As we celebrate the anniversary this day of the opening of Selfridges in 1909 and mourn the end of ITV’s Mr Selfridge, we remember the genius of retail who began it all. A guest post by David Long.
‘Only xx shopping days before Christmas’ is a phrase to cheer the heart or chill the bones, depending who hears it. Either way it was coined by the American-born retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, one of many snappy and effective marketing slogans he came up with – ‘the customer is never wrong’ is thought to be another – most of which were quickly adopted by his rivals.
A partner in the US giant Marshall Field (still with us, as part of the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s empire) Selfridge and his wife arrived in Mayfair in the early 1900s. Unimpressed by the quality of London department stores, he decided to establish his own, ploughing an estimated £400,000 (equivalent to more than £120 million today) into a large plot at what was then the decidedly unfashionable end of Oxford Street. The result was the building familiar to visitors today, its giant Ionic columns the work of English architects R.F.Atkinson and Sir John Burnett with a clock as its centrepiece, nearly three and a half metres in diameter and called The Queen of Time.
Selfridge’s timing was fortunate, and he was a canny and highly perceptive operator. An early advocate of paid advertising, one who recognised that a generation of newly emancipated women looked upon shopping as a recreation not a chore, he worked tirelessly to promote Selfridges as a destination rather than a mere shop. He even lobbied to get the nearest underground station renamed Selfridges, and when his friend Lord Ashfield, Managing Director of the Underground Electric Railway Company, decided to stick with the name Bond Street serious consideration was given to running a private tunnel from the top of the escalators right into the store.
From the start Selfridge was also a great innovator. In 1910 his emporium became the first in the world to have a ground floor beauty department, and today – when almost every rival has followed suit – its beauty hall is still the world’s largest (It sells more than 7,700 lipsticks, 2,800 mascaras and 1,000 nail polishes every week.) For years the store ran its own private Information Bureau, equipped with more books than the average local library and a trained staff dedicated to finding answers to literally any question a customer might put to them. Movie directors were also invited to film scenes in the store, providing yet more valuable publicity for the company. (They still are: in Love Actually Rowan Atkinson is maddeningly meticulous service when he enquires of Alan Rickman’s agitated customer ‘Would you like it gift wrapped?’)
While he turned down the chance to sell the revolting sounding ‘Sitwell Egg’ (a porable confection of rice, artificial lime and pressed meat devised by the eccentric serial inventor Sir George Sitwell) Selfridge frequently called on new technologies to boost his business.
In 1909 Louis Bleriot’s aeroplane went on display here shortly after the Frenchman had become the first to fly across the Channel – more than 150,000 Londoners queued to see it. In 1925 the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird was paid £25 a week to demonstrate his new machine to customers, Selfridge identifying at once that what its creator called the ‘Televisor’ was not a toy but ‘a link between all peoples of the world’. Four years later, to celebrate the store’s 20th anniversary, the exterior was lit up by an unprecedented display of more than 30,000 electric lightbulbs.
Already rich when he arrived in London the popularity and runaway success of the new venture made Selfridge richer still, and following the death of his wife in the post-war flu pandemic he settled down to enjoy it in fine Mayfair style. For a while he flirted with the idea of building a huge square tower on top of the store, one which would have dominated the whole of the West End had not his architect warned that it was so massive that the entire edifice might collapse under its own weight.
Instead, in the absence of such an obvious monument, a Blue Plaque at 9 Fitzmaurice Place is now all there is to give one an indication of the scale on which he chose to spend his fortune. Now home to the Lansdowne Club, this was once a truly magnificent Adam mansion, with wings either side of the main Palladian block and private gardens so extensive that even into the 20th century it could still be described as ‘secluded’.
The house had originally been built for the fabulously rich Marquess of Bute (1713-92), Britain’s first Scottish Prime Minister. It was later sold to William, Earl of Shelburne who renamed it after himself when he was created Marquess of Lansdowne.
When Selfridge took over the lease in 1921, Adam’s masterpiece was still very much one of the great West End houses although sadly its façade and wings were soon afterwards demolished so that a road could be cut through from Berkeley Square to Curzon Street and Piccadilly. Two important rooms were saved: a Drawing Room now installed in the Museum of Arts in Philadelphia; and the Dining Room which found its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York
Ahead of this act of architectural vandalism Selfridge’s period as custodian of such a landmark house scandalised London society even more than his decision in 1922 to allow waitresses in the store’s restaurant to wear trousers. (This was to allow them to move more quickly from table to table.)
The cause of the scandal this time was his love life, which included affairs with a divorcée (Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who later married Somerset Maugham) and the Dolly Sisters, a fashionable pair of cabaret artistes of middle-European origins. The idea of cabaret girls was in itself enough to make dowagers feel faint; what made Selfridge’s behaviour even more outré was that discreet enquiries into which sister he was with – Jenny or Rosie? – seemed to point to his carrying on with both of them simultaneously.
While the girls gambled recklessly, Selfridge spent in much the same manner on a wild parties, fleets of Rolls-Royces to ferry friends to race meetings, and for a while a truly mad plan to build himself a castle in Hampshire surrounded by more than four miles of high stone walls.
The whole thing was deliciously decadent, typically 1920s and oh-so-Mayfair, but unfortunately taking his eye of the ball in this way meant that control of Oxford Street’s mightiest retail phenomenon soon slipped from its founder’s grasp. Before long he was manoeuvred out by his fellow directors and with his fortune much diminished by the Depression of the 1930s Harry Gordon Selfridge, incredibly, fell into debt. In 1947 he died, a poor man, living in a tiny flat with his daughter, at 81 Putney Hill, SW15.
David Long‘s latest book on the capital is a companion to the West End called ‘Paved with Gold’ (Fort Publishing). It includes a detailed examination of its history, art, architecture and inhabitants.