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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Harry Selfridge, Merchant Prince

This week public television aired the first episode of a new British series dramatizing the life of Wisconsin native Harry Gordon Selfridge. The producers call him, "the flamboyant entrepreneur and showman seeking to provide London's shoppers with the ultimate merchandise and the ultimate thrill." That may be hyperbole, but in fact much of the consumer culture that surrounds us began, oddly enough, in the mind of this boy from Wisconsin.

Went to Work at Age 10

Harry Gordon Selfridge (1857-1947) was born in Ripon and went to work at ten. He joined Marshall Field's at 19, made partner at 29, and retired with a fortune at 49.

He is said to have invented the phrase, "Only [X] shopping days until Christmas" and coined the slogan, "The customer is always right."

In 1908 Selfridge visited London, where rude treatment by storekeepers prompted him to teach them a lesson. He built a five-floor American-style department store on Oxford St., in the very heart of the British Empire.

A Palatial Retail Experience

Selfridge covered its wide aisles with soft carpet and welcomed browsers who just wanted to "make a day of it." His store carried "almost everything that enters into the affairs of daily life."

It also turned shopping into sensual entertainment. It pioneered artistic window displays and had a restaurant, music, fresh flowers, post office, and even a "silence room" for those who literally shopped 'til they dropped.

Conservative London merchants were shocked, but their customers were delighted. And Harry Selfridge grew even richer.

Riches to Rags

For two decades he splurged on lavish homes, servants, travel, and gambling. When the Depression hit, he'd run through nearly all his money. Creditors let him stay on as honorary president when they seized the business in 1937.

By then, he'd largely invented consumer culture as we know it today.

Sources: "Yankee who taught Britishers that 'the customer is always right'" Milwaukee Sentinel, September 09 1932; "Ripon native, now merchant prince, to return for honor." Sheboygan Daily Press, October 18, 1935; Woodhead, Lindy. Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge (London: Profile Books, 2007).

:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 31, 2013
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