Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Tale of Marshall Field & Company's Harry Selfridge; From Rags-to-Riches-to-Impecuniousness.

Harry Gordon Selfridge rose from relative poverty to amass a fortune. He became second in charge at Chicago's Marshall Field & Company and founded the famous London store Selfridges. The brash American's rapid rise to success inspired many ambitious entrepreneurs, especially those interested in retail.
Harry Gordon Selfridge
Harry Gordon Selfridge was born to Robert Oliver Selfridge and Lois Frances (Baxter) Selfridge in Ripon, Wisconsin, on January 11, 1858. 

Within months of his birth, the family moved to Jackson, Michigan, as his father had acquired the town's general store. At the outbreak of the Civil War, his father joined the Union Army, and he rose to the rank of Major before being honorably discharged. However, he abandoned his family, not returning home after the war ended. This left Lois to bring up three young boys. 

Selfridge's two brothers died in 1866 at a very young age, shortly after the war ended, so Harry became his mother's only child. She found work as a schoolteacher and struggled financially to support them. Lois supplemented her low income by painting greeting cards and eventually became headmistress of Jackson High School. Lois Selfridge lived with Harry until she died in 1924.

At age 10, Harry began to contribute to the family's income by delivering newspapers. He worked part-time after school at Leonard Field's dry-goods store in 1868. 

When Harry was 13 in 1871, he used some of the money he earned at the dry-goods store to fund a second venture. He and a friend, Peter Loomis, produced a monthly boy's magazine entitled 'Will o' the Wisp' and earned money by selling advertising space.

Harry Selfridge left school in the summer of 1872. He found work as a junior bookkeeper in the bank run by Peter Loomis' father.

Harry wanted to become a sailor and applied to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1873. However, he was turned down because he was too short at 5 feet 8 inches to serve in the military. He was also very nearsighted, which also failed the military entrance requirements.

Selfridge began working as a bookkeeper at Gilbert, Ransom & Knapp furniture factory in Jackson, Michigan. However, the company was in trouble and went bankrupt in 1875.

Harry Selfridge was out of work for a few months when he found work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for an insurance company at $1 per day ($27 today). Even though the job involved moving 60 miles northwest, he accepted the position. He spent many evenings playing poker, adding some to his savings.

Selfridge had saved $500 from his insurance work and poker winnings in Grand Rapids and decided to return to his hometown of Jackson, Michigan, in January 1876.

In the spring of 1876, Harry found work in a local General Store, but he found the work unsatisfying and was ambitious for something more challenging.

In 1878, Selfridge persuaded his former employer, Leonard Field, to write him a letter of introduction to his cousin. Marshall Field was the senior partner in Field, Leiter and Company, the largest department store in Chicago. As a result of the letter, he was hired as a stock boy in the wholesale department at $10 a week in 1879. By 1883 Harry had moved up to a junior executive position in the retail department.

In 1881, Marshall Field bought out Leiter and renamed his company Marshall Field & Company. In 1901, Marshall Field & Co., previously a private organization, was incorporated.

Selfridge became personal assistant to the retail general manager, J. M. Fleming, in 1885. Although Marshall Field wanted Harry Selfridge to implement new ideas, Fleming was a traditionalist and resisted change. Despite Fleming disliking change, Harry Selfridge set about making Marshall Field and Co. the most modern and stylish shop in Chicago. He began by increasing the amount of lighting in the store and lighting the store window displays. 

He then set about making shopping an experience: He made display cases lower and put things on display that could be touched and handled by the shopper. He increased the advertising budget for the store and worked towards making Marshall Field and Co. a household name. He used slogans in advertising, such as 'the customer is always right' to increase sales. Selfridge also introduced semi-annual sales where prices were cut. Finally, he persuaded Marshall Field to turn the lower level into a bargain basement.

His clever advertising campaigns captivated the public with their novelty. For example, Selfridge promoted Christmas sales at the store by telling customers that there were "Only __ shopping days until Christmas." His clever advertising campaigns captivated the public with their novelty. 

Harry Selfridge and John Shedd, Manager of the Wholesale Department, went on a two-month tour of France, Germany and the United Kingdom in 1888, looking at department stores. The trip gave Harry a lot of ideas but also awakened his desire to open a department store in London.


Harry married Rosalie Buckingham (cousin to the Buckinghams who funded the Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park) in Chicago on November 11, 1890. 30-year-old Rosalie, known as Rose, was a successful property developer who had inherited a great deal of money from her family. On August 7, 1891, a son, Chandler, was born to Harry and Rose Selfridge. The baby died soon after birth.

The latest figures for Marshall Field showed that over the previous six years, Harry Selfridge had increased the store's profits by more than $2 million ($65 million today). With this success, Harry Selfridge asked to be a partner in the store in 1892, and Marshall Field agreed, and Selfridge became a junior partner. This new position gave him an income of $20,000 per year ($654,300 today).

Employees began calling Selfridge by the nickname "Mile-a-Minute Harry." It's not clear if he liked the moniker.


