Follow the Yellow

Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Department Store


Edwardian shoppers (illustration via Pinterest)

At lots of the events I’ve been doing this autumn, I’ve been talking about some of the real-life historical background to The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. I thought it would be fun to share some of this here on the blog too.

If you’ve read the author’s note at the back of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, you’ll know that although Sinclair’s Department Store is fictional, it was partly inspired by the real history of London’s Edwardian department stores.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, department stores were still a new phenomenon. Before this time, shopping generally meant buying from local markets and small shops, which tended to sell only a limited range of goods. It wasn’t until the 18th century that shops became grander, with enticing shop-fronts to tempt customers inside.

Even then, ‘shopping’ as we know it today didn’t really exist. Most shops specialised in just one thing – the confectioner’s sold sweets, the baker’s sold bread, the bookshop sold books, and so on. Shopping was a straightforward transaction, with many shops even employing ‘floorwalkers’ whose job it was to actively prevent people from browsing around looking at merchandise without buying anything.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, things started to change. People had more money to spend, cities were growing, and affordable manufactured consumer goods became more readily available. Glamorous, elegant new ‘department stores’ began to open up, offering people an exciting and very modern new way to shop.


Lots of Edwardian shoppers

For the first time, customers were encouraged to wander around a range of different departments, all together in the same building, admiring a tantalising range of different goods to buy. Department stores had beautiful displays, gorgeous windows designed to catch the attention of passers-by, and even their own restaurants where customers could enjoy lunch or afternoon tea.

These were exciting places. In 1898, Harrods boasted the first escalator ever to be seen in a British shop – on the day it was launched, staff members stood at the top ready to dispense smelling salts and cognac to anyone who had been frightened by this new experience!

New advertising helped to spread the word about these glamorous new department stores. During the week that Selfridges opened, a total of 38 different advertisements designed by well-known graphic artists appeared on over a hundred pages of eighteen national newspapers, costing the equivalent of £2.35 million in today’s money.


Selfridges, of course, was one of the most famous of the Edwardian department stores – and was certainly the biggest influence on my fictional store, Sinclair’s, though I also took inspiration from other famous stores like Fortnum and Mason, Liberty’s, Harrods, and the now-defunct Whiteley’s.

Selfridges first opened on Oxford Street in 1909, and was the brainchild of Harry Gordon Selfridge. An American who had previously worked in department stores in New York, he had grand ambitions for his store, which he wanted to be the largest and most glamorous in London. As well as the usual departments, it boasted all kinds of other facilities, including a post-office, a library, and even a ‘quiet room’ where people could relax if shopping became too overwhelming! Rather than being just a shop, Selfridge thought of his department store as something more akin to a cultural centre, and it soon became a fashionable destination.


The story of Selfridges (and Selfridge himself) is a fascinating one, and of course has also inspired the recent ITV series Mr Selfridge. I didn’t know about the series when I first started working on The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, though it was no surprise to me to discover that the story of the Edwardian department stores had grabbed others’ imaginations as well as my own! At first, I deliberately avoided watching so that I wouldn’t be influenced while I was writing, but I’ve since seen a few episodes and though it’s a very different story, the sets and costumes give you a great idea of what a department store like Sinclair’s might really have looked like:

At around the same time, the BBC also broadcast The Paradise, another series based on the rise of the department store – though this time set a little earlier, in the late 1800s. This series was loosely based on the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) by Émile Zola and again gives a good flavour of the early department stores:

I loved finding out all about the history of the department store when I was researching Clockwork Sparrow. I wanted to make sure that my own fictional store, Sinclair’s, would feel as real as possible to the reader, and I had a lot of fun adding in some of the true-life details and facts I discovered.

As well as reading about the late Victorian and Edwardian department stores, I was influenced by lots of other reading about shopping in general – such as the lovely scene in one of my favourite books, I Capture the Castle, where Cassandra and Rose visit a 1930s London department store, which I wrote about for the Waterstones blog here.

Of course I also had to visit some contemporary department stores too – I spent lots of time wandering around the likes of Liberty’s, Harrods and Fortnum’s – and of course, sampling the odd afternoon tea along the way!


Harrods afternoon tea

If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the department store, here’s are a few good places to start:

  • Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead
    This is the book that inspired the Mr Selfridge TV series – an entertaining and very readable biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge, packed full of facts about Selfridges’ history.
  • Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola
    In this classic French novel, Zola captures the impact of the new grand magasins upon Paris in the 19th century
  • The Department Store by Claire Masset
    This little book from the Shire Library series is a succinct summary of the history of the department store – from its earliest origins right through to the department stores of the present day.

The pictures in this post come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board, where you can also find lots more pictures of Edwardian department stores.



Leave a reply