Friday, April 26, 2013
In lieu of the recent release of the Masterpiece PBS show “Mr. Selfridge,” and at the suggestion of Kate Moody, I started an investigation of Mr. Selfridge’s history with Ripon and the college. To initiate this research process, I first had to find out where to look. Fortunately for me, I had plenty of librarians around to point me in the right direction to start researching. Being the history buff that he is, Andrew Prellwitz suggested I contact the Ripon Historical Society because Mr. Selfridge had lived in Ripon, but wasn’t directly connected to the college—that we knew of. When I arrived at the Ripon Historical Society, located on Watson St. in Ripon, I was greeted warmly by Nedra Martz. In the 10 minutes that it had taken me to walk over there from my initial phone call, she had pulled out some files on Harry Selfridge and enthusiastically provided other information about the Selfridges. Sitting at a table, with photocopied files and original artifacts, I pieced together some knowledge of Mr. Selfridge.
Now, a little background on Mr. Selfridge and the store . . .
In 1858, Harry Gordon Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin and lived on the corner of Seward and Watson until he and his mother moved to Michigan. There are conflicting accounts of how long he stayed in Ripon and the Milwaukee Journal claims it was only a couple months while the Ripon Commonwealth Press says he was here to the age of 17. After a time in Michigan, Harry moved to Chicago where he worked in store sales and eventually landed in London and founded/co-founded Selfridges in 1909. Later he would become a department store tycoon from the popularity of Selfridges. In its current operation, Selfridges encompasses an entire block in London and has multiple levels of department store goods ranging from tea to ties. If a visual comparison is handy, imagine a banquet hall full of perfume and the most extravagant market of imported foods.
I came across newspaper clippings discussing Harry’s return to Ripon. In 1935, he received an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters from Ripon College, which is celebrated with headlines like “Local boy makes good” and “Famous son visits Ripon.” In addition to the degree, the Mill Pond park in Ripon was also named Selfridge Park after him. Once I knew that Harry had connections to the college through his honorary degree, I figured I could return to the Lane Library archives to find more about it. However, even with the advice of Andrew Prellwitz and the archive assistant Dawn Burnside, after a while of searching the college archive’s newspapers, bulletins, commencement folders, photos, and special award files, I was only able to find one place that mentioned the degree. As is the case with many researching endeavors though, the sheer process of looking for information does not guarantee that you will find it. Given the conflicted information we found, more research is needed to determine how long Selfridge actually lived in Ripon.
here for the historical fiction version of Selfridge.