Harry Gordon Selfridge
Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. (January 11, 1864 – May 8, 1947) was an American-born retail magnate, who founded the British department store
Department store
A department store is a retail establishment which satisfies a wide range of the consumer's personal and residential durable goods product needs; and at the same time offering the consumer a choice of multiple merchandise lines, at variable price points, in all product categories...

Selfridges, AKA Selfridges & Co, is a chain of high end department stores in the United Kingdom. It was founded by Harry Gordon Selfridge. The flagship store in London's Oxford Street is the second largest shop in the UK and was opened on 15 March 1909.More recently, three other stores have been...


Early years

Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin
Ripon, Wisconsin
Ripon is a city in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, United States. As of the 2000 census, the city population was 6,828. The City of Ripon's official website claims the city's current population to be 7,701. The city is surrounded by the Town of Ripon....

, USA on January 11, 1864, but within months of his birth moved to Jackson, Michigan
Jackson, Michigan
Jackson is a city located along Interstate 94 in the south central area of the U.S. state of Michigan, about west of Ann Arbor and south of Lansing. It is the county seat of Jackson County. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 33,534...

. His father did not return home after the Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, although he had been honourably discharged, so his mother supported the family by teaching school.

In 1879, Selfridge joined the retail firm of Field
Marshall Field
Marshall Field was founder of Marshall Field and Company, the Chicago-based department stores.-Life and career:...

, Leiter and Company (which became Marshall Field and Company, later bought by Macy's.) 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
Marshall Field
Marshall Field was founder of Marshall Field and Company, the Chicago-based department stores.-Life and career:...

 is also credited with originating the phrase "The customer is always right." Later Hotelier César Ritz
César Ritz
César Ritz was a Swiss hotelier and founder of several hotels, most famously the Hôtel Ritz, in Paris and The Ritz Hotel in London...

 advertised in 1908, 'Le client n'a jamais tort' ('The customer is never wrong'). John Wanamaker
Wanamaker's department store was the first department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and one of the first department stores in the United States. At its zenith in the early 20th century, there were two major Wanamaker department stores, one in Philadelphia and one in New York City at Broadway...

 also took note of the advertising, and was soon using that phrase in promoting his Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia is the largest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the county seat of Philadelphia County, with which it is coterminous. The city is located in the Northeastern United States along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. It is the fifth-most-populous city in the United States,...

-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
Oxford Street
Oxford Street is a major thoroughfare in the City of Westminster in the West End of London, United Kingdom. It is Europe's busiest shopping street, as well as its most dense, and currently has approximately 300 shops. The street was formerly part of the London-Oxford road which began at Newgate,...

. The new store, Selfridges
Selfridges, AKA Selfridges & Co, is a chain of high end department stores in the United Kingdom. It was founded by Harry Gordon Selfridge. The flagship store in London's Oxford Street is the second largest shop in the UK and was opened on 15 March 1909.More recently, three other stores have been...

, 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
Advertising is a form of communication used to persuade an audience to take some action with respect to products, ideas, or services. Most commonly, the desired result is to drive consumer behavior with respect to a commercial offering, although political and ideological advertising is also common...


Oliver Lyttleton observed that, when one called on Selfridge, he would have nothing on his desk except one's letter, smoothed and ironed.

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 also managed to obtain from the GPO
-Organisations:*General Post Office **General Post Office UK*German Patent Office, *United States Government Printing Office, a federal government agency*Green Party of Ontario, a policial party in Ontario, Canada...

 the privilege of having the number "1" as its own phone number, so anybody had to just dial 1 to be connected to Selfridge's operators.

In 1909, Selfridge proposed a subway link to Bond Street station; however, contemporary opposition squashed the idea.

Personal life

Selfridge's wife died in the influenza pandemic of 1918
Spanish flu
The 1918 flu pandemic was an influenza pandemic, and the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus . It was an unusually severe and deadly pandemic that spread across the world. Historical and epidemiological data are inadequate to identify the geographic origin...

. As a widower, Selfridge had numerous liaisons, including those with the celebrated Dolly Sisters
Dolly Sisters
The Dolly Sisters, twins Roszika and Janszieka Deutsch were Vaudeville performers.-Biographies:They were born October 25, 1892 in Hungary, and emigrated to the United States in 1905. They perfected a single-sex "tandem" dance act - practising in front of mirrors - under the name of 'The Dolly...

 and the divorcée Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who would later become better known as the decorator Syrie Maugham
Gwendoline Maud Syrie Barnardo
Syrie Maugham was a leading British interior decorator of the 1920s and 1930s and best-known for popularizing rooms decorated entirely in shades of white.-Birth:...

. 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
Berkeley Square
Berkeley Square is a town square in the West End of London, England, in the City of Westminster. It was originally laid out in the mid 18th century by architect William Kent...

. Today there is a blue plaque
Blue plaque
A blue plaque is a permanent sign installed in a public place to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person or event, serving as a historical marker....

 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
Highcliffe Castle
Highcliffe Castle, situated on the cliffs at Highcliffe, Dorset, was built between 1831 and 1835 by Charles Stuart, 1st Baron Stuart de Rothesay in a Gothic Revival style on the site of High Cliff house, a Georgian Mansion designed for the 3rd Earl of Bute with the gardens laid out by Capability...

 in Hampshire
Hampshire is a county on the southern coast of England in the United Kingdom. The county town of Hampshire is Winchester, a historic cathedral city that was once the capital of England. Hampshire is notable for housing the original birthplaces of the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force...

 (now Dorset
Dorset , is a county in South West England on the English Channel coast. The county town is Dorchester which is situated in the south. The Hampshire towns of Bournemouth and Christchurch joined the county with the reorganisation of local government in 1974...

). In addition, he purchased Hengistbury Head
Hengistbury Head
Hengistbury Head is a headland jutting into the English Channel between Bournemouth and Milford on Sea in the English county of Dorset.At the end is a spit which creates the narrow entrance to Christchurch Harbour.-Location:...

, 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.

Later life and death

During the years of the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

, 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 travelled around London by bus. In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney
Putney is a district in south-west London, England, located in the London Borough of Wandsworth. It is situated south-west of Charing Cross. The area is identified in the London Plan as one of 35 major centres in Greater London....

, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St Mark's Churchyard at Highcliffe
Highcliffe-on-Sea is a small town in the borough of Christchurch, Dorset in southern England. It forms part of the South East Dorset conurbation along the English Channel coast...

, next to his wife and his mother.


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.

External links

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