The Representation of the Protagonist Harry Gordon Selfridge in the TV Series "Mr Selfridge"

Term Paper, 2015

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Historical and theoretical background
2.1 Bourgeois culture and the rise of the 19th century department store
2.2 A new era of shopping: Harry Selfridge conquers London’s society

3. The representation of the protagonist Harry Selfridge in the TV series Mr Selfridge
3.1 Mr Selfridge – Everybody’s darling
3.2 Mr Selfridge –a profit-oriented and calculating businessman

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Macy’s, KaDeWe, Au Bon Marché, Harrods, Whiteley’s, les Galeries LaFayette – all these stores represent only a few of the many well-known department stores situated in different modern metropolises. What all these famous large-scale stores have in common is that they are mass marketplaces which are often referred to as “halls of temptation” (Rappaport 16) or “cathedrals of consumption” (Fiske 10). In this sense, shopping is no longer considered a pure economic act. Rather, it is regarded as an act being strongly associated with illusion, desires, self-fulfillment, seduction and dreams. With their innovative interior and exterior architecture, their overwhelming range of goods coming from all over the world, and their leisure time facilities, they manage to fascinate us. These great stores offer customers an enjoyable shopping experience or rather enable them to spend a unique day out by providing much more than the latest fashion and household goods or nice cafés and restaurants in comfortable settings. Many of this type of store include cinemas, theater shows, fitness center or sometimes even miniature golf courses or bowling centers.

March 15, 1909 marks the birth of one of these great department stores, still sustaining its position in British society today: Selfridges. It was the American self-made retail entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge who founded this department store in London’s Oxford Street in 1909 and fascinated his customers by creating a unique experience of shopping (Woodhead 1). To this day, Harry Selfridge is highly praised as a unique marketing innovator. As his personal story inspired ITV drama, there even has been a TV series adapted in which the life of Selfridge and his family members is portrayed as well as the rise and the success of his lifework.

Given that this American visionary presents the protagonist of the TV series Mr Selfridge, the aim of this paper is to consider the central question how his character is represented in the series. How does the character of Harry Selfridge develop in the series or rather how does the audience perceive his personality in the first season of Mr Selfridge? In order to answer these questions, it is first of all necessary to reveal the series’ historical background. Thus, the following paper will initially give a brief overview concerning the rise of the 19th century department store and its position in society at that time. Then, the paper will roughly present Selfridge’s biographical background with specific focus on how the self-made man influenced London’s society in the early 20th century. Subsequently, the paper will present its centerpiece by examining the protagonist’s character traits. Based on selected episodes and key scenes, this chapter will focus on the character of Harry Gordon Selfridge. The paper will then conclude by summarizing the main results outlined in the previous analysis. In order to provide the reader with visual impressions, the conclusion of this work is followed by an appendix, illustrating important figures and images.

2. Historical and theoretical background

2.1 Bourgeois culture and the rise of the 19th century department store

As the introductory chapter already notes, we do not primarily go shopping and visit formidable shopping arcades in order to purchase goods we absolutely need. By contrast, we often go shopping because we like to be surrounded by beautiful objects inspiring our mood in a positive way and we enjoy consuming lovely things that make us happy. In other words, the question of emotional pleasure of consumption becomes celebrated in our consumer society consisting of “individuals maximizing their satisfactions through purchasing from an ever-expanding range of goods” (Featherstone 668). Yet what exactly constitutes a department store? How does its origin or rather its historical development look and to what extent has the rise of the 19th century department store influenced our social structures?

Although we more or less all know what a department store means, there are still problems concerning an official definition. Even though it is quite difficult to find a fixed definition, it is widely accepted that the department store is and has always been a complex dynamic institution influencing our society today (Resseguie 301). A very simple definition of the many definitions of a department store is that given by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. According to this academic dictionary, a department store is “a large store/shop that is divided into several parts, each part selling a different type of goods” (406). By comparing different definitions, there seems to be general agreement that a standard department store must offer different product lines organized into separate departments such as clothing, groceries, household products, furniture, sporting goods, jewelry and cosmetic departments (Tamilia 14). This implies that a department store seems to be a multidimensional institution with “everything under one roof” (Tamilia 4).

As a mechanism of modern life, the department store has fascinated its contemporaries from day one of its inception (Haupt 65). Besides other fundamental achievements such as the development of the railroad, electricity, machines or world exhibitions, the department store was indeed a precursor of the modern shopping center and simultaneously a precursor of the modern era (Haupt 65). Certainly, the department store as a retail institution was not directly established all at once in the 19th century. Rather, its triumph was dependent on several factors which eventually rendered the department store a revolutionary institution affecting “every facet of social and economic life” (Tamilia 2).

