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Behind the scenes: Mr Selfridge and Mr Sinclair

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Harry Gordon Selfridge

Following my previous ‘Behind the Scenes’ post about how real-life 1900s department stores helped to inspire Sinclair’s in The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, I wanted to write a bit more specifically about one of the most famous of the Edwardian department stores – Selfridges, and in particular its owner, Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Like my own fictional department store-owner Mr Sinclair, Selfridge was an American. Born in Wisconsin in 1856, he left school at 14, first finding work as a junior book-keeper in a bank. He had several other jobs before aged 22, he took on a position at Marshall Field, then one of Chicago’s biggest and most successful new department stores.

Selfridge’s initial position at the store couldn’t have been much lowlier – he was employed as a ‘stock boy’ working in the wholesale department. But his energy and ambition led him to quickly climb the ladder, bringing lots of new ideas to help the store to grow and thrive. Within eight years he was promoted to manager, gaining a reputation for clever innovation, a flair for publicity, and the highest standards of customer service. In fact, whilst working at Marshall Field, he is supposed to have come up with the maxim ‘the customer is always right’.

Marshall Field in the 1800s

Marshall Field department store in the 1800s

Before long ‘mile-a-minute Harry’ as he had become known had risen through the ranks, and had become a junior partner. He revelled in his new wealth and status, enjoying dressing elegantly and living the life of a Chicago society gentleman.

In 1890, he married Rose Buckingham, the daughter of a prominent Chicago family. Rose too had a head for business, having already enjoyed some success as a property developer – at that time unusual for a young woman. The couple had a spectacular wedding, and went on to have five children.

But after being refused a full partnership at Marshall Field, Selfridge began to look beyond Chicago. A holiday to London had given him the opportunity to observe a gap in the market –  although London was at that time one of the most important cities in the world, its department stores had nothing to compare to their luxurious American equivalents, or to the elegant grand magasins of Paris.

After finding a site on Oxford Street, at what was then considered the ‘unfashionable end’, Selfridge invested some £400,000 in developing it. The costs of his project were huge, and there were all kinds of complications to overcome before his dream of opening London’s largest department store could become a reality – but at last, Selfridges opened in March 1909, in a blaze of publicity.

A newspaper advertisement from Selfridges opening in 1909

A newspaper advertisement from Selfridges opening in 1909

Meanwhile, Selfridge himself had become something of a celebrity in London. When he arrived at the store each morning – always very promptly at 8.30am – a crowd would have gathered on the pavement to see him. He always doffed his hat to his watching admirers.

He had a large corner office on the fourth floor of the store, with its own lift and a private dining room where he could entertain important guests. As well as a personal secretary, he had his own social secretary and a valet who would visit him in his office each morning to make sure he was always perfectly dressed.

Each day he would walk the store’s six acres. The department managers would anxiously telephone ahead to warn staff that he was approaching. He sent messages to his staff in special yellow envelopes – and he also famously used an hourglass in all his meetings, to stop people taking up too much of his time.

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Selfridge hard at work

He also continued to bring all kinds of new ideas to his store – from exhibiting the aeroplane in which Louis Bleriot first crossed the Channel, to later on in 1925, hosting one of the first ever demonstrations of live television.

Selfridge captured some of his ideas about shops and shopping in a book, The Romance of Commerce which was published in 1918. The book included chapters exploring ancient commerce, Lorenzo de Medici, the East India company, and much more!

Flush with his success, Selfridge enjoyed a glamorous London life in the 1910s and 1920s. But in the later years of his life, his extravagance began to catch up with him. After losing much of his fortune in the Great Depression, and struggling to compromise on his luxurious lifestyle, he soon became heavily in debt. He was eventually forced out of Selfridges in 1941 on a reduced pension – and when he died just six years later, he was almost destitute.

His intriguing life story has since inspired a biography – Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge which I mentioned in my last post – and a TV series as well. (I can’t help thinking that their version of Mr Selfridge looks a little different from the real-life man himself, pictured above!)

Jeremy Piven as Mr Selfridge in the ITV series

Jeremy Piven as Mr Selfridge in the ITV series

And of course, Selfridge also helped to inspire The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.  I was fascinated by the story of this charismatic character, who was often in my mind when I was creating my own fictional department store-owner, Edward Sinclair.

Although he’s also a wealthy American, Mr Sinclair ended up being quite a different character to the real-life Selfridge. He’s a younger, single man-about-town who lives in elegant apartments over the store, whose unknown past is much speculated upon by his employees – and who is always a little bit of a mystery…

But I did enjoy giving my Mr Sinclair a few of Mr Selfridge’s idiosyncracies. For example, Selfridge famously loved pug dogs – so I’ve given Mr Sinclair his very own pet pug, Lucky. And just like Mr Selfridge, Sinclair wears an orchid in his buttonhole and takes great pride in being immaculately dressed at all times.

Here’s where we first hear about Mr Sinclair, in Chapter 1 of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow:

The owner of Sinclair’s department store was Mr Edward Sinclair, who was as famous as the store itself. He was an American, a self-made man, renowned for his elegance, for the single, perfect orchid he always wore in his buttonhole, for the ever-changing string of beautiful ladies on his arm, and most of all for his wealth. Although most of them had only been working for him for a few weeks, and most of them had barely set eyes on him, the staff of Sinclair’s had taken to referring to him as ‘the Captain’ because rumour had it that he had  run away to sea in his youth. There were already a great number of rumours about Edward Sinclair. But whether or not the stories were true, it seemed like an apt nickname. After all, the store itself was a little like a ship: as glittering and luxurious as an ocean liner, ready to carry its customers proudly on a journey to an exotic new land.

Will we learn more about the mysterious Mr Sinclair (and his secrets)? You’ll have to wait for next year’s The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth to find out…

All the photos in this post come from my gigantic Edwardiana Pinterest board. See also my previous post: Behind the Scenes – The Edwardian Department Store

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Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Department Store

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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