The capitalist who transformed a conservative United Kingdom into a more egalitarian society

Harry Selfridge’s founding of Selfridge’s in 1908, brought with it one of the
largest and most profound shifts in British culture seen since the inception of
our nation. Not only did it change consumer culture, not only did it innovate in
areas where previously people were restricted in shopping habits, it also
brought with it a groundbreaking wave of liberalization, which helped lead to the
emancipation of women and the breakdown of class barriers.

The department store, Selfridge’s, was one of the first spaces to contain
separate male and female toilets in the UK. We take it for granted today, but
prior to the 20th Century, women were not commonly seen outside the house.
The barriers to their emancipation were extreme. Imagine a society in which
there were no places to go to the bathroom; where the limiting factor for travel
was the distance from your own home. Selfridge’s, by utilizing gendered toilets
for the first time, by locating near public transport links, became a place in
which women felt safe to frequent alone, or with other women. It was a place
they could be individually empowered. And this was revolutionary to the
emancipation of women.

Selfridge himself was also a supporter of the Suffragettes, and the wider
campaign in favour of women’s rights in the UK. Whether this was a gesture
utilized to enhance profits, or whether there was a genuine streak of early
American freedom and liberalism behind this decision is moot, the support of
the Suffragettes meant that when militant feminism came to the streets of the
UK, one of the few shops which weren’t targeted and vandalized was
Selfridge’s. A smart business decision, but also a noble cause to support.

Selfridge was also unique in the way he advertised his new department store,
spending millions on mass advertisement prior to even finishing the
construction of his store. In his advertisement, he emphasized a simple fact; his
store was open to everyone, no matter which creed or class. Selfridge’s was
one of the first places in the UK where the doors were open to all regardless of
class, and the aristocracy, middle classes and working classes all shopped and
perused alongside one another. This egalitarianism was also helped by the
removal of what previously was common in stores.

Previously in shops, there would be staff members employed to ensure that
customers were served as speedily and efficiently as possible. The emphasis,
from the business point of view, was that the more time workers spent with
actual buying customers, the more profit that would be made, and ultimately
anyone seen to be loitering or spending unnecessary time would be moved on
by members of staff on the shop floor. Selfridge removed these staff. He
allowed people to spend time in his store, taking in every element of every
display stall. For those with little money, this opened the door to a vast space,
filled with artwork, flowers and grand architecture.

Selfridge’s prided itself on technological innovation, being one of the first stores
to demonstrate the television in action, it sold revolutionary wireless radios, and
even, as a publicity stunt, was host to the plane which first flew across the
English Channel. People from working class backgrounds could come into Selfridge’s as if it were a museum, a showcase of what was happening in the
world, and a taste of what could be achieved. Harry Selfridge was a self-made
man, he battled adversity and hardship to climb to where he perched. He grew
up in rural Wisconsin, to a single mother, worked up the ranks in Chicago
before noticing a break in the market for American style department stores in
the UK. This drive, and the fact he was a self-made man, underpinned his
classless emphasis within his store. He wanted people to be inspired by what
was within, so that they too could reach for the stars and become all that they
might be. Many members of the public saw technology previously seen only by
the upper middle classes and aristocracy inside his store. Selfridge installed
plentiful lift shafts, at a time when the thought of moving straight up was
unlikely, inspiring thousands. In the first week of opening, Selfridge’s bought in
1 million customers, when the population of London itself was only 4 million.

The staff members in previous stores were treated much like the servants in
aristocratic homes. Many of them would live on site in accommodation above
the stores, in rather squalor conditions, with minimal pay. Selfridge did not
follow this pattern. He wanted his staff to enjoy working, and to pass that
enjoyment on to his customers, emphasizing customer service over efficiency; a
model that turned out to be more profitable. He paid his staff a higher amount,
so they could afford to live outside of work and commute themselves,
liberalizing the workers, setting an example to other stores, and changing the
way that people, who otherwise would have had very few rights, could live.

Other department stores saw the success Selfridge’s achieved and emulated it.
They precipitated an environment which encouraged female emancipation and
liberalization, and broke down class barriers. As Harry Selfridge himself said,
“the customer is always right”, regardless of class or gender. His take on
capitalism, his fight to succeed and profit above other stores lead to a greater
delicacy in customer service, a greater emphasis on care, and better treatment
for workers.

Selfridge understood that capitalism is not a race to the bottom, because for
companies to succeed they need to please customers, and the greatest
weapon for change possessed by the masses is the power of the purse. We live
in a world today of immense wealth and technology that otherwise would have
been out of reach to the vast majority at the bottom of the ladder. Looking at
where society was in the past, and how far it has come to the present, should
lead to a great optimism about where it will go, and to its future state.
Capitalism and liberalism go hand in hand to bring about better living
conditions, higher pay, and opportunities and freedom for all. Every customer is
capable of creating profit, regardless of individual attributes, and can thus
command better treatment.