Mr. Selfridge got his start in Chicago’s department stores

Henry Gordon Selfridge hit it big in London (and on PBS) but got his start in Chicago’s burgeoning department store scene:

“Within a short time after he entered the employ of the Field store he met the first Marshall Field and made a favorable impression by asking for a job as manager of his department,” the Tribune recalled upon Selfridge’s death in 1947. “He won the job and from then on his rise was rapid.”He proved to have a knack for advertising, then a rare business skill. He was the first to promote holiday sales with the reminder: “Only ___ shopping days until Christmas.” Some credit Selfridge with the department store’s celebrated motto: “The customer is always right.”

In 1890, he became a partner in Marshall Field’s and married Rose Buckingham, a member of a prominent Chicago family. One of Rose’s bridesmaids, Kate Buckingham, donated Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. An entrepreneur in her own right, Rose bought property on Harper Avenue between 57th and 59th streets, where she built and sold 42 homes. She also was an accomplished horticulturist. The Tribune reported she had a collection of 2,000 orchids…

The girls got a shot at marrying into the nobility because their father transferred the family’s fortunes to England, almost on a whim. In 1904, Harry Selfridge sold his interest in Marshall Field’s for $1.5 million and bought another Chicago department store, a few blocks south on State Street…

Yes, there was a Selfridge’s in Chicago before there was one in London. But not for long. Having bought it in May, he sold it in June — and the new owners renamed it Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Selfridge then went for a visit to London, where he discovered two differences between doing business there and in Chicago.

Chicago contributed much to the development of department stores which helped transform American retailing. Perhaps London makes for a more attractive place to tell the department store story but Chicago would be a pretty interesting setting in itself with department stores around the turn of the century. Why continue the Dick Wolf Chicago Fire/Med/PD/Justice system when you could go back into an even quicker changing era. Additionally, it would be interesting to see someone tie together several strands of American stores: from general stores and department stores to the big box companies and ubiquitous chain pharmacies of today.

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