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.

Architezer’s list of the top 10 US buildings

In response to a recent PBS show titled “10 Buildings that Changed America,” Architizer puts out its own top 10. They admit that their list is a little different:

Sure, the criteria governing our choices are more architecturally inclined — you won’t find the White House or even the Empire State Building here — and our tastes, unabashedly modern, but it’s undeniable how each of the buildings listed here have significantly contributed and even altered our built environment.

So these aren’t really the same lists – it seems like PBS was going for the most important socially and culturally through all of America’s history while Architizer is reflecting more modern architectural interests. The list features Wright, le Corbusier, and van der Rohe (x2). The geographic distribution is interesting as well: 2 in New York City, 1 in Boston, 1 in LA, 1 in Seattle, and then the rest are scattered throughout the country. Interestingly, at least for people in Chicago where there are frequently claims that modern architecture really took off in the city, no building from Chicago is on the list.

I would be fascinated to see how many Americans know about the 10 buildings on the list. Maybe they could identify two or three, with perhaps Fallingwater and the UN Building being the most well-known?

Sociologist is host of “History Detectives”

I ran into an interesting side job for a sociologist: host of History Detectives on PBS. This involves investigating artifacts like an 1864 military discharge letter signed by President Abraham Lincoln:

The first few hours of filming took place in the Grand Army of the Republic Museum, where Versagi talked about how the artifact was found, and then re-enacted the find by pulling a scrap of paper out of a prop box. Taping continued at a park where Versagi would meet “History Detectives” host Tukufu Zuberi, professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania, to show him the piece of paper. The “reveal” took place in a Springfield resident’s home, where Versagi listened as the PBS host told her the story of the artifact based on their research.

How exactly does a sociologist get this kind of job over historians? Here is how the History Detectives website describes Zuberi’s contributions:

America has a long history of social upheaval and cultural mood swings. These shifts leave clear signs of their passing. The trick is knowing how to read the signs, and interpret their meaning.
Tukufu is an authority on the subject. Under his scrutiny, even subtle signs can yield vital evidence about the events at a mystery’s core.
He also provides the team with a context for their work, relating descriptive accounts of living conditions in that particular place, at that particular time.

Being aware of the social issues, pressures, and problems of the day can sometimes help the team determine the triggers of a past event, and the motives of the people involved.

I also wonder if there isn’t a lot of room for a sociologist to talk about how mysteries develop and are understood by the public. For example, what is the social significance of an Abraham Lincoln artifact and why is Lincoln still so popular today (see an earlier post about another sociologists who tackles this)? Not everything becomes an artifact and there is a lot of work that goes into creating and supporting cultural narratives.

If you want to see a list of episodes Zuberi hosts, they are listed on his CV.

By the way, I am a supporter of having more sociologists positively portrayed on TV and in movies (see earlier posts on this topic here and here).