The Industrial Revolution, which drastically changed economic as well as social conditions in Europe during the 19th century, presented an essential precondition, favoring the rise of the department store culture. Especially the invention of automatic weaving looms and the invention of the steam-engine enabled mass productions of commodities (Adam 9). Moreover, the department store “emerged at a time and place in history as a result of mass urbanization and the concentration of people in centralized city core[s]” (Tamilia 4). As this population shift from rural to urban areas was closely related to modernization as well as industrialization, more and more people were concentrating in city centers in order to find employment which concurrently enlarged the department store’s clientele (Tamilia 4). Another important factor, stimulating the expansion of the 19th century department store was the invention of the paper money and the system of credit in European nations during the 19th century. Henceforth, the act of shopping was enormously facilitated as it was much more comfortable to keep a few banknotes instead of paying with heavy gold or silver coins and customers were no longer obliged to pay the full price immediately (Adam 10).

There seems to be general agreement among retail historians that Paris was considered the secret European capital of commerce, culture and art during the 19th century. Accordingly, quite a few historians assume that the department store culture as such developed in Paris (Strohmeyer 117). It is difficult to say when the department store really arrived, as so-called ‘monster’ shops already existed at the very beginning of the 19th century (Flanders 110). However, it is widely accepted that Aristide Boucicaut, a French entrepreneur who established the Parisian department store Au Bon Marché in 1852, sort of ‘invented’ the department store system (Adam 14). At Au Bon Marché, the act of shopping rapidly became a unique experience as Boucicaut’s business concept responded to the customers’ personal wishes. For instance, mothers could easily do their shopping while their children were supervised (Adam 19). Au Bon Marché immediately became the role model for several European department stores. Gradually over the 19th century, the old conservative business system where the customer stated which goods he or she desired, the shop assistant immediately cared for the customer’s desires and the main floorwalker finally escorted his client to the next area he or she wished to visit, was replaced by the new system of large retail stores (Flanders 109).

But why was this new commercial concept so innovative and successful? According to Flanders, “there were two main kinds of innovation” (111). The first was the type of innovation the customer really ‘saw’ like new commercial architecture such as customer elevators, cash-registers or plate-glass windows. Regarding the second kind of innovation, the customer rather ‘felt’ than saw this type of reform. This second kind of innovation generally included new ways of organizing space, the creation of service departments such as ladies’ lavatories, hairdressers, reading rooms, silence rooms, smoking rooms, restaurants, fixed prices, the right to return unsatisfactory products or cleaners and laundry services (Flanders 112). Obviously, the most important change that “contributed to the temptation of spending money nowadays is gathering together under one roof all kinds of goods – clothing, millinery, groceries, furniture, in fact of all necessaries of life” (Jeune 125). Jeune also focuses on the employment of female shop assistants. As a shop-woman usually was more patient and generally could identify with the despairs of her customers, especially female shoppers felt comfortable which at the same time increased the sales market and mass consumption.

In fact, a department store was by definition middle class and thus “a bourgeois celebration, an expression of what its culture stood for and where it had come over the past century” (Miller 3). The department store represented the bourgeoisie’s world, the world of leisurely women who often became liberated and emancipated through the department store system. For the first time, women could do their shopping by themselves “without in any way jeopardizing their reputations” (Woodhead 4). The department store was not only the bourgeoisie’s world, but it rather showed how social life and bourgeois culture were changing. In brief, the department store was “the anchor in a rapidly expanding egalitarian, urban society” (Woodhead 4) comparable to the world, in fact, very much like we inhabit today. Since it is now clear under which circumstances the 19th century department store gained such popularity and how it contributed to the emergence of a “mass, bureaucratized age” (Miller 5), the following chapter pays particular attention to the founding father of Selfridges as well as how his business concept influenced London’s society.

2.2 A new era of shopping: Harry Selfridge conquers London’s society

“Arguably no man grasped the concept of consumption as sensual entertainment better than the maverick American retailer, Harry Gordon Selfridge, who opened his eponymous store in London’s Oxford Street in 1909” (Woodhead 1). But who was this man who succeeded in promoting the pleasures of shopping and thus made the ‘new era of shopping’ in England’s capital visible? Harry Selfridge was born to Louis and Robert Selfridge in 1856, in Ripon, Wisconsin. As his father did not return from the American Civil War, his mother had to care for the family on her own and moved with her children to Michigan where she found employment (Adam 69). In 1879, Selfridge moved to Chicago where he was employed at Marshall Field’s, a major department store chain. Since he was quite successful in his retail career, he even became a junior partner in 1890 (Flanders 117). Because he was impulsive, bold, imaginative and full of new ideas, he soon considered Marshall Field’s retail manager to be old-fashioned in terms of his commercial concepts (Woodhead 32).

