In 1890, Harry Gordon Selfridge, manager of Marshall Field’s in Chicago, enrolled the help of Sarah Haring to assist with a new project at the store. She was in many ways, a typical American woman of her era—wife of a businessman and a mother. Neither aristocratic nor impoverished, Haring was needed to recruit “gentlewomen” who had “experienced reverses” and knew how to cook “dainty dishes” that they were willing to prepare and deliver to the store each day.

Marshall Field’s first tea room began with a limited menu, fifteen tables, and eight waitresses. Haring’s recruits acquitted themselves well. Harriet Tilden Brainard, who initially supplied gingerbread, would go on to build a successful catering business, the Home Delicacies Association. Sarah, meanwhile, continued as manager of the store’s tea rooms until 1910, when she opened a restaurant of her own, patenting a restaurant dishwasher in her spare time.

The new Chicago tea room met with immediate success. When Field’s Wabash Street annex opened in 1893, an expansion timed to the World’s Columbian Exposition, the tea room moved into a new space. It seated 300 and took up the entire fourth floor, which eventually was named the Walnut Room. At one time, the flagship store boasted six tea rooms.

Harry Selfridge later cashed out his Marshall Field & Company stock for $1,000,000 and moved to London. In 1909, he amazed Londoners with his magnificent effrontery by setting up a department store on Oxford Street, running it in the breeziest American tradition. When his financial partner withdrew, Selfridge obtained support from a wealthy London tea broker and, in 1908, Selfridge and Company, Ltd., was registered. 

He replicated his Chicago tea rooms and restaurants too. Within months of opening, the Palm Court restaurant at Selfridges was considered the place for London ladies to lunch.

The unique store opened in 1909 with a floor area of 42,000 square feet, which later was doubled. Selfridge was the first to offer in-store restrooms for customer use—encouraging customers to spend hours in the store. 

Mariage Freres, Paris

A note to viewers of the BBC/PBS television series – the tea counter shown on the Mr. Selfridge set is stocked by Mariage Freres, one of the oldest and most highly respected tea purveyors in France. You can visit their four locations in Paris, including the original store at 30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg. 

Read more about tea’s impact upon culture, commerce and politics in A Social History of Tea Benjamin Press.

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