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    

Superb Antique Glazed Exhibition Display Cabinet . Microscope ? EtcVintage Deco Neon Products Lima Ohio Neon Advertising Menu Display Sign CaseVintage 1960's Falstaff Beer Advertising Golfing & Bottle Golf Display Bar SignOld Remington 22 Rifle Carboard Counter Top Store Display Sign Not WinchesterOld Griswold Cast Iron Skillet Store Metal Display Rack Sign AdvertisingVintage 1960's Falstaff Beer Advertising Fishing Fish & Bottle Display Bar SignSuper Solid Wood Machinist Tool Box,8 Drawer,fish Lure Display,jewelry Case,vgc Parker Real Leather Portfolio Fountain Pen Collectors & Display Case For 48 PensExtremely Rare 1900's Pulver Crazy Professor Coin Op Display- Original, Working!Vintage Antique Miniature Perfume Bottles Vanity Makeup W/glass Oak Display CaseVintage Weatherhead Metal Display Cabinet Auto Garage Advertising Service PartsAntique Ideal Jack Of All Trades Pocket Knives Knife Complete Store Display Nos Vintage D.m. Ferry & Co. General Store Conter Top Wooden Seed Display Box Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen Antique Oak Store Counter Display Case Must See!!Antique Fleischmann's Yeast Tin Litho Advertising Store Display White & BlueGenuine Vintage Patek Philippe Geneve Men Watch Wooden Box Case DisplayAntique Barlow By Ideal Craftmens Pocket Knife Complete Store Display NosVintage Barber Straight Razor Puma Special & Display Case Vintage Game Fine Cut Tobacco Tin Counter Display General Store Very Nice !!!!Vintage Whitman Candy Christmas Santa Store Display Puzzle Dolly Toy Company Vintage Henry Hanson Wooden Display Case / Showcase1980 Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Series 1 Gum Card Packs Mint In Store DisplayWatermans Fountain Pen Collectors Display Case For 40 PensAntique Vintage Garden Glass Seed Jar Store Display Pumpkin Label Swayzees BlueVintage Advertising Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer Bottle And Bartendar Display SignAntique Century Biscuit Co. General Store Advertising Tin Bread Box Sign DisplayVintage Auto-lite Metal Display Sign From Auto Parts Store Owner 6x18 NosVintage Camillus Wildlife Lok-back Knives In Store Display Wood Box CaseVtg Socony Advertising Display License Plate Topper Garage Shop Sign Gas Oil Antique Ideal Junior Camper Camping Pocket Knife Store Display & 10 Knives Nos Vintage Gillette 1950's Metal Blade Dispenser Coin Operated Store DisplayVintage Animated Mechanical Hamberger Store Display Figure Christmas Elf GnomeVintage Clarks Teaberry Gum Vaseline Glass General Store Display Clark's 1980 Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Series 3 Gum Card Packs Mint In Store DisplayVintage Pine Microscope Specimen Slide Display / Storage Cabinet1980 Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Series 2 Gum Card Packs Mint In Store DisplayLot Of 6 Clear Glass Apothecary Candy Jars Wedding Buffet Counter DisplayVintage Large Lance Glass Cracker Jar Store Display Original Lid 1950'sClassics Illustrated Comics Original 1950s Wire Display Wall Rack 15 Cents Rare3 Vintage Glass Apothecary Jars Lot Counter Display Storage Wedding Candy BuffetAntique Push Tab Punch Board Trade Stimulator Baseball Old Country Store DisplayVintage Pocket Knife Store Display Card / "junior Camper" / Ideal Knife CompanyVintage Glass Brass Jewelry Trinket Display Box With 6 Removable DrawersVintage Zippo Solid Brass Cigar Store Indian Lighter Dated Xii (1996) W/ TinVintage Sporin Otic Advertising Display Medical Anatomical Model Human EarFirestone Sign Tire Display Sign Rack Original Mobil Gulf Sinclair Texaco Shell!Vintage Original 1950 Lance Store Counter Advertising Display Large Glass Jar #1Original Tom's Red Top Peanut Jar Advertising Sign Counter-top Display Jar Lance!! Look !!vintage Kiwi Shoe Polish Revolving Display Rack W/kiwi Bird Nice Nr Original Vintage 1920's Curtiss Chicos Spanish Peanuts Counter Display- Nice!Foghorn Leghorn Retired Store Display Warner Bros.Westclox Advertising Display For Pocket Ben, With Watch, Made 1929 - 1931Vintage Universal Harvey Comics Casper The Ghost Halloween Light Store Display Indian Motorcycle Embossed 24" Metal Shop Store Display Sign Free ShippingVintage Gillette Safety Razor Blue Blade Dispenser Store Display Gillette Vintage Razor Barber Shop Display Case Blades Store Fatboy 1950'sMarjolein Bastin Hallmark Wall Mount Display Case Shelves Wooden Shadow BoxAntique Push Tab Punch Board Trade Stimulator Football Old Country Store DisplayAntique Stag Outdoor Pocket Trapper Campers Jack Barlow Knives Store Display Cast Iron Black Man Mechanical Arcade Counter Display Game Of Chance