Harry Gordon Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, on 11th January, 1858. His father, Robert Selfridge, ran a general store in the town and his mother Lois, was a teacher.
In 1861 Robert Selfridge joined the Union Army and was eventually promoted to the rank of major. He survived the American Civil War and was honourably discharged in 1865, but he did not return to the family home.
Harry's mother brought up Harry and his two brothers, Charles and Robert, on her own, on the earnings of a teacher. She told her sons that their father had been killed fighting in the war. Harry later described his mother as "brave, upstanding and with indomitable courage". She needed to be as Charles and Robert both died soon after the war.
Lois and her only surviving son moved to Jackson, Michigan. She found work as a primary school teacher in the town. As her wages were only $30 a month, she supplemented her low income by painting greetings cards. An excellent teacher, she eventually became headmistress of Jackson High School. Harry Selfridge later said that the main thing his mother taught him was never to fear failure.
At the age of 10 Harry began to contribute to the family income by delivering newspapers. A couple of years later he started working at the Leonard Field's dry-goods store. When he was 13, he and a schoolfriend, Peter Loomis, produced a boy's monthly magazine. This was his first business venture and the boys made money from the advertising carried in the magazine.
Harry Selfridge left school at 14 and found work at a small bank in Jackson. After failing his entrance examinations to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Selfridge became a book-keeper at Gilbert, Ransom & Knapp, a local furniture factory. Four months later the company closed down and Selfridge moved to Grand Rapids to work in the insurance industry.
In 1876 his ex-employer, Leonard Field, agreed to write Selfridge a letter of introduction to Marshall Field in Chicago, who was a senior partner in Field, Leiter & Company one of the most successful stores in the city. As a result of the letter he was employed as a stock boy in the wholesale department.
In 1885 Selfridge was appointed as the retail general manager's personal assistant. Later he became responsible for advertising. This included employing phrases such as "the customer is always right" and "give the lady what she wants".
Selfridge married Rosalie Buckingham in 1890. Three years later Selfridge became a junior partner in Field, Leiter & Company and gradually amassed a considerable personal fortune.
In 1906 Harry and Rosalie Selfridge had a holiday in England. He noticed that the large stores in London had not adopted the latest selling ideas that were being used in the United States. He decided to invest £400,000 in building his own department store in Oxford Street. The new store, Selfridges, opened to the public on March 15, 1909.
The couple decided to settle in London but Rosalie died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. Between 1921 and 1929 he lived in Lansdowne House, 9 Fitzmaurice Place, in Berkeley Square. He also leased, Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire.
Harry Gordon Selfridge died on 8th May, 1947 and is buried at St Mark's Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.