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    

Vintage Porcelain Sign Pulver Chewing Gum One Cent Gum Machine-store DisplayCow Ease Metal Tin Advertising Store Display Sign Cattle Horse Agriculture Spray1880's Diamond Dye Display Cabinet W/ Tin Litho Sign Front By Wells & Hope1950s Dewhurst's Sylko Advertising Shop Display Thread Drawer CabinetVintage Winchester Junior .22 Rifle Store Window Display Sign-all Org HuntingAntique Sherwin Williams Paint Co Advertising Cast Iron Chameleon Lizard Gecko1926 Sen-sen Chewing Gum Tin Lithograph Countertop Display Stand W/ Tin Sign1920's Beech-nut Chewing Gum Countertop Display Box / Product Package W/ SignStar Wars 1980 Toy Center Store Display Kenner Empire Strikes Back Vintage Wow!!1902 Cast Iron Fly Safe Match Advertising D.h. Adams N.y. Imp Tailors Trimming'sBridge City Tool Ct-13 8-piece Chisel & Dead Blow Mallet Set Display Case Euc! Vintage Marlin Rifles Shotguns Silk Banner Store Display # 2Scarce Vintage The Winchester Store Store Display Advertising Cast Iron PanVintage Ac Spark Plug Action Display Advertising 50's 60Vintage Winchester Knives Store Display-4 Panels-thanksgiving & Christmas--signVintage Marlin Rifles Shotguns Silk Banner Store Display # 1Nice Rare Vtg Ballantine Beer Mid Century Advertising 3d Sign Display Bar Vintage Dorman 24 Bin Metal Add-a-bin CabinetVintage Drink Pepsi-cola Striped Advertising Sales Rack Soda Display SignVintage Christmas Store Window Display Santa Claus Figure 25 InchesVintage & Estate Fresh General Store Revolving Countertop Postcard Display RackFunko Mystery Minis Five Nights At Freddy's Lot Of 14 With Store DisplayOld Vintage Gas Glow Radio Tube Sheaffers Pen Pencil F/ Advertising Display CaseAntique Wax Mannequin Head, Glass Eyes, Woman For Store Hat Display- 1900's ?Lot Of Longaberger Small Baskets With Sled And Wrought Wire Hanging Display RackChristmas 5.5' Tall Airblown Inflatable Ugly Sweater Party Open Store DisplayReplica Griswold Skillet Display Rack Hogwarts House Pin - Five Pins In Display Case. Harry Potter Noble CollectionRare Large Vintage 1920's Heinz 57 Tomato Soup Store Display 15" Metal Can SignVintage Original 1950's Philco Radio-advertising Store Counter Bear Display-signVintage Wooden Western Cutlery Hunting, & Pocket Knives Store Display Adv. Sign15.75" Planters Peanuts Mr. Peanut Display Shelf Metal Advertising Strip Sign Early Original Winchester Store Counter Display Sign, Rare Advertising Poster Rare 1920's Canadian Victor Cast Iron Nipper Store Counter Record Display StandVery Rare 19th Century Hand Carved Counter Top Wooden Cigar Store Indian 14"tallLot Set Of 3 Case Xx Made In America Set Sowbelly Doctors Toothpick Display HmVintage Ac Guide Miniature Lamps 18 Drawer Metal Cabinet Parts BinVtg Christmas Telco Motionette Animated Store Display Figures Victorian CarolersAlka Seltzer Country Store Display & Tape Dispenser Sign Original No ReserveAntique General Store Display Case Boye Needles Bobbins Shuttles Sewing MachineAntique Swift Soap Large Counter Display Embossed Glass Advertising Jar LiddedAntique John Clark Jr. & Co. Sewing Spool Box Cabinet / Thomas Russell AgentRotating Zippo Lighter Display Case Lock And Key, Holds 96 Lighters Rare Vintage 1985 Dc Comics Batman The Dark Knight Returns Store Counter DisplayDouble Cola Porcelain Sign Soda Fountain Display Cola Store Advertising Rc CokeVintage Harold Gale Cream Fur Coat Santa Store Display On StandAridor Co Chicago Confectionery Country Store Glass Counter Display Jar 1917Antique Beveled Glass Jewelry Or Watch Casket: Trinket Box~ Display CaseVintage Sheaffer Pen Christmas Store Display Santa Claus FigureVintage Buss Fuse Metal Display Auto / Hardware Store Tin Advertising SignVintage Rare Ac Sparkplug Display Rack Storage With 22 Spark Plugs1950's 60's Ford Fomoco Tune-up Carburetor Repair Kit Counter Display RackVintage Remington Pocket Knife Store Counter Display CaseSchrade Usa Vintage Pocket Knife Knives Store Display Case Acrylic & WoodHeavy 24 Inch Sign Bracket Hanger Home Garage Shop Store Office Display UsedVtg Ac Spark Plugs/crankcase Parts Advertising Gas Station Display Rack SignMini Store Display Tent W/ Rain Guard - Good ConditionSix - Eagle Brand Light Flasher Buttons On Store Display CardAntique Vintage Adjustable Tin Clock Will Return At Store Display SignGran Patron Piedra Extra Anejo Tequila Bottle And Display Case