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    

Old Sign Fry's Chocolate Display Shop Cabinet Chocolate Bar Nt Tin Enamel VintagVintage/antique Packard Battery Cable Gas Station Store Display Sign AdvertisingAntique Country Store Tin Spice Counter Cabinet Closset & Devers Spider Leg TeaJohn Deere Store Display Sign Rack W/ Original Packaging - Vintage AdvertisingAntique Country Store Tin Spice Counter Cabinet West Coast Tacoma, Washington Antique 19c. Country Store Spice Cabinet Tin Litho Bird With 8 SpicesAntique J & P Coats Walnut Spool & Thread Mercantile Store Countertop DisplayVintage Gold Starry Fountain Pens Original Shop Display Cabinet Box C1930Huge Counter Size General Store Tobacco Display Tin Sweet Cuba 1920's Or 1910'sHuge Counter Size General Store Tobacco Display Tin Beechnut Chewing Lorillard'sVintage Candy Store Indian Chief Watta Pop Lollipop Display American ChalkwareAntique**rare**national Biscuit Co. Advertising General Store Brass Display Tin Rare Antique Philco Radio Service Advertising Store Display Plaque Sign W/ BoxVintage West Electric Hair Curler Net Beach & Motor Tin Litho Store DisplayOld Vintage Texaco Gas Oil Cast Iron Display Sign Doorstop! Counter Display SignAntique Country Store Tin Spice Counter Cabinet Rare West Coast Los Angeles, CalSpider-man Life Size Prop Figure Store Display Marvel Free Postage!Beautiful Bosch Beer Duck Hunters Figurines Advertising Display - 1950s PlasterVtg Hiawatha Cigar Store Indian Bust Art Nouveau 20" Advertising Display StatueOriginal Vintage Moxie Soda Counter Top Display Cardboard Sign 21" (lot 1 Of 2)Old Kodak Film Dispenser Mint In Box Store DisplayVintage Porsche Dealer Showroom Advertising/display Sign. Large 30" H, 24" WVintage Lewis Natures Remedy Tums 10c Tin Advertisement Display Case Dispenser Ohio Advertising Display Co. Lighted Sign Johnston Candies And ChocolatesEarly Hanging Cardboard Die Cut Store Display Advertising Sign-candee RubbersVintage Postcard Display RackVintage Original Remington Arms Gun Shop Dealer Sign Display Advertising Early 20thc Country Store Linen Tobacco Tags + Coupons Premium Display Sign1985 Garbage Pail Kids 25 Folders, Original Shipping Box & Counter Display MintVintage Factice Store Display Art Glass Perfume Bottle Miss Dior Christian DiorMcculloch Chain Saws Sign Vtg Old Banner Nylon Fabric Dealer Display AdvertisingVintage Amx 390 Javelin Green Dealer Promo Promotional Display Car Toy 7.25"Antique Wood Pall Mall Cigarette Store Counter Advertising Display Unopened PackVintage Sargent Greenleaf Combination Display, Locksmith Advertising EducationalOakley Xmetal Single Light Lamp Fixture Kit For Single Display Case SystemVintage 1940*ultra Rare**esso Gas Station Cardboard Counter Display Gas Oil SignVintage 1968 Cadillac Eldarado Dealer Promo Promotional Display Car Toy 8.75"Vintage Sheaffer 585 14k Fountain Pen Nib Big Plastic Store Display AdvertisingEarly 1900's Diamond Dye Cabinet All OriginalOriginal Union 76 Triton Motor Oil Can Rack Porcelain Sign Display Gas Pump Cabochard Gres Paris Factice !! 9" Store Display Perfume Bottle !!Hard Rock Cafe Pins In Display CaseDl Vtg Lance Red Metal Lid For Store Counter Display Jar Peanuts Cookie CrackersVintage Original Ac Action Spark Plug Display Sign Rack With Original JarsVintage Brach's Halloween Candies Store Display Poster Bewitched Grandma Ida 10'Vintage 1960's Kool Cigarettes Tin Store Match Holder Display Sign Nos MintyVintage Texas Pete Metal Rack Sign On Front For 12 Bottles Sauce Store Display ?Vintage 1920s 30s National Biscuit Company Advertising Counter Display UneedaVintage Tom's Peanut 1st. Red Jar W/ Glass Lid, Lance Gordons Display StoreVtg Original Golden Sun Feeds Metal Sign Advertising Display Old Metal Hart Seed Pack Rack Dealer Counter Display Farm Garden Sale Store SignVintage Metal Wire Comic Book Magazine 6c / 3 For 15c Tin Store Display RackVintage Metal Ideal Hy-gear Hose Clamp Gas Station Display Cabinet Old Bovril Jar Shop Display Advert Sign Nto Enamel Bottle Vintage Grocer CabinetClassic "zippo" Light-up Display Case ( With Lock & Key ) In Very Good Condition Handmade 24k Gold Plated Ship In Luxury Display Case Business Gift For Man!Vintage Gtx Plymouth 1969 Dealer Promo Promotional Display Car Toy 8"Vintage Boker Tree Brand Cutlery Knife Store Counter Display Storage Case NiceVintage Glass Tom's Peanuts Display Rack 1930's - 1940'sVintage - S&h Green Stamps - Store Display Sign - Large 16" By 18" Mint W/box Nr