Mr. Selfridge in Chicago

Evanston’s own Jeremy Piven has been starring in the TV series “Mr. Selfridge,” the story of the American expat who founded the icon London department store a century ago. The show occasionally mentions Selfridge’s years “back in Chicago.” Let’s look at those.

Born in 1858, Harry Gordon Selfridge grew up in Jackson, Michigan. His father abandoned the family a few years later, and Harry left school at 14. He worked in a bank, in a furniture factory, in an insurance agency. Always he impressed his bosses with his energy, his intelligence, and his imagination.

He came to Chicago in 1879 with a letter of introduction to merchant prince Marshall Field. Field put him to work as a stock boy at $10 a week. By 1883 Harry had moved up to a junior executive position in the retail department.

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Almost immediately, Selfridge clashed with the store’s traditionalists. Rather than merely supplying a product, his idea was to make shopping a recreational experience—what we today call “retail therapy.” That meant aggressive marketing and all-out promotion. Field himself was naturally conservative, but Selfridge convinced the big boss to give his methods a try.

Selfridge increased advertising five-fold and launched a series of “special sales.” Merchandise was hauled out from behind high counters and placed on tables for easy browsing. Window displays became elaborate. A bargain basement was opened. Then came a ladies’ tearoom.

There was always something new. Selfridge could usually be found on the sales floor, checking every little thing, or lending his ear to the shoppers. He worked his staff hard, but he worked himself harder. When he had criticize a subordinate, he did so privately, and that was appreciated.

And since most of the innovations worked, Field was pleased. In 1887 he made Selfridge retail general manager. Two years later, “Mile-a-Minute Harry” became a junior partner.

Selfridge wore his prosperity well. Always immaculately dressed, he changed clothes two or three times a day. Most mornings a barber came to his office to groom him. He brought his mother to town from Michigan, installing her in his posh North Side apartment.

In 1890 he married Rosalie Buckingham, a society debutante from the Buckingham Fountain family. The ceremony was held at the Central Music Hall, with a fifty-voice chorus providing the music. The couple later built a vacation villa on Lake Geneva.

Marshall Field sales continue to grow during the 1890s. Though the later part of the decade saw a severe recession, the economy rebounded. Now annual profits passed $1.5 million.

Still, Harry Selfridge was restless. He’d always wanted to run his own store. In May 1904 he cashed in his $1 million of company stock, rounded up backing for another $4 million, and bought the Schlesinger & Mayer store on the southeast corner of State and Madison, a block south of Field’s.

Mr. Field himself was not thrilled by Selfridge’s departure. He wished Harry luck in a perfunctory manner, then went about his business. Afterward he grumbled, “Now we’ll have to get another office boy.”

H.G. Selfridge & Co. staged a lavish grand opening in June. By the middle of July Harry realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew. He was severely undercapitalized. Fortunately, Samuel Pirie of Carson Pirie Scott was looking for a State Street location, and Selfridge sold the building to them—at a nice profit, too.

Harry spent the next few years playing golf. In 1909 he opened his London store. From that point on, we’ll turn it back to Jeremy Piven.

—30—

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