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 Field to give his methods a try.

Selfridge increased advertising fivefold 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 criticized a subordinate, he did so privately, which was appreciated.

Selfridge was “bursting with ideas and always ready to express them.” But, “He was a showman and, because of this, was not particularly regarded by Mr. Field as being a merchant. They had an uneasy relationship.”

And since most of the innovations worked, Marshall Field was pleased.

A daughter, Rosalie, was born on September 10, 1893, to Harry and Rose Selfridge in Chicago. Violette was born on June 5, 1897. A son, Harry Gordon Selfridge, was born on April 2, 1900, known as Gordon. Beatrice was born on July 30, 1901.
Marshall Field before 1907 - two different buildings on State Street, Chicago.

Harry Selfridge opened his department store "Harry G. Selfridge and Co." in Chicago. After owning the store for two months, he sold it at a profit to Carson, Pirie, Scott.& Co., and announced his retirement.

On January 16, 1906, Marshall Field, owner of Marshall Field and Co., died.

Harry and his wife Rosalie were on holiday in London in 1906 when Harry noticed that department stores needed to be using the latest selling techniques being used in America. Selfridge became determined to own his own London store and invested £400,000, $482,000 US ($16 million today), in the project.
Selfridge and Company, London.

Selfridge and Co. opened for business on March 15, 1909, at the unfashionable end of Oxford Street, opposite the Bond Street underground station. The new department store boasted more than 100 departments.

Selfridge introduced the unique idea of tempting shoppers to shop for pleasure rather than necessity. Having seen cosmetics openly on display in Paris shops, Harry opened a Beauty Department on the ground floor of Selfridge's in London in 1910. He wanted customers to remain in his department store for as long as possible, so he introduced several merchandising initiatives, such as the first in-store restaurant and a rooftop garden with a skating rink. He also launched the first beauty department in his grand emporium, placing this at the entrance so that customers would be surrounded by beauty products and perfume as soon as they entered the store. He hoped to lift the spirits of customers when they walked into Selfridges.

Selfridge added a Bargain Basement to his store, which was highly successful in 1911. He added a pet department and the biggest bookshop in the World.

The four years of World War I, 1914-1918, left a workforce shortage as men were conscripted into the forces. Selfridge employed women to fill the posts vacated by serving men.

Harry Selfridge's wife, Rosalie, died during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic on May 12. 

Harry Selfridge's mother, Lois, died in 1924.

The remarkable entrepreneur was also one of the first store owners to use famous events and illustrious people in advertisements. For example, he displayed Louis Bleriot's "Blériot XI (Anzani)" monoplane in the emporium after Bleriot completed the first Channel crossing by air in a small airplane.
Louis Bleriot's "Blériot XI (Anzani)" monoplane.

Crowds flocked to see the aircraft during the four days that it was exhibited. Selfridge gave the stunning ballerina Anna Pavlova a private tour of the store and devoted a shop window to her. He also dedicated a window to the Ballet Russes when they visited London. Selfridge even presented Baird's original television sets in store windows in 1925, and he advertised transmission times in newspapers and on buses.

Harry Selfridge set up the Selfridge Provincial Stores Company, which saw 16 new Selfridges open in the provinces beginning in 1926. By 1929, Selfridges was the largest retail group in Europe.

Selfridge Provincial Stores was a holding company of a group of department stores in the United Kingdom. The company was formed by Selfridge & Co. in 1926 and was active until 1940.

In 1939, Harry Selfridge was ousted from the board of Directors of Selfridge & Co. By 1940, Selfridge was severely in debt to the bank and owed £250,000 ($301,000) in taxes.

Unfortunately, Selfridge threw his success away by spending too much on women and gambling, claiming he was distraught by his mother's and wife's deaths. He died in penury (extreme poverty), longing for his former life as the head of Selfridges. Sadly, the old entrepreneur would stare at his fantastic store and tell people that he created the emporium, but they didn't believe him because he looked like a mendicant (beggar).

Harry Selfridge died of bronchial pneumonia in London on May 8, 1947. He was buried with his wife and mother at St. Mark's Churchyard, Highcliffe, Dorset, United Kingdom.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. What a shame that he met such an impoverished demise. Aside from that, it’s always amazing how Chicago always seemed to have some sort of influence in ways that most hadn’t realized. I love learning about folks like this.

  2. Those intrigued should check out the excellent PBS/ITV series Mr. Selfridge—multi-episode—that follows Selfridge’s career in London, starring Jeremy Piven.

  3. Harry was really quite an ambitious person and always willing to change with the times. Marshall Field was really lucky to have him, being Field was more of a traditionalist. I really enjoyed reading this part of Chicago retail history.

  4. My grandfather worked upstairs at Marshall Fields as a dentist. Whenever our relatives come to town we would meet at the Walnut Room!

  5. There isn't any information here about the silver and trophies specifically The 1929 Lord Selfridge Trophy Given at the exposition to Bonnie McCarroll with Tex Austins rodeo. Was it made in store and what would its value be then and now?


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