The Man Behind PBS’s Mr. Selfridge

Selfridge and Co. department store in the 1910s

The Man Behind PBS’s Mr. Selfridge

Harry Gordon and Rose Selfridge
The real Harry Gordon and Rose Selfridge

Three weeks ago, we said to goodbye to Downton Abbey. Now it’s time to say farewell to another PBS historical drama, Mr. Selfridge, which began its final season March 27, 2016.

Mr. Selfridge revolves around Selfridge’s department store, its owner Harry Gordon Selfridge, his family and the store’s staff.

The story begins in 1908, with the opening of the store, and ends in 1928. The second season focused on World War I and its effects both on people and commerce.

“The writers skillfully interweave a visit from famed French designer Jeanne Lanvin with plots against Harry, postwar workplace gender tension, family betrayal and the aftereffects of shell shock to create, by the end of the season’s first episode, the looming shadow of catastrophe,” reviewer David Hinckley said of season three.

While I thought the first two seasons were superior to the final two, I enjoyed the series more than Downton.  Its plot lines and characters were more realistic.

The Real Harry Gordon Selfridge

A Selfridge and Co. advertisement
“A Pleasure – A Pastime – A Recreation”

American audiences may be unaware, but the series is based on fact. Selfridge and Co. is a real British department store. While the staff of the store in the series is fictional, Harry Selfridge and his family are based on real individuals.

Like Harry in the series, the real Mr. Selfridge was born in the United States and had a close relationship with his mother. He was a self-made man, taking his first job at age 10 and eventually working for several years for Marshall Field’s department store before moving to Britain and investing in his own store.

Also like the series, he was married to Rose and had four children – Rosalie, Violette, Gordon and Beatrice. A fifth child, the eldest, died as a newborn.

Rose died during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, and Selfridge’s mother passed away a few years later.

Selfridge had a reputation for being a lady’s man, a gambler and a lush spender. By the time he died in 1947, he was virtually penniless.

Selfridge the Business Man

Selfridge and Co. department store in the 1910s
Selfridge and Co. department store in the 1910s

The phrase “the customer is always right” is said to have either been invented by Selfridge or Marshall Fields.

Selfridge was the first to popularize counting down how many shopping days there are left until Christmas.

He also invented many of the things we associate with modern shopping: easily accessible goods, accent lighting and shopping for fun.

The store was set up to ensure customers stayed as long as possible. It had a restaurant, library and modern restrooms.



Updated: 23 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Melina Druga is a multi-genre author with a lifelong love of history, books and the English language. She pens historical fiction, chick lit and nonfiction.

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