Selfridges: 7 things you (probably) didn’t know about the department store

Harry Selfridge arrived in London from Chicago in 1906, with grand plans to open an extravagant department store where ‘everyone was welcome’. But from the rise of Selfridges in the early 20th century to the mini-skirt fashion boom of the sixties, there’s more to the store's history than was portrayed in the ITV series...

The jewellery sections of Selfridges, 1909. © Chronicle/Alamy

Pamela Horn’s new book, Behind the Counter: Shop Lives from Market Stall to Supermarket, tells the real-life history of ‘the Chief’s’ infamous department store. Here, the book's editor, Hazel Cochrane, reveals seven things you probably didn’t know about the department store…

1) Selfridges has the British love for a cup of tea to thank for its success. Not only was funding for the store covered by tea tycoon John Musker in 1907, but a change in consumption patterns was key to the success of department stores in the 18th and 19th centuries. The tea boom brought with it the need for all manner of tea-related products, and department stores stocked up on teapots, cups, saucers and sugar bowls to meet the growing demand.

2) Selfridges was one of the first shops in Britain to introduce window dressing as a way of enticing customers into the store, in the second half of the Victorian era. This represented a markedly different change in approach – previously, shopkeepers often stood in the shop’s doorway trying to lure customers into the store, a habit which had gained them a poor reputation for ‘greed, pettiness and narrow-mindedness’. Window displays served an educative purpose as well as a commercial one, and they often displayed the latest inventions and ideas, which huge crowds would stop to inspect.

3) Department stores like Selfridges were blamed for the increased levels of shoplifting in the mid-19th century. While the poor were predominantly blamed for theft in the 18th century, middle-class women working in pairs became the most common thieves in the mid-19th century. Selfridges was blamed for encouraging temptation, and thefts at the store were used as evidence of this.

4) The life of a shop assistant in the 19th century and early 20th century was hard graft. One woman working at Selfridges in 1909, aged 15, claimed it was “the lowest form of animal life”. During busy periods, employees were expected to be ready to receive customers in the shop from 8am until 10pm when the shop closed, often not getting home until after midnight after restocking the shop for the following day’s trading. In the best establishments, employees were expected to visit the hairdressers every morning and wait in line for their hair to be perfectly curled before they were deemed fit to greet customers.

Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridges, c1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

5) During the Second World War, the store basement at Selfridges was used as an impromptu air-raid shelter. As early as 1939, the government commandeered department stores for military purposes and often arrangements were ambitious, with entire floors being used as hospitals and walls reinforced with steel supports. During air raids, department store employees took it in turns to fire watch and be on the lookout for incendiary bombs.

6) After the Second World War, Selfridges’ staff magazine brought out an issue that contained complaints that employees were too ‘independent’ and no longer showed the same levels of attentiveness and care. It blamed the war for staff members’ deterioration. Concern was also raised in the staff magazine about the fragility of workers and the state of their nerves after the traumatic experience of living through the war.

7) The rise of fashion in the 1960s prompted Selfridges to up its game in order to compete with the likes of Mary Quant co-ordinates and the growing number of provincial fashion boutiques. In 1965, Miss Selfridge opened on Duke Street in London complete with a mezzanine coffee bar and tailored music. It has the ‘Swinging Sixties’ to thank for its success. Today, Miss Selfridge is a recognisable and well-loved feature of the British High Street.

Pamela Horn’s Behind the Counter is published by Amberley Publishing, 2015, and is available at all good bookstores and the Amberley website. To find out more, click here.

 

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