Convinced that “Edwardian London contained all he needed to make his fortune” (Rappaport 144), he smelt opportunity and arrived in England in 1906 in order to open his visionary department store in the West End. He did not invent anything particularly new, because Edwardian London had been associated with modernity, femininity, and shopping long before his department store opened in 1909 (Rappaport 142). Rather, it was Selfridge’s ability to take the many new ideas of this period and working them together which finally made people reflect upon how this new era of shopping came into being (Flanders 118). Impressed by William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement, Boucicaut’s masterpiece Au Bon Marché in Paris, and William Whiteley’s department store in Bayswater, Selfridge had “a good base on which to build” (Woodhead 33), by simply looking what was already there and improving it. In contrast to other well-known retailers at that time, Selfridge’s belief in the power of marketing and publicity was much more pronounced as he considered advertising “the engine that drove the retail machine” (Woodhead 32). By spending enormous sums of money on advertising, especially in Selfridges opening week, he sort of ‘bought’ the press and, indeed, to his advantage. Instead of using aggressive advertising or making false assertions, Harry “sought to lure his customers in with gentle persuasion and long, homely invitations” (Maloney 84) and his advertising always had a story to tell. Inspired by the idea of giving London a ‘shaking up’, Selfridge wanted to change the ethics of shopping in general. From now on, Selfridges should be a social center and the act of shopping should “be both a visual and tactile experience, one best enjoyed in a moment of self-indulgence…” (Woodhead 34). Everything was to be centralized and coordinated. To say it with the words of Flanders, “it was the embodiment of Selfridge’s credo: everything and everyone in the store were all working to fulfil a single vision – Selfridge’s own” (119). “The customer’s always right” or “Treat them as guests” – these were all Selfridge’s credos being still famous in our commercial world today (Maloney 32).

3. The representation of the protagonist Harry Selfridge in the TV series Mr Selfridge

Based on the biography Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead, Mr Selfridge is a British TV series introduced in the UK by ITV Studios in 2013. With class issues, love affairs, glamour, social history and great story telling, Mr Selfridge is the biggest budget ITV-produced drama of all time. Unlike other British TV series dealing with shopping and pleasure in the late 19th and early 20th century such as the BBC-produced TV series The Paradise, Mr Selfridge is a real-life story focusing on such a wide breadth of different characters “whose lives and fortunes are entangled with the founder of the magnificent Oxford Street department store” (Maloney n.p.). Mr Selfridge perfectly presents the two different sides of Harry Selfridge’s character. With that said, the following chapter will take a closer look on how the character of Harry Gordon Selfridge is represented in the series.

3.1 Mr Selfridge – Everybody’s darling

The first episode also called ‘the pilot episode’ describes how the American visionary Harry Selfridge arrives in Edwardian London in order to open his dream store and to change British consumer culture. The pilot episode consists of quite a few scenes in which the protagonist is depicted as a charming, good-natured and entertaining character. The opening scene in which Harry meets his future shop assistant Agnes Towler in an old-fashioned shop called ‘Gamages’, proves his ability to convince and inspire his target subject. Additionally, it reveals Harry’s optimistic attitude towards retailing (Mr Selfridge ep. 1). Even though Harry gets Agnes into trouble by encouraging her to present the whole range of goods, the shop girl is obviously not able to resist the charming salesman’s demand. Harry’s new sales strategies and his positive or rather forward-thinking attitude towards shopping and selling, previously unknown to Agnes, inspire her. Harry’s proposition “Come on. Let’s have a little bit of fun. You only live once.” (Mr Selfridge ep. 1, 0:02:09) and his positive and pleasing aura, as one can see in figure 1 seem to impress her. Figure 1 clearly presents Harry’s broad grin he uses in order to successfully persuade his target subject of his innovative new ideas. The shop girl consequently overcomes her weaker self and presents all the different pairs of gloves she can offer. Since the shop’s floorwalker is not delighted with these new sales strategies, he forces Selfridge to leave the shop unless he does not intend to buy anything (Mr Selfridge ep.1). On the very same day, the shop girl is immediately dismissed without any references. Again, the protagonist is presented in a very positive way. Instead of simply leaving the shop and not thinking about the floorwalker’s unkind behavior, Harry leaves Agnes a present including his business card. At this point, the audience can assume that Agnes would eventually get employed at Selfridge’s by recognizing that Harry sees and feels something special in her (Mr Selfridge ep.1). Given that Miss Towler is a workaholic and works on her own way, the protagonist probably sees “an element of himself in her” (Maloney 108). As anticipated, the pilot episode reveals that Agnes in fact gets employed at Selfridges. Again, the protagonist is depicted as a conscientious and good-natured character when offering Agnes a possible job in his store. Overwhelmed by Mr Selfridge’s offer, Agnes leaves the house of her future chief in hope that she and her brother George will soon gain social advancement (Mr Selfridge ep.1).


Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Representation of the Protagonist Harry Gordon Selfridge in the TV Series "Mr Selfridge"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Graduate Seminar British Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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675 KB
Mr Selfridge, Selfridges, Harry Gordon Selfridge, Shopping and Pleasure
Quote paper
Kim Frintrop (Author), 2015, The Representation of the Protagonist Harry Gordon Selfridge in the TV Series "Mr Selfridge", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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