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    

Vintage Store Shop Display Model Hohner Harmonica A440 C Pop Folk Art 1960's ?1940 50s Seven Up 42" Advertising Bottle Display With Shipping Box Nm Wow!! 7 UpNear Mint Vintage Rca Victor Nipper Store Display 78 Rpm Record HolderVintage Original Willard Battery Cables Store Display SignLrg 19thc Antique Tin Chinoiserie Toleware Country Store Tea Bin Tin ContainerTexaco The Quality Line Car Care Products Gas Station Display Rack With CansRare ~nice 1930s Curtiss Baby Ruth & Butterfinger Old Country Store Display SignBlue Streak Ignition Parts Standard Motor Products Sign D-619 Display Rack Old +19th Country Store Sterling Tobacco Advertising 5 Lb Counter Display TinAntique Eskimo Pie The Magic Jar Store Counter Cooler Display Sign Advertising2 Vintage Store Shoe Stands Wooden Adjustable Industrial Funk Classic, Rare FindVintage Wards Gas Station Sewing Parts Cabinet Tool Box (1)Nice Original 1940s Vintage Curtiss Candy & Gum Old Country Store Display SignNice Original 1950s Vintage Tom's Nuts Old Metal Country Store Display Tin SignVtg Budweiser Beer Clydesdale Horses Wagon Old Bar Display Case 40" Vintage ~ C1900 ~ "milward's" Needles 2 Drawer Shop Display Cabinet General Store Cigar Display - Turns- Very Unique1950's Ford Mercury Fomoco Dealership Genuine Parts Radiator Hose Display RackVery Nice * 1940s Vintage Brach's Fine Candy Old Country Store Tin Display SignVintage Plumb Axe Stand Hardware Store Advertising Display Tin Litho Very NiceRare 1994 Five Zippo Four Schrade D Day Collectors Set Oak Display Case Must Anique Authentic Early 20thc Bixby's Shoe Polish Advertising Store Display SignVintage Glass Apothecary Display Buffet Wedding Candy Retail Store Jar LotCase Xx Knife Store Countertop Display Wood Cabinet W/keyVintage Yoo-hoo Tee Shirt Store Display Poster Yogi Berra Mickey MantleOutdoor Animated Mechanical Hamberger Store Display Figure Christmas Elf GnomeOutdoor Animated Mechanical Hamberger Store Display Figure Christmas Elf GnomeVintage Mannequin Female Bust Katherine Store DisplayVintage Shell Motor Oil Gas Station Lighted Advertising Display Sign 24"x24"Vintage Dx Gas & Oil Advertising Pump Or Display Rack Porcelain SignCast Iron Winchester Sign Advertising Cartridge And Guns Store Plaque DisplayVintage Jointed Articulated Wood Hand Advertising Display Made In Belgium Nice!Tom's Toasted Peanuts Store Counter Display Jar Holder? All Metal VintageNoma Halos Counter Display BoxRare Roger & Gallet Advertising Perfume Display Rack 3 Bottle Glass Stoppers Ny Vtg Carter Carbureter Cabinet 1940's Car Truck Shop Gas Oil Display SignClassic Pen Display Case - Glass Top - Cherry Mahogany Finish & Velvet Lining Vintage Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer Lighted Clock Advertising Display 1960 No ReservePerfection Dye CabinetVintage Sealpackerchief Handkerchief Advertising Country Store Display CaseRare Vintage Champion Spark Plug Advertising Display Sign Gas Oil Ac Delco StoreRare Wix Oil Filter Cabinet Display Case Gas & Oil Ratrod Garage LubesterVintage Yoo-hoo Fudge Bar Store Display Poster Yogi Berra Mickey MantleEarly 1940s/1950s Life Savers Candy Counter Top Store DisplayVery Large Vintage 1962 Farquhar Celestial Globe With Stand Store DisplayVintage Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen Wood & Velvet Store Counter Display TrayRare Nice 1927 Vintage Eskimo Pie Ice Cream Sandwich Old Store Display BoxRemington Thermometer Sign Store Display Man Cave Cabin Garage Art C1950s Elgin Watch Motorized Moving $$ Store Display 19x23" Works GreatUs Army Usmc Brass 105mm Case Artillery Ww Ii Kw Vietnam Inert Empty Display 43Vintage Store Display Box Of Holiday Scotch Tape Dispensers,gift Wrap,christmasSelz Shoes Antique Eastlake Shoe Store Display Stand W/carved Crest Logo 16”tCounter Mounted Antique Roll Paper Dispenser W/spring Loaded Cutter BarVintage Wooden Display Case - Thimbles, Small FigurinesNice Original 1940s Vintage Whitman's Candy Old Metal Country Store Display SignVintage Wards Gas Station Sewing Parts Cabinet Tool Box (2)Vintage Mason's Old Fashioned Root Beer Metal Store Display SignDutch Masters Cigar Store Indian Statue Advertising DisplayVintage 1930s/ 40s Tom's Peanut 5c Jar & Emb Red Lid, Toms Lance Store Display Vintage Eberhard Faber Mongol Pencils Cardboard Store Display Sign Advertising!