The pioneering Mr Selfridge

In 1919, the quickest way to get from London to Dublin was to take the train to Holyhead, sail across the Irish Sea and then take the train from Dun Laoghaire (then named Kingstown) to Dublin. The journey would take about 11 hours and, in a world where time was increasingly equated to money, this was too long for the frenetic Harry Selfridge. Faced with having to make this trip for business, Mr Selfridge decided to break new ground and charter a plane. It was the world’s first business flight.

Harry Gordon Selfridge was rarely satisfied with the status quo. He shook up the staid world of London retail and British drapery when he opened his eponymous department store. Selfridges combined American innovation with Harry’s personal eye for detail and design. The store would be a revelation and Mr Selfridge would continue to innovate long after the store was built.

Harry_Gordon_Selfridge_circa_1910 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Selfridges would open the world’s first ground floor beauty hall in 1910. Today, department stores across the open their doors directly to a world of cosmetics and perfumes, a heady mixture to stimulate the senses and lure shoppers into the store. This was unheard of in the early years of the twentieth century, when cosmetics were more associated with show girls rather than respectable society ladies. Mr Selfridge’s love of fragrances and his business acumen ensured he anticipated and helped create the fashion and passion for make up.

Mr Selfridge was the showman of shopping, a retail impresario who delighted in creating spectacles to draw people to the store. His window displays revolutionised how shops displayed their goods – his giant tableaux would do far more than highlight what was sold within. His windows told stories or amazed the viewer with sumptuous displays of the latest luxuries. Brightly lit at night, window shopping became a new past time and tourist attraction.

These developments are well documented and well known to an increasing number of people thanks to his biography receiving the television treatment. What is less well known is that Mr Selfridge made the world’s first business trip by plane. Harry was heading to an Ireland that was in the middle of ripping itself apart. The Irish Republican Army was fighting the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its ‘black and tan’ back ups.

A De Havilland DH-9A  of the type flown by Mr Selfridge by San Diego Air & Space Museum [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

But civil war and the move towards an independent Ireland didn’t deter Mr Selfridge from taking a positive view of the prospect of Irish retail. Selfridge wanted to buy Brown Thomas, a fixture of Grafton Street, Dublin’s prime shopping street, since the mid-nineteenth century. And he wanted it fast.

Aviation was still a fledgling and dangerous pursuit. It had developed exponentially in the crucible of the First World War, but was still something so risky that it was uninsurable. This didn’t stop Harry, who chartered an Airco De Havilland 9 from Hendon Aerodrome.  He landed at RAF Baldonnel just three and a quarter hours later, including a stop at Chester for refuelling and tea.

Dublin's Grafton Street and its main department store, Brown Thomas - object of Selfridge's attentions - By J.-H. Janßen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It was a bold move. The picture above shows what cutting edge aviation looked like in 1919 – this is the De Havilland 9 and to modern eyes it looks almost impossibly fragile. Selfridge was, however, delighted by the trip, telling the press:

“This only shows what possibilities there are now in high speed aerial transport to the businessman in a hurry.”

Whether he would have been quite as delighted by today’s world of business travel is questionable. He might have appreciated some of the more luxurious options, but he also liked to be at the cutting edge of developments. It seems more likely he would have Skyped.

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