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London Calling

In 1909 a Chicago marketing genius took his act overseas to found one of the world’s most iconic department stores.

Selfridges’ men’s shoe department.

Harry Gordon Selfridge circa 1910

Point, click, proceed to checkout.

Convenient but bereft of sensory experience, online shopping would make Harry Gordon Selfridge’s well-waxed mustache droop in disappointment.

His retail philosophy was to indulge customers, encouraging them to touch kid gloves and silk scarves, to sniff perfumes or to spend hours “just looking.” Selfridge, who was born either in 1856 or ’58, is the subject of the ITV British import Mr. Selfridge, which began airing on PBS on this side of the pond in March. Already, it’s been green-lit for another season. Jeremy Piven, who grew up in Evanston, plays the brassy but brilliant title character, who opened the sumptuous department store Selfridges in London in 1909. Still in operation today, the store is the second-largest department store in the U.K., and routinely wins accolades as one of the world’s premier luxury retailers.

The series, however, gives short shrift to Selfridge’s formative years at Chicago’s Marshall Field & Co. He started there as a stock boy in 1879 and ascended to general manager, director of advertising, and finally to junior partner. Not only did he hone his retailing skills in Chicago, his ideas, which he’d later employ at Selfridges, changed the way people shopped. He embraced the customer-focused ideology promulgated by Marshall Field and Potter Palmer­—Palmer started a store in 1852 that would morph into Marshall Field’s—but Selfridge advanced it a giant step further.

Until the late 19th century, Marshall Field & Co. was essentially a dry-goods business, says historian Leslie Goddard, author of Remembering Marshall Field’s. “You went there to buy fabrics, buttons, lace and ribbons, but you did not go there to buy shoes or books or candy,” she says.

Shopping in general, says Goddard, wasn’t a pleasant experience in Victorian days. “There was a lot of haggling, a lot of pressure to buy, products were kept behind the counter. But Selfridge wanted merchandise out in the open.”

Retailing was about to undergo a revolution and Selfridge was its leading radical. Teeming with frenetic energy and fueled by unrestrained ambition, he was nicknamed “Mile-a-Minute Selfridge.” “In the 1880s when he was just starting out, there were 50 different sections of the store, and by the time he left in 1904, there were more than 150 departments,” says Goddard. “It was Selfridge who said, ‘If you get a woman to come in to buy one thing, she’s going to start buying more.’”

Selfridge also hired window designer Arthur Fraser, who turned Marshall Field’s 65 windows into fantastic stage sets.

Marshall Field’s began to cater to every whim. “There was a kid-glove cleaning department, antiques restoration, shoe repair,” says Goddard. “There was even photograph-developing in the 1890s.” It was also under Selfridge that Marshall Field’s added a tea room and restaurant.

Selfridge left an indelible mark, but he felt snubbed that he wasn’t made a full partner. So, Goddard says, he left in 1904 and started his own rival store in a gorgeous Louis Sullivan building on State Street called Schlesinger & Mayer. He changed the name to Harry G. Selfridge & Co., but sold it after two months to a new retailer known as Carson, Pirie, Scott. Why such a brief stint? “He felt that he was competing against his friends, that he was the head of an army of strangers,” says Goddard.

So Selfridge left for London and signed architect Daniel Burnham, who designed Marshall Field’s flagship store, to build his lavish new establishment on Oxford Street. To say it was a success would be a massive understatement: By 1922 more than 15 million people were visiting the store annually, making Selfridge one of London’s most well-known men.

It was quite a journey for this boy who was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Jackson, Mich. After serving in the Civil War, Selfridge’s father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to bring up young Harry and his two brothers. His siblings died young, and Selfridge forged a close bond with his mother. In 1890, he married Rose Buckingham, from a prominent Chicago family and a property developer in her own right. Her cousin, Kate Buckingham, bankrolled the exquisite Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. Rose died during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Mr. Selfridge, based on the book Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, by Lindy Woodhead, plays up Selfridge’s extravagant spending and womanizing. But an earlier biography, No Name on the Door, suggests that most of his profligacy occurred in his later years.

When he was nearly 70, Selfridge fell for Jenny Dolly of the then-famous Dolly Sisters entertainment act. He showered her with gifts and paid her gambling debts, as well as his own. He spent boatloads on other women.

Drowning in back taxes and deeply in debt to the store, Selfridge was in serious trouble by 1939. Eventually, the board ousted him from the company he created.

Selfridge lived out his remaining years in a rented flat with one of his daughters. He died in 1947, a Horatio Alger story gone terribly awry.