Lives Across the Pond: Happy Birthday Harry Gordon Selfridge
Each month we feature a person included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography who was either born in the United States, and made their name in the UK, or came to the US from the British Isles. This month we highlight the Wisconsin retailer Harry Selfridge who moved to Britain in 1906 to establish one of Britain’s largest and best-known department stores, Selfridges, on London’s Oxford Street.
Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858–1947), department store owner, was born on 11 January 1858 at Ripon, Wisconsin, USA, the only son of Robert Oliver Selfridge (d. 1873) and his wife, Lois Frances Baxter (d. 1924). Harry was brought up by his mother at Jackson, Michigan, where she was a teacher. After leaving school at the age of fourteen he became a bank clerk, with ambitions to join the navy. These were dashed when his application to the Annapolis naval academy was rejected on the grounds that he was slightly too small. His career changed when in 1879 he joined the department store and mail-order firm of Field, Leiter & Co. (later Marshall, Field & Co.) as a clerk.
… In 1906, after almost two years of unsatisfying experiences in Chicago and in European travel, Selfridge arrived in London, taking up residence in Arlington Street. He quickly assessed the commercial scene and returned to his idea of opening a large department store that would embody the latest ideas in retailing.
… Selfridge’s new store was not only large, containing some 130 different retail departments; it introduced a range of customer services as well as offering improved working conditions for the staff. The store aimed at covering all normal requirements and provided new services such as a library, rest-rooms, and a free information bureau. Selfridge made his presence felt as he passed through the store on his daily tours of inspection, always formally dressed with his top hat, for he had a critical eye for detail. His methods were an important transforming influence on London’s retail scene and British retailing in general.