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Changing the World of Retail: The Real Selfridges and "Mr. Selfridge"

This week, Amie Simon takes us through some of the historical changes Harry Selfridge brought to retail, and how they're depicted in Masterpiece's Mr. Selfridge

We’re four episodes into season two of Mr. Selfridge, and Selfridges has changed a lot since the first season. Anyone who knows the history of the real Harry Gordon Selfridge knows that he was an innovator, and a sharp businessman—earning his “Chief” title every day with new ideas for keeping his department store relevant and exciting.

Let’s take a look at how Harry’s pride and joy has changed so far, and how it marries with the history of its real-life inspiration.

Sublime Displays
Selfridges was one of the first department stores to stage elaborate window displays, and the anticipation of the crowds waiting to glimpse a new one was sometimes greater than the crowds waiting to get into the store and shop.

In season one, Henri LeClair created beautiful displays with the help of Agnes Towler, including one supporting the Women’s Suffrage Movement that saved the store from being damaged by a rowdy crowd of protestors. But with Henri absent, the Chief put Agnes Towler in charge of all internal displays—a change which upset the department heads, as they each used to be in charge of their own.

Ms. Towler seems to be adapting just fine, and even created a beautiful indoor garden gazebo for Delphine Day’s book reading. But now that she’s overloaded with work and being attacked by Mr. Thackeray, will those intricate store and window displays suffer? Henri’s back to help, but he might not like her being in charge! (Or maybe he will…)

The real Selfridges has always been known for its window displays, and the design innovation and element of surprise is still going strong. Watch a time-lapse video of a recent Christmas installation:

Take a peek at more of their latest creations.

Elaborate Advertising

Harry also brought people into his store with huge, elaborate advertising campaigns. The real Mr. Selfridge famously said, “I am prepared to sell anything from an aeroplane to a cigar.” Season one made reference to Harry bringing Louis Bieriot’s (the first aviator to fly over water) airplane to Selfridges for four days, which happened at the real Selfridges in 1909, drawing over 150,000 people!

The series has also shown Selfridge bringing in stage actresses (admittedly, for his own personal gain as well as the store’s), tango dancers, and of course, book readings and signings with famous authors; including a scandalously sexy reading with a controversial author—the aforementioned Ms. Day.

So far on the show this season, we’ve seen Harry set up an Empire Exhibition in the Palm Court and do a fancy Belgian chocolate tasting fundraiser for the war. We don’t know what else Selfridges will showcase this season, but there’s plenty of real-life accounts to draw from!

Surprising Additions

In 1910, the real Selfridges added an entire beauty department on its main floor, a surprising and innovative move that caused controversy and delighted the ladies who shopped there. Beauty products were just starting to take off, promising a younger, more alluring appearance for women of all ages—and the show has incorporated this unprecedented move into its plot as well.

In season two, Miss Kitty Hawkins has been put in charge of Selfridges large new Beauty Department, which is right smack in the middle of the main floor and showcases makeup, beautifying creams, and expensive perfumes … all the things Kitty happens to want for herself, too. And maybe she’ll get them all, if she can keep Frank Edwards interested!

Price Points for Everyone

When Harry’s department store rival Frank Woolworth arrived in London and announced that he was going to open a store just down the street for “common people,” Mr. Selfridge took offense at the notion that his goods were too expensive for most people to afford.

On the show in season one, he organized weekly markdowns in every department in order to sell the idea that anyone could afford to shop at his store. In real life, Selfridge set up an entire Bargain Basement aimed at thrifty housewives in 1911. As the realities of war grow this season, maybe we’ll see that play out on the show.

There is plenty of Selfridge’s rich history that the show can still draw from! We can’t wait to see how it plays out in season two, and how it compliments each of the show’s colorful characters.