When the British drama “Mr. Selfridge” debuted on PBS last week, American viewers saw two things rarely on display in contemporary popular culture: a businessman hero and a version of commercial history that includes not just manufacturing but shopping.
The show stars Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American-born founder of the London department store. In the first episode, he arrives in 1909, determined to shake up British retailing with techniques that made him a success as a partner at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s: showmanship, advertising, and displays that let customers handle merchandise. In the second, he displays perfumes and powder right by the store’s front door.
Ambitions that an American drama might treat as self-centered greed become, in a British context, a bold strike against class privilege. “You show great potential,” Selfridge tells the talented shop girl Agnes Towler (played by Aisling Loftus), the show’s working-class heroine. “You remind me of myself when I started out — grasping for every chance, keen as mustard to learn. You love it, don’t you? The customers, the selling, the feeling of the merchandise under your hands …”
A hit for ITV in Britain, which has ordered a second season set on the eve of World War I, “Mr. Selfridge” isn’t the only department-store period drama hitting small screens. Its BBC competitor, “The Paradise,” transplants Emile Zola’s 1883 novel “The Ladies’ Paradise” from a Parisian grand magasin to a midsized English city. It, too, features a self-made hero and an upwardly mobile heroine with a genius for merchandising.
Better written than “Mr. Selfridge,” which also suffers from Piven’s bombastic delivery, “The Paradise” benefits from a more-intriguing historical setting — the 1870s, when the idea of a department store itself was still novel. “The Paradise” will air on PBS beginning in October.
If these shows’ entrepreneurial heroes are unusual, it’s their focus on retailing that fills the real cultural lacuna. Not even Ayn Rand deigned to celebrate shopping.
Yet like railroads and telegraphs, the department stores of the late 19th and early 20th century were transformative institutions. They pioneered innovations ranging from installment credit to electric lighting. They brought together goods from all over the world and lit up city streets with their window displays. They significantly changed the role of women, giving them new career opportunities and respectable places to meet in public. They even invented the ladies’ room.
When department stores were new, people understood that they were significant — liberating or corrupting, but obviously important. Nowadays, we treat shopping as silly stuff.
“When I tell people I’ve written on shopping, I still get giggles,” says Erika Rappaport, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose 2000 book “Shopping for Pleasure” describes the development of retailing in London’s West End, focusing particularly on women shoppers. “People are uncomfortable: ‘That’s not real history.’ ”
But ignoring consumer culture produces a bizarre picture of the Industrial Revolution that features textile factories but no one buying clothes. By downplaying the pleasures of newly inexpensive goods, the production-only version of history also misses the everyday meaning of a rising standard of living — the satisfaction of having multiple outfits, or a variety of hat trimmings, that allow you to express your mood or personality.
“The appeal just of the stuff is a really major part of all of this,” says Linda M. Scott, a professor at Oxford and the author of “Fresh Lipstick,” a history of the relationship between feminism and the beauty and fashion economy. Scott says she was surprised to discover just how important the desire for cash to spend on consumer goods was in drawing young women out of domestic service and into factories.
With the advent of new shopping venues and new forms of transit, even middle-class women achieved greater independence, if not to work then at least to be out and about.
Along with their self-made heroes, both “Mr. Selfridge” and “The Paradise” feature talented, ambitious female protagonists, giving the shows a feminist undertone that befits the subject matter. For the early women’s movement, department stores were “flash points, places where it mattered,” says Scott. “Mr. Selfridge” hints at the connection when Lady Mae, the hero’s fictional patron, demands a weekly luncheon for suffragettes in the store’s Palm Court tearoom and the sale of suffragette merchandise in the store.
The real Selfridge’s did carry such goods, including Suffrage Christmas Crackers, and department stores on both sides of the Atlantic furnished meeting spaces for women’s groups.
Today’s respectable academics still have trouble acknowledging that consumption can have meaning. “Feminists are the worst,” says Rappaport. “They won’t admit that it’s an important part of their lives.” After academic lectures, she often finds herself approached by feminist scholars who want to talk about their love of shopping.
“It’s never a public question. It’s always after.”
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Style” and the forthcoming “The Power of Glamour.”