From lighted glass cabinets to simple cardboard signs, in-store displays have been used to sell products for hundreds of years. Prior to the 18th century, most retailers did little to display their goods: Instead, customers had to request specific items that a shopkeeper would locate for them in a back storeroom. But beginning with small storefronts that had no extra storage space, shop owners started organizing products in pleasing ways that might incite a customer to buy more.

By the late 19th century, shopping halls ranging from small five-and-dimes all the way up to giant, urban department stores attempted to show off their products in more visceral, three-dimensional ways. In Europe, covered shopping arcades were designed to take advantage of strolling customers, turning shopping into a leisure activity rather than a necessity. Slowly but surely, larger department stores capitalized on their abundant space by dedicating entire rooms as shrines to specific items like makeup, ties, or shoes.

These early retail merchandisers recognized the value of an eye-catching display, and sought to present their products with style. While some displays highlighted a product by piling them into pyramids or spreading them out on huge racks, others stood out by incorporating gimmicks such as lifelike mannequins or jumbo-sized versions of the objects for sale, like a giant pair of eyeglasses or an oversized Polaroid camera.

Most store displays were glorified dispensers, meant to hold a large quantity of smaller items, using the display’s size to broadcast a brand name. Edible products like throat lozenges or licorice were frequently stuffed into bins or jars made for holding treats in bulk. Elegant goods like knives, pocket watches, or cigars sometimes received boxed countertop displays with velvet linings. The familiar decorative cigar box is a simple form of packaging whose clever design also allowed for lovely in-store displays. Outside, customers were beckoned into some establishments by a wooden statue of an Indian holding a fistful of stogies. Personal vanity products were often placed in glass display cases or cabinets featuring a company’s logo, like the countertop cases for Bonnie B’s hair nets or Ever-Ready’s shaving brushes.

Spools of thread and other sewing supplies were typically stored in self-contained sets of narrow drawers, while other household products like dye or knitting needles came with their own open-slot shelving. Wire racks were common for seed packets, magazines, and other paper items. Adult products, including condoms and other prophylactics, often had special cases that could be sealed shut, revealing only generic brand names like Julius Schmid or Ramses.

In contrast, some product displays tried to give customers a view of the item in action, like the elaborate Westinghouse setups for its light bulbs or “Mazda Lamps.” The human form often helped to sell products designed to be worn, from full-sized mannequins in carefully matched outfits to detached hands or feet flaunting the latest jewelry or sock styles.

In fact, the use of mannequins dates to the 14th century, when elaborate fashion dolls were first used to model popular fashions for wealthy aristocrats. Eventually, milliners created more utilitarian forms made from wire, wood, and leather, and by the late 19th century, as window displays became the popular method of luring customers off the streets, even more realistic models were made in wax...

The realism of these mannequins was so effective that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union lobbied to have the sexually provocative models banished entirely; though this never came to pass, some municipalities did pass laws requiring stores to cover their windows before undressing mannequins.

Mannequin trends followed the times, made from papier mache, plaster, plastic, and fiberglass, even reflecting period styles with their shape, as with the angular, streamlined models that appeared during the Art Deco era. The allure of mannequin marketing finally led to the store display’s highest art form, the world-famous Christmas windows at New York City shopping meccas like Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, and Bergdorf Goodman.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Advertising Antiques

Advertising Antiques

This classy looking British site features hundreds of high resolution photos of antique porcelain pre-war (enamel) … [read review or visit site]

Ad Access

Ad Access

Duke University's library has pulled together an impressive collection of over 7,000 ads printed in U.S. and Canadi… [read review or visit site]

Plan 59

Plan 59

From the Nostlagia Factory in Virginia comes this celebration of 'mid-century automotive advertising illustrations'… [read review or visit site]

American Package Museum

American Package Museum

Ian House's gallery of early 20th Century American package designs. Browse the exhibits in slide show mode or view … [read review or visit site]

