The Times, February 23, 19091
No one passing along Oxford-street during the course of the last 12 months can have failed to observe the clearing away of old small houses and the rising growth of a great four-sqaure building which now stands architecturally on a site just west of The Times Book Club, and almost facing the Bond-street Station of the Central London Tube Railway. The building constitutes a handsome addition to the architectural features of London, and for size and completeness the erection of these premises at Nos. 393 to 422 Oxford street creates a building record not only for London but for the whole world, not even excepting the United States. On March 15th, within a year of the first beginning of the work, the doors will open, and the business for which it has been erected by Mr. Gordon Selfridge, well known as a former partner of the Marshall Field Store at Chicago, the largest retail shop in America, will begin. “Selfridge’s” in Oxford-street will be the London edition of that gigantic institution. What that is to the United States, Selfridge’s will be to Great Britain—the greatest “dry goods store” (to use that term for lack of a better) in United Kingdom.
Among West-end business men then opening of Selfridge’s is being awaited with the very keenest curiosity, and the interest of the public at large will not be aroused when, on March 15th, Selfridge’s comes to full birth and being. It is not merely that Selfridge’s will be London’s first great “Store” based on an American model and reproducing here those gigantic and self-complete institutions—it is impossible to call them “shops”—which every visitor to the United States has described with amazement and admiration for their colossal size and matchless organization. It is not merely that “Selfridge’s” will be London’s biggest store. There is the interest which follows the establishment in London of that which America has been the first to produce and to perfect and the consequent curiosity of even so cosmopolitan a people as are Londoners to inspect and to see for themselves the methods and resources of a great American store. Granting that element of novelty, it will be found that Selfridge’s is not so much American as cosmopolitan; that its methods and means are those which best meet the needs not of one people, but of all mankind; of London as much as New York. For in their essence the principles which governs successful business, whether in China, Peru, or Europe, are the same all over the world, allowing for the incidence of climatic conditions and racial temperament. That differentiation will govern Selfridge’s to be full. It will sell but few American goods, but will be stocked with the goods which Londoners require, and the Store will be staffed not by American but by English salesmen and saleswomen.
Business as a Vocation.
The circumstances which have led up to the establishment of “Selfridge’s” in London lend an added interest to what under any conditions must have been an enterprise of remarkable condition. Other great commercial establishments have been creations of slow growth, developing from a small shop, dealing only in one class of goods, into a firm comprehending all departments of trade. From its very beginning Selfridge’s will be comprehensive and complete, for it represents not the venture of a man opening business for the first time, but the reasoned and fully thought-out undertaking of a man who long ago won and established his commercial status. It is with the financial resources and experience of a proved captain of industry that Mr. Gordon Selfridge has undertaken the establishment of “Selfridge’s” in London.
To English people with their still feudal conception of business merely as means for the making if profit and the accumulation of money, it is difficult to realize the underlying causes and motives which prompt such a new undertaking as the establishment of a business in London by a man whose previous commercial success afforded him the means of henceforth leading a life of leisure. The matter is one of psychological and social difference between England and America. It can best be illustrated by the instance now in point—the career of Mr. Gordon Selfridge. Four years ago he retired from partnership in the Marshall Field Store, having accumulated that sufficiency of fortune during his twenty-five years of business life which entitled him to the future of ease and leisure which is supposed to be every man’s greatest happiness. Two years of travel and rest and relaxation left him sated with ease and filled with the desire to be up and doing.
In England, when a man retires from business while still in middle age, he usually goes in for politics, stands as a Parliamentary candidate, or takes up some kind of philosophic work. In America there is no incentive or inducement to such occupations. In the States there is no place between the small circle of millionaire society and the active business men, fully immersed and engaged in the conduct of some great corporation or firm. Between the two, the man who has retired at a comparatively early age, still full of life and energy, finds himself cast into loneliness, and removed from active contact with his fellows, though ambition and energy as still keen within him.
It was in that situation, inspired by the desire for an outlet for his energies and the distaste for mere idleness that Mrt. Gordon Selfridge determined to carry out the business undertaking which is shortly to be realized by the opening of “Selfridge’s” in London. Here again may be noted an essential and most interesting difference between the English and the American attitude towards business. In England while respect is paid to to the professions qua professions, business is still regarded as no more than a matter of money-getting, as a means only justified by its results. In the United States, business is ranked as fully the equal of law, medicine, pr the arts, and the head of a big firm is no less absorbed in and devoted to the conduct of his business than is a barrister to his law, a doctor to his patients, or an artist rto his pictures. Given that environment it followed that Mr. Selfridge would seek that outlet for his activities in business with which all his efforts had been previously allied.
The Times, March 13, 1909
The Fascination of London.
As a man who had retired from the management of America’s greatest store, the United States seems to have offered no opening of sufficient attraction. But to all people resident outside the thirty-miles radius from Charing Cross—even unto the uttermost parts of the earth—London offers an unexampled field for enterprise and success. As the greatest city in history, as the capital to which all the world turns, London attracts and fascinates with a glamour which no stoicism or self-sufficiency can conquer. It is the penalty of residence in Londo that one loses the realization of how wonderful a city it is. It is the place to which all men—whether their life be business, or art, or politics—turn as the touchstone of their talents. The seal of London’s approbation is needed for a career which would rise above the merely provincial, the local, or national. The concentration of so vast a population in so narrow an area as that of the metropolis offers opportunities to the business man afforded by no other equal number of square miles on the earth’s surface. As the centre of the world’s greatest Empire it offers an outlook of opportunity, the breadth if which is equalled only by its intensity. AQs the capital not merely of the United Kingdom, nor even of the British Empire, but, so to speak, of the whole world, London affords a sphere for achievement which may be compressed in a sentence:—”Fail in London and die; succeed and you will live.”
