More on Saki, Selfridge’s and the ‘Romance of Business’

Following on from the publication here of the lost Saki story ‘The Romance of Business’, Saki scholar Brian Gibson managed to turn up the following article about the series of ads of which Saki’s tale was but a part. I publish it in full below. Readers may think that the writer is taking his brief a bit too seriously and the prose gets bit purple as a result, but it gives an idea of the context.

OCTOBER 3, 1914 SELFRIDGE & CO, LTD, London, England.–A series of ads exploiting the store’s fifth anniversary. There are some twenty odd ads in the complete series. Three of them are reproduced on this page.

It is possible that no more remarkable ads than these have been produced in the entire history of retail advertising. It is certain that there has never been a more interesting and more constructive presentation of the institutional phase of retailing–the side of retailing that is too often submerged when the actual function of a store is under consideration.

It is not in technique and design that the Selfridge ads are out of the ordinary–although they are in reality works of art, on the one hand, and literature, on the other. Their chief novelty and merit lie in the point of view they reflect, a point of view that puts retailing as an enterprise, and trade as a vocation, on the high level on which they properly should stand.

While each ad of the entire series carries the signature of Selfridge & Co., the theme in the text is “the Retail Store as an Institution,” and the subject matter is composed not of what Selfridge & Co. think of themselves, but of what other people think of them. And, after all, is it not public opinion that makes any institution what it is–any institution, at least, the basis of whose work is service?

It is not easy to discuss advertising of this kind without discussing the store whose merchandise and whose business policy and ideals it exploits; yet a discussion of the store in this instance would be a discussion of its publicity, so closely does the theme of the series coincide with the activities of which Selfridge & Co. are typical exponents.

The themes of the three ads reproduced here are respectively: “The Dignity of Work,” “Imagination” and “The Romance of Business.”

The first ad is composed of a letter of congratulations to Selfridge & Co. from Mme. Sarah Bernhardt. The theme of the letter is contained in the caption–the dignity of work. What better theme for an advertisement of a store that has won respect and prestige in the world’s metropolis? Who is better fitted, by honors, and experience, to speak of work and its dignity than “the divine Sarah Bernhardt”?

The second ad opens with a quotation from Keats:

Then let wingèd fancy wander

Through the thought still spread beyond her;

Open wide the mind’s cage door,

She’ll dart forth and cloudward soar.

The paragraph following reads:

Imagination bulks so largely in all that conduces to the sum of human happiness from childhood to old age, that it comes as a shock to be sometimes told that imagination is entirely out of place in the plain, prosaic affairs of business life.

A fitting tribute to that great building traits of the mind–imagination. And a fitting vehicle for its presentation–an advertisement of one of the greatest monuments to vision, the store of Selfridge & Co.

The “Romance of Business” ad is composed of a letter from H. H. Munro (“Saki”), dealing with the great principle that all work worth doing has a broader appeal to the mind than mere mental exercise–has its spiritual side.

The ads reproduced are not the most remarkable of the series. It would be difficult to specify how one is better than another. But these three and a fourth, entitled “The Optimist,” are especially characteristic of the treatment of the entire campaign.

They put the indisputable stamp of high dignity on the business of retailing, and they are prophetic of the future important place which advertising must hold in commercial activities.

Primarily, a store, be it great or small, has for its function the selling of merchandise, the assembling and the distributing of commodities to those who need them. And primarily, the purpose of advertising is the selling of goods, with the additional function of establishing trade and building prestige. Yet it is notable in this series of anniversary ads, that merchandise as merchandise is dealt with only casually.

It is the ideals and the purposes behind the great institution whose signature appears on each ad that form the real theme. Plainly, it is an institution of service, of dignified endeavor, of creative thought, of constructive activities, of purposeful progress. Here are the chief captions of a part of the series:

“Moral Responsibility,” “The Favours of Progress,” “What of the Future?” “Markets of the World,” “Merchandise of the World,” “Romance of Commerce,” “Crystal Gazing” and “Charity.”

The theme of the “Crystal Gazing” ad is the educational value of commercial intercourse among nations and the far-reaching influence of commerce in the world’s betterment. The text of this ad is from a personal interview granted to a director of Selfridge’s by Prince Guido Henckel von Donnersmark, one of the foremost and wealthiest members of the German nobility, and who is eighty-four years of age.

The “Charity” ad was the announcement of a day of the store’s Anniversary Week when a proportion of its profits was set apart to augment the fund for Schools for Mothers in Poplar, Stepney and Westminster.

These anniversary ads are notable in certain points in particular: First, they are the heralds of progress of an American store in the British metropolis. Serond, they are typical of the highest development in retail publicity–the kind that deals with the human and institutional sides of retailing. Third, they are, for the most part, expressions of favorable opinion from people of note and station in the world’s work.

And still they are ads, designed to put before a public the goods, the policies and the service of a retail house.

Source: Dry Goods Economist, v.68:3, October 3, 1914, p. 205. Online here and here.