Found in Moms Basement

Found in Moms Basement

Paula Zargaj-Reynolds’ blog, an extensive collection of 20th century vintage advertising, is a visual feast. Scro… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Peerless Ice Cream Advertising Display For Country Store AntiqueAntique 1920s Gem Safety Razor Blades, Tin Sign Display & Dispenser Case, NrVintage 1800's Cincinnati Crown Coffee 20" Metal Tin Can Store Display Bin SignConoco Oil Can Display Rack Holds 18 Cans Vintage,Set Of 6 Griswold Cast Iron Frying Pans & Display Rack 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 SkilletsMichael Keaton Rare Autographed 1:1 Scale Batman Batarang With Display CaseRare! Antique 1931 Ge Edison Window Display Signs, Mazda Light Bulbs W/ Sconces Beautiful 1900's French Wax Mannequin Head Rare 1940s Nichol Kola Pin Up Girl Sign Store Display Nautical Soda Antique VtgAuthentic Chanel Promotional Store Display | Walk-in-closet DisplayVintage Unusual "rowntree Gums" Glass Dispensing Counter Display Jar Drug Store(10) Vintage Collectible Tobacco Pipes Display Case Dunhill-barling-churchwardenOld Country Store Post OfficeVintage Willard Battery Cables Store Display Metal Sign Embossed Hanger Old CarVintage Dremel Power Tools Store Display Oak Case-22"-rotary Tools-signMiller High Life Beer Wood Record Crate Box Case DisplayAntique Borden's Milk Malt Mix Container Counter Top Glass Jar Tin Lid DisplayVintage 1930s Advertising Armour's Cloverbloom Butter Old Cardboard Display SignVintage Die Cut Squirrel Brand Peanuts Nut Sign Peanut Butter Store Display NiceMale Mannequin Head Bust Wig Hat Jewelry Display #jackf1 Plastic Great Value6x Antique Revolutionary War - Civil War, Clay Smoking Pipes In Display CaseCase Xx Cutlery Vintage Hardware Store ShowcaseAntique Red Dot Cigar Store Display Sign Vintage TobaccianaWaterman Ideal Pen Counter Display CaseScarce Mccreary Tin Store Dealership Tire Display Rack Stand 1950’s Automobile1950's Vintage Metal Buss Fuses Advertising Display Case Stand Tins Gas StationVintage Hickok Cigarette Ligher Display Case Tobacco Smoking Rochester Ny Zippo Antique Boye Needle Company Counter/store Display CaseAntique Dill's Best Tobacco Tin Advertising DisplayRare Vintage Nike Air Jordan Store Shoe Display Sign Stand (case Xi Vii Vi Iv)Vtg. Comic Book Metal Rack Store Display Sign Superman Spiderman Archie Nos #5Vtg Zenith Carburetor Bendix Aviation Box & Tools ~ Old Advertising DisplayZippo 96 Lighter Revolving Store Display CaseStar Wars Master Replicas Scaled .45 Lightsaber Trio Display CaseGiant Store Advertising Titleist 3 Patinated Metal Golf Ball Pop-eye 1979 N/rOakley Display Case Golf Vintage Ilco Key Store Display Auto Ford Chrysler Blank Keys And Key CutterChanel Display AdvertisingVintage Hasting Automotive Parts Cabinet Triple Seal Motor RepairStar Wars Master Replicas Scaled .45 Lightsaber Trio Display Case See PicturesVintage Glass Brass Display Case Trinket Jewelry Treasure Box FootedRare Antique Reliable Match Co Chalkware Match Holder Cigar Store Indian DisplayVintage Buzoom Girl Mirror Kibitzer Display Advertise Ad 1960 Pinup Risque AdultRapala Fishing Lures Embossed Metal Sign Bait & Tackle Shop Store DisplaySeagram's 7 Crown Whiskey Advertising Display Clock & Light For Your Man Cave!Labatts Blue Sing Sabres Neon Sign Store Display Beer Bar Sign Real Neon 17"x14"Vintage Buss Fuse Cabinet 1950s With Old Tins Gas Station Auto Shop Model T A Napa Balkamp Automotive Fuse Display (vintage Fuse Display/advertising)Two Vintage Hat Stands/store Display/millinery Shop Racks - Wood/metalLot #1 - 24 Antique Skeleton Keys Steampunk Jewelry Crafts Art Collages DisplayVintage Proto Tools Store Display Panel No.81 Merchandise Board Indianapolis 500Vintage Gas Station Quart Oil Can Rack Display Holds 24 Cans 46" X 18" X 21"Vtg Elf Hard Plastic Blow Mold 22.5" Tall Elve Christmas Store Display Large1939 Westinghouse Auto Bulbs Gas Station Display Storage CabinetGillette Razor Blade Display CaseVintage 1920's ? Crosley 51 Tube Radio Wood Case For Restoration Or DisplayLot Of 6 Vintage Quaker State Oil Quart Tin Can Collection Garage Rack DisplayAntique Sheaffer Store Display Pen Tray Holder Vintage Case Xx 8 Knife Country Store Wood Display Cabinet Lock & Key Sign NiceZippo Lighter Display Case