This is the fascination which the greatness and numerical greatness of London exerts over all beyond her borders. To none is that influence more compelling than to Americans. It is to this city, then, that Mr. Gordon Selfridge turned as the sphere offering the fullest field for his activities. Several years ago the opportunities which London offered led him to discover with the late Marshall Field a scheme for the establishment here of a branch of their great store. Financially and commercially the proposition was sound, but the demand then made upon their energies by the conduct of their American business called for a concentration instead of an extension of their efforts.
Selfridge’s under construction in 1908. Modern steel skeletal construction was used.
The Founding of Selfridge’s.
It was in the nature of things, therefore, that Mr. Selfridge, having retired from business, having tired of his retirement, and desiring a fresh outlet for his activities, should turn to London as the field offering the greatest opportunities for the exercise of his abilities. The realization of that ambition is the greta building at Nos. 398 to 422 Oxford-street. It will represent when opened on March 15—not merely the ambition, but the experience of a man whose aim and object is to serve London as truly and well in the selling of merchandise as its doctors and lawyers in the selling of advise and knowledge. A further chapter of these notes will be devoted to an exposition of the business principles which will govern the conduct of business at Selfridge’s, so that those matters need not be touched on here. From a strictly American point of view much might be written of the difficulties in respect to London building regulations which have attended the erection of the “Selfridge Palace” in Oxford-street; but illuminating and educative as would be American comments and criticisms in this connexion, they may be well left outside in view of the fact that the Selfridge building has been erected in a shorter space of time than has been say structures of approximate size or character in the whole world.
But the building itself is no more than the shell or husk which shelters the vital organism—comprehensive and complete—of Selfridge’s Store. This is not the time, nor is it the place to indulge in any prospective statements of what will be achieved. That must be left to the inspection, the criticism, and the judgement of the people of London on and after the 15th of March, when “Selfridge’s” will enter on its active career, or the methods and principles of which an outline will be given to The Times to-morrow.
The opening of Selfridges department store in London on 15 March 1909.
The Times, March 16, 1909
The great “Store” which Messrs. Selfridge and Co. have erected on Oxford-street, London, was opened yesterday almost literally with a flourish of trumpets, for a bugle sounded at 9 o’clock was the signal for the unlocking of the doors. Thenceforward until late in the evening the building was crowded with interested visitors. There were much curiosity manifested in this imposing American “Store” which Messrs. Selfridge have created in the centre of London. The proprietors, besides scattering some 600,000 personal invitations broadcast throughout the land, extended a formal welcome through the newspapers to the “entire public” to visit Selfridge’s during the first week of its existence. The invitation was accepted yesterday by a vast number of people, and it was noticeable that women—whose enthusiasm for new shops, whether American or English, is of course irrepressible—by no means predominated unduly; the male sex was well represented. There were small crowds of potential shoppers outside the doors before 9 o’clock, and a rush was made for the honour of making the first purchase.
Opening day crowd.
The elaborate decoration of the exterior with festoons of laurel and flags of all nations, no less than the gala appearance of the shop windows—in which costumes were displayed, wiyh flowers and painted panels for the background—gave some hint of the sights that were in store for Messrs. Selfridge’s visitors. The interior of the building presented the appearance rather if a fair than a mere shop. There were masses of flowers and foliage everywhere, while the two great “wells” which reach from the ground floor to the skylights in the roof, were filled with myriads of tiny globules suspended on threads, which reminded one of the snow that was falling outside. There were orchestras playing apparently at every corner. The glittering array of wares, seen to the best advantage in show rooms that are more airy and spacious—owing to the absence of dividing walls and partitions—than those which are familiar to London eyes, impressed one with their infinite variety. There appeared to be everything here that man or woman could desire to purchase. Apart, however, from the open aspect of the rooms, there was bound to be little that was typically American about the “Store,” except, perhaps, the lavish supply of telephones and the pleasant habit of the shop assistants in refraining from asking what they could do for one.
On the top floor the visitors found suites of restaurants. Adjoining the restaurants is a roof garden, where, in more sunny weather than was experienced yesterday, they may bake cookies in the open air. Descending from the fourth floor to the one beneath it, the visitors discovered reception rooms decorated in different styles—known as the American, Colonial, French, and German rooms—together with galleries in which are displayed pictures and other works of art. An interpreter’s room has been set apart for foreign visitors. There are also on this floor a “rest” room for ladies and a room in which a trained nurse is constantly in readiness to provide “first aid” to the sick. Railway and steamship ticket offices, a bureau de champs, a library, information desk, post and telegraph offices, and theatre booking office all fine places in the third floor, and a hairdressing saloon is at the service of customers.
The Times, March 18, 1909
The Times, March 15, 1909
1This is the first of four articles published by the London Times describing the importance of H. Gordon Selfridge’s arrival and the future opening of his grand store. The other articles, “Its Ideal and Principal of Business” (Feb. 24), “How Selfridge’s Gathers Its Goods from All Parts of the World” (Feb. 26), and “The Power of Imagination in Business” (Feb. 27) are more London-focused and outside the scope of Chicagology.