 2, Jackson, Michigan Race: White Gender: Male Post Office: Jackson Value of real estate: View image Household Members: Name Age George Kellogg 63 Mary J Kellogg 62 George B Kellogg 23 Fanny Kellogg 20 Lois Selfridge 34 Harry Selfridge 11

1880 United States Federal Census about Harry Selfridge Name: Harry Selfridge Age: 22 Birth Year: abt 1858 Birthplace: Michigan Home in 1880: Chicago, Cook, Illinois Race: White Gender: Male Marital Status: Single Father's Birthplace: Michigan Mother's Birthplace: Michigan Neighbors: View others on page Occupation: Salesman Cannot read/write:


Deaf and dumb:

Otherwise disabled:

Idiotic or insane: View image Household Members: Name Age L. Turner 60 Eliza Turner 49 Herbert Turner 22 Henry Turner 14 Harry Beach 22 R.E. Litgewook 32 Fitz Smith 22 B. Brown 30 F.W. Carlender 32 Harry Selfridge 22 Elwira Zicsemer 19

Cook County, Illinois, Marriages Index, 1871-1920 about Harry G. Selfridge Name: Harry G. Selfridge Age: 32 Gender: Male Birth Year: abt 1858 Marriage Type: Marriage Marriage Date: 11 Nov 1890 Marriage Place: Chicago, Cook, Illinois Spouse Name: Rose A. Buckingham Spouse Age: 27 Spouse Gender: Female FHL Film Number: 1030195

1900 United States Federal Census about Hary G Selfridge Name: Hary G Selfridge [Hary Selfridge] Home in 1900: Chicago Ward 22, Cook, Illinois [Cook] Race: White Gender: Male Relation to Head of House: Head Marital Status: Married Spouse's Name: Rose Selfridge Occupation: View on Image Neighbors: View others on page Household Members: Name Age Hary G Selfridge Rose Selfridge Rose Selfridge Violet Selfridge Aquita Swanson

1911 England Census about Harry Gordon Selfridge Name: Harry Gordon Selfridge Age in 1911: 50 Estimated Birth Year: abt 1861 Relation to Head: Head Gender: Male Civil parish: St George Hanover Square County/Island: London Country: England Street Address: 17 Arlington Street, S W Marital Status: Married Occupation: DEPARTMENT STORES PROPRIETOR Registration district: St George, Hanover Square Registration District Number: 5 Sub-registration district: Mayfair and Knights Bridge ED, institution, or vessel: 3 Piece: 417 Household Members: Name Age Harry Gordon Selfridge 50 Rose Buckingham Selfridge 47 Violette Buckingham Selfridge 13 Harry Gordon Selfridge 11 Beatrice Buckingham Selfridge 9 Lois Frances Selfridge 70

{fibbing about his age] U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 about Harry Gordon Selfridge Name: Harry Gordon Selfridge Birth Date: 11 Jan 1864 Birth Place: Ripon, Wisconsin Age: 51 Passport Issue Date: 21 Apr 1915 Passport Includes a Photo: Yes Residence: Chicago, Illinois

England & Wales, Death Index, 1916-2006 about Harry G Selfridge Name: Harry G Selfridge Birth Date: abt 1857 Date of Registration: Apr-May-Jun 1947 Age at Death: 90 Registration district: Wandsworth Inferred County: Greater London Volume: 5d Page: 687

England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 about Harry Gordon Selfridge Name: Harry Gordon Selfridge Probate Date: 9 Apr 1949 Death Date: 8 May 1947 Death Place: London, England Registry: London, England

Harry Gordon Selfridge Birth: Jan. 11, 1858 Wisconsin, USA Death: May 8, 1947 Greater London, England

Businessman. American born, he founded the British department store "Selfridges". His father owned a small dry-goods shop in Ripon, Wisconsin, but went away with the Union cavalry in the Civil War of 1861 to 1865, attaining rank of Major, and never returing to his family. In 1879, aged 21 he joined the retail firm of Field, Leiter and Company, working his way up the commercial ladder in a 25 year tenure. He married Rosalie Buckingham but she died tragically in the influenza pandemic of 1918. In 1908, he left America with a small fortune he had accumulated and travelled to London, England. Unimpressed with the quality of existing British stores, he decided to invest his capital in his own department store (Selfridges), in Oxford Street. A pioneering marketer, he advertised a radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than nescessity. There were elegant restaurants, a library, reading and writing rooms, and a silence room, with soft lights and deep chairs, all intended to keep the customers in the store for as long as possible. He invented the phrase, "the customer is always right." The buisness prospered well during World War I and up to the mid-1930s, but, because of expensive personal follies in the years before World War II, he drew too much capital from his company and was forced to resign in 1939 with the honorary title of president. The company was taken over in 1951 by Lewis's Ltd, of Liverpool. Thus did the fortunes of the "merchant prince" rise and fall within 30 years, perhaps reflecting the same ways England's own fortunes during the same period. He died in 1947 at Putney, in south-west London. He was buried next to his wife and his mother. (bio by: s.canning)

Family links:

 Rosalie Amelia Buckingham Selfridge (1860 - 1918)*
  • Calculated relationship

Burial: St Mark Churchyard Highcliffe Dorset, England Plot: In south part of graveyard about half-way down beside the west fence.

Maintained by: Find A Grave Originally Created by: s.canning Record added: Mar 25, 2006 Find A Grave Memorial# 13731901

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H. Gordon Selfridge, Sr., retail entrepreneur's Timeline

January 11, 1858
Ripon, Wisconsin, USA
Age 33
September 10, 1893
Age 35
Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States
April 2, 1899
Age 41
Chicago, Cook Co., IL
July 30, 1901
Age 43
Lake Geneva, Walworth, Wisconsin, United States
May 8, 1947
Age 89
London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom
Highcliffe, Dorset, England