Fortnums, Selfridges, and the Rise of the Middle Class

Monday, November 19, 2012
If you had to get locked in some place (book store, amusement park, etc) overnight alone, where would you choose to be locked in?

Well, my initial reaction to this was to say a department store that stocked good beds. Or any beds, really. And bedding. Ten suggested I might like to be locked in at Fortnum and Masons which featured in a docco we watched yesterday. This is a shop so posh it has it’s own historian. Can you believe that? It’s  a food shop that started life stocking probably mostly imported ingredients for the aristocracy. Nothing *made* because your cook would do that. Or one of your cooks. Oh! a propos of “one of my” you have to click through here to read the David Sedaris story Our Perfect Summer. You will never use or hear the phrase “one of my” ever again without thinking it HILARIOUS.

Anyway, the historian said that this was how Fortnums (first name terms, here) started off, and that you would arrive to be met by a frock coated chap who would guide you round with your list. Everything would be delivered and you would be billed at some future date, so nothing as vulgar as money would be mentioned. Inevitably the middle classes crashed the party, wanting to ape the eating habits of the toffs. However, they, too, would have at least *a* cook, so that didn’t change much except the volume of stuff sold. Things changed on the advent of the first european civil war (as Mao Tse Tung called WW1) when people wanted to send such things as marmalade to soldiers in France. Jars were postponed in favour of tins due to the fragile nature of glass and the less than genteel nature of bombs.

Nowadays you can walk around and pick stuff off the shelves. You can have the same marmalade as the duke of so and so, and you can be the fanciest. I, however, have never been there. The most fancy I have been in terms of food shopping is Selfridges. Selfridges was a trail blazing department store. Not the first in London, I believe that was the Bon Marche in Brixton. Toffs never needed department stores – they inherited their stuff or had it made by the appropriate craftsperson. Department stores were designed specifically for the emergent middle classes who did not have inherited belongings and who also did not know how to put a room together for instance. So the department store set up the little vignettes we are so used to being treated to for an eternity before we get to the shopping bit at Ikea. Gordon Selfridge was an American who had worked in a department store in Chigago and had lots of exciting new ideas about how to give these new shoppers the sort of experience that would make them want to spend money. He was an innovator in display, in the training of salespersons, and Selfridges became one of the first places a woman of status could go to on her own. (As an aside, women could walk around London in the Elizabethan era, but their emancipation was retarded by the Victorian era.)

I used to like Selfridges very much when I had money and energy. I have never even been to Harrods – why go all that way if Selfridges is the best shop you have ever seen?

So although there are probably amazing places a person could be locked into what better really than a department store where you could gorge yourself on fancy food, frolic among the gew gaws and bits and bobs, then cozy up in one of London’s most expensive beds?

Recently there has been a TV show called The Paradise which is about an early department store. It’s actually based on a story by Emile Zola, so entirely fictional in that it is set in the North of England. It’s good enough as costume dramas go, and ‘real’ enough in it’s way, but it would have been so much more interesting to have a dramatization of Gordon Selfridge’s life – I mean, for a man who catered to one of the most uptight group of people to be created in the UK he led a pretty interesting life, including having a scandalous relationship with society twins the Dolly sisters.

So. To summarize. I may not have the best imagination in the world, but I do know a fair bit about the history of the department store.

The End.



Ten was worried about me not having any kind of illustration for this post. It just so happens that I still have my store card from back in the day;


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