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    

Buffalo's Gilt Edge Ale Beer Cab Light Advertising Sign Rog Art Deco DisplayVintage Antique Chewing Gum Wooden Countertop Display Case J Riswig ChicagoAntique Pine Microscope Slide Collectors Display Cabinet. Mcdonalds Padlock / Best Padlock / Advertising Lock / Mcdonalds / LocksmithAntique Victorian Country Store Wood & Glass Display Case For Fountain Pen NibsOakley Sunglasses X-metal Display Case The Vault (with Keys) Thump Etc Shop Original ( Ford) Auto-lite Service Parts Gas Station Display Storage CabinetOakley Display Case Vtg 50s Original Store Display Mannequin Women Plaster Head Bust Torso GorgeousVintage Autolite Pcv Valve Display Rack Nos 70s Metal 8x8x3 Autolite Motorcraft C1900s-bakers Chocolate Girl Store Display-24" St Louis Expo-tin Litho-signVintage 40s Plaster Mannequin Head Hat Advertising Store Display With StandSuper Rare 1986 Zippo Lighter Store Display Lot Mint Unfired Nr!!Antique Stanley Rules Counter Top Store Display Zig Zag Boxwood VintageOakley X-metal Display Stands SetAntique Russian Icon With Silver Riza/oklad With Display CaseVintage Consumers Beer Ask Father-tavern Store Display Sign-28"-hills Grove,riOriginal Diamond Dyes Antique Wooden Store Display Cabinet Advertising Tin Sign30/40's Vtg Orig Deco Mannequin Head Paper Mache Store Display VogueAntique Vtg Store Counter Top Tilting Beveled Glass Mirror German Silver C1930sRare Antique Stanley Rules Counter Top Store Display Zig Zag Boxwood Vintage OldVintage Buss Fuses Auto Parts Tin Advertising Display Sign 1950's Original Fuses(2) 1980 Star Wars Esb Burger Chef / Coke Store Display Plastic Advt Posters Antique Wooden Bucket Store Display Philadelphia Pa Barlow's Indigo Blue LaundryVintage Die Cut Squirrel Brand Peanuts Nut Sign Peanut Butter Store Display NiceLarge Mahogany Wooden Thimble Rack Display Wall CabinetHarry Potter Deathly Hallows Horcrux Collectors Locket With Display CaseRotating/light Up Zippo Display Case Holds 60Great Antique Store Counter Slant Glass Jar With Swinson Foods-charlotte NcRare 18" Johnny Lujack Wilson Sports Equipment Cardboard Standup DisplayOzark Airlines Desk Top Airplane Travel Agency Promotional Display 22 1/2" WspanOriginal Rare 1940s Pepsi Cola Display Rack SignsPhillips 66 Gas Station Service Battery Cables Display Sign Hanger Rack Oil..Fram Oil Filter Service Station Display RackOakley Mirror Display100% Pear Wooden Stand Hold Case Display For 15 Smoking Pipe/pipes Pfeife1984 Gremlins Hallmark Advertising Store Display Sign Poster GizmoVintage 50's Gillette Razor Store Display CaseVintage Original Automotive Tune Up Service Parts Metal Display CabinetNike Air Jordan Display Sign Store Advertising. Rare. Man Cave Michael MjVintage Ace Hard Rubber Combs Wooden Store Barber Shop Counter DisplayVintage C.f. Martin & Co. Wooden Barrel Planter Prop Display Guitar AdvertisingNos 12 Vintage Acme Wonder Lures On Sealed Display Card, 12 Fishing Lures-s-1375Ac Guide Miniature Lamps Light Bulb Display Cabinet Delco Vintage Gas StationVintage Die Cut Squirrel Brand Peanuts Nut Sign Peanut Butter Store Display Nice1959 Gates Fan Belt Finder Promotional Display Tool Ford Chevy Dodge PlymouthVintage Planters Peanut 6-side Octagon Glass Store Display Jar 1930s Mr. PeanutVintage Metal Ideal Hy-gear Hose Clamp Store Display Rack Indy 500 Adv.Vintage Metal Rc Cola Metal Sign Topper For Display Rack 18" X 6"Sailer Ship Marine Knot Display Glass Case Shadow Box Nautical Seaman NavigationNos 1960 Mercury Park Lane Monterey Hardtop Station Wagon Post Card Lot OriginalRare Vintage X-acto Wooden Countertop DisplayVintage Art Deco Wrigleys Gum Candy Store Counter Revolving Display Dispenser Red Bull Metal Sign Store Advertisement Display Refrigerator Topper Double-sided1950s Rare 8 Piece Sales Display Alligator Look Case Velvet Lined Hard To Find Black Americana Cardboard Smoking Sambo Standup Advertising Display SignJewelry Box Ring Necklace Bead Cufflink Organizer Display Travel Case Gift Zg201Vintage Rare John Deere Miniature Advertising Counter Display Brass Plow EucGillette Display CaseBelleek Parian China Dealer Store Shelf Display Sign In Porcelain Date 1989-1993