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]

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]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique 1920's Old Butcher Shop Display Advertising Cattle Statue Old Steer CowMaster Replicas Display Case For 1:1 Lightsaber Hilt Replica Star WarsRare 1958 Anheuser Busch Bavarian Beer Bartender Motion Store DisplayMobiloil "a" Oil Filpruf Diamond Bottles Carrier Display Rack Gargoyle MassVintage 1950's Eveready Batteries Transistor Radio Gas Oil Sign Display CabinetVtg Wrigley's Gum Vending Machine,coin Op,store Display,hershey,trade StimulatorAntique Milward's Needle Cabinet Country Store Cabinet Sewing1977 Star Wars Topps Store Display Box With 7 Mint Sealed Gum Card PacksMobiloil Pegasus Oil Rack Display Carrier Mobil CanAntique 1920's-1930's Winchester Bullet Board Shot Shell Store Display See PicsVintage Zippo Windproof Cigarette Lighter Plastic Store Advertising DisplayRare Vtg 1920s Lighted Florist Display W 8 Advertising Cardboard Die Cut InsertsRare 1976 Falls City Beer Chalk Hot Air Balloon Bank Store Display ExcellentVintage Jockey? Munsingwear? Underwear Store Display Advertising Sign1983 Star Wars Topps Return Of The Jedi Store Display W 36 Mint Gum Card Packs1980 Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Candy Unused In Original Store Display BoxVintage Parker 75 Fountain Pen Wood & Glass Store Countertop Display CaseVisually Arresting Book Style Memory’s Leaflet Display Dag Daguerreotype CaseCast Iron Winchester Sign Advertising Cartridge And Guns Store Plaque DisplayVintage Rainier Beer Brewmaster Bobble Head Store Display Advertising76 Case Xx No.p172 Buffalo Clasp, 4 Dot, Case Xx Walnut Display Box + BeautyVintage Shrade / Old Timer / Uncle Henry Knife Store DisplayVintage Lance Cracker Cookie Jar Store Display W/ Original Red Lid 8 Sided 12"1950 Perry's Ginger Ale Tin Soda Advertising Display Sign Fine Original Relic Nr1980 Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Topps Giant Photo Cards Mint In Store DisplayLarge Vintage Stihl Chain Sawl 23" Chainsaw Carved Store Display Solid WoodRare 1950s Case Tractors Machinery Metal Dealer Display Rack Sign Farm Eagle AbeVtg Mobil Oil Pegasus Tire Display Holder Rack Service Station Advertising SignOld Case Xx Blue Scroll Red Etch Wood Display Box 1970's 5254 0622Four Vintage 1977 Star Wars Wonder Bread Shelf Talker Store Display Signs +Vintage 1950's Roll-o-matic Mop Hardware Store Gas Oil 23" Metal Sign DisplayVintage National Biscuit Company General Store Display Box Door Collectible Vintage Die Cut Squirrel Brand Peanuts Nut Sign Peanut Butter Store Display NiceVintage Armour Ham/eggs Easter Bunny Cardboard Store Display Sign Vintage 1950`s Gas Station Buss Fuses Tin Display With The Fuses AdvertisingNos Original Vintage Ford Genuine Accessories Leather Key Case Dealer Holder OldVintage Fairmont "we're The Nuts" Peanut Store Bar Counter Display Warmer - NiceIndian Motorcycles Porcelain Metal Sign Bike Tag Rack Dealer Display Ad Wr Case & Sons Knives Knife Rotating Swivel Locking Store Display Case Vintage 1940's Master Lock Padlock Store Display Counter AdvertisingVintage Antique Necco General Store Counter Top Display TinRare Int. Harvester S, Series Pickup Display By Product Miniatures Superb FinishMarquette Club Ginger Ale Kewaunee Bottling Works Countertop Display W/ BottleLentheric Miracle Counter Display Dummy Perfume Bottle + Real Miracle Bottle NrCase Knife Country Mercantile Store Display Cardboard Box & Price Tack ButtonsVintage Diamond Dyes Cabinet / Store DisplayVintage Retro Adidas Originals Trefoil Store Display Advertising Lollipop Sign!Vintage Cigar Store IndianOld Antique Advertising Chewing Gum Showcase Candy General Store Glass Lid BoxLot Of 123 Vintage Collectible Thimbles + Display Case & Shelf Vintage Wood/glass Hanging Display Shadow Box Case For Straight Razors Ex! Nr #1Vintage Testors Ready-to-fly Airplanes Advertise Sales Tin Sign Store DisplayOwyhee Porcelain Jasper - 12.5 Ounces - Rough For Jewelry Cabs Slabs DisplayWancher Urushi Lacquer Wood Dark Brown Color 50 Pen Collection Display CaseVery Rare Vintage Riedell Mechanical Pencil Display Case With 10 PencilsAtlas Batteries Gas Station Display Rack. Also Great For An Oil Can Display RackCase Xx Mother-of-pearl Pewter Display BoxAntique Tumbler Oil Tin Display Rack Sign 3 4 Oz Can Vintage Sheaffer's Fountain Pen Display Tray/stand, 20 Pens, Store CounterVintage Planters Peanuts Munch N Go Yellow Store Advertising Display Rack ~14"