Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Pastime Good for the Soul

I've started watching Mr. Selfridge, on PBS Masterpiece, Sunday evenings. It's fun, not epic, but a good replacement for Downton Abbey as Downton's Season 3 came to a horrific close. Frankly, I don't know how they will recover from this one.

Anyway, Mr. Selfridge focuses on the famed Selfridge & Co., London's wonderful department store, opened in March 1909, founded by American-born Harry Gordon Selfridge, from Wisconsin. The flagship store remains today on Oxford Street in the heart of London, second largest only to Harrod's.

Selfridge was a brash American, but his innovative marketing skills led to tremendous success. Previously, most shopping for clothing and accessories took place in individual, specialty stores, where the salesperson showed items to the customer. Selfridge wanted to make shopping a fun adventure, putting merchandise out for customers to examine, see, touch, try-on. Changing merchandise with the season, window dressing as an art form. Well, he must have been right, or as he often remarked, "The customer is always right", because look where the evolution of shopping has come!

So, I decided to explore the concept of shopping. Of course, in the beginning, shopping extended out of the markets or faires, and the exchange of goods. Buying goods at the weekly market, led to customers coming back for more at familiar locations and dealing with the same shop keeper.

By the 18th Century, shopping became less of a chore and more of a pasttime, a curiosity. In London, in 1786, a German visitor exclaimed: "We strolled up and down lovely Oxford Street this evening, for some goods look more attractive by artificial light...First one passes a watchmaker's, then a silk or fan store, now a silversmiths, a china or glass shop. Just as alluring are the confectioners and fruiterers, where behind the handsome glass windows, pyramids of pineapples, figs, grapes, oranges and all manner of fruit are on show."

Shopping and beautiful window displays made the city more beautiful, and often helped bring visitors attention away from the terrible poverty that also existed in the city. At the time, there was still quite a divide between the classes. Still today, even if one's pocketbook is fairly empty, one can still go "window shopping". It's always good for the soul.


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