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    

Small Antique Vtg Wood Wall Hanging Crucifix Display Niche Cabinet Scroll SawAntique Display Advertising Tin Tea Dispensing Box Edwin J. Gillies & Co.Michael Keaton Rare Autographed 1:1 Scale Batman Batarang With Display CaseVintage Porcelain Socony Oil Rack Display Sign2 Nice Vintage Wood Walnut? Large Hat / Wig Display, Stands, EstateAntique Chokla Chocolate Malted Milk Soda Fountain Drink Vintage Box Display OldVintage Coleman Lantern Mantles - Store Box Full Unused 144 Mantles!!!!1910's Planters Peanuts Figural Glass Jar - Country Store Countertop Display2 Mib-1990s Nike Air Store Dealer Wall Sneaker Display ShelvesVintage Ac Delco Spark Plug Flexible Hose Cabinet Display Gas Oil Sign CabinetVintage Estwing Tools Big 38" Hatchet Or Axe Plastic Sign Store DisplayCa1910 Sen-sen Chewing Gum Figural Countertop Display Box In Form Of A BookPure Butter Dairy Shop Store Display Slab Tray Old English Ironstone Antique VtgVintage ''fostoria Crystal'' Lighted Advertising Display,1930s,1940s 1950s SignsVintage Glass Brass Arched Double Door Mirrored Table Top Curio Display CabinetVintage 1950's Arabic Pepsi Cola Metal Sign Store Display Litho Usa ✮ AmericanaAuto Lite Battery Cardboard Counter Top Display Sign Nos In Original Box Vintage Dr. Pepper Raised Bottle Cap Sign Advertisement Store Display Man Cave Nos 1978 Kenny Roberts Bell Helmet Advertising Display Yamaha Magnum Moto StarLimited Edition Case Xx Knives In Orginal Store Countertop Display CaseRare, Advertising Counter Top Display Louis James Cigars Mirror Signed Nb & IwClark's Teaberry Antique Gum Display & Change Tray2.25" Diplomystus Fish Fossil In Display CaseOld American Brakeblok Fan Belt Sign Display Rack Gas Oil PumpVtg 1940's 50's Pretty Lady Advertising Formfit Life-bra Display Bust 16" TallAntique 1889 D. Buchner & Co Tobacco Police Inspector Store Shop Display StatueAuthentic Louis Vuitton Lv Store Display Vanity DisplayVintage ~trico~ Wiper Blade Dealer Metal Display Case W/bladesPlanters Peanuts Glass Jar Lid Only Mr Peanut Counter Store Display Vtg 6 5/8"Antique U-kno Candy Company Slanted Cannonball General Store Counter JarVintage Gulf Oil Company Christmas Santa Claus Mailbox Advertising Display Vintage Evinrude Marine Outboard Motor Sign Display Advertising Dealer Piece !Vintage Hershey's Ice Cream Lighted Country Store Advertising Display Sign 1930s Mazda Light Bulbs Store Art Deco Style Advertising Display SignRare Vintage "potato Baker" Wooden Die-cut & Aluminum Nails Store Display SignGood Smile Nendoroid Petit/petite Rage Of Bahamut 8 Mini Figure Display Case/boxW R Case & Sons Knives Dealer Case Xx Knife Store Display Cabinet With Inserts Vintage Autolite Pcv Valve Display Rack Nos 70s Metal 8x8x3 Autolite Motorcraft Authentic Chanel Store Display Vanity DisplayLrg. Advertising Display Sign For Mutoscope Card Dispenser Machine Pin-up Girls Superb Antique Gold Gilt Lacquer Fan Display Case For Chinese Or European Fans!Large Antique Seeds Store Display Wood Box Lake Shore Seed Co. NyAntique Jay-tee Bluejay Bird Country Store Tea Display Box Tin Bin La Crosse WiTexaco Gas Oil Paper Shop Towel Dispenser Garage Service Station Store DisplayNos 1962 Mercury Monterey Custom Convertible Hardtop Station Wagon Post Card LotAntique Ever-ready Display Case With Shaving Brush CollectionScarce Bordens Elsie The Cow Bust Store DisplayCirca Early 1950s Automobile Cigarette Lighter Store DisplayRare Antique Christmas Advertising Sign Soap/toilet Articles Store Display BoxVintage**rare**kendall Motor Oil Display Oil Rack Gas Oil SignOld Vintage Texaco Gas Oil Cast Iron Display Sign Doorstop! Counter Display SignVintage Bosch Spark Plugs Advertising Counter Display Sign Gas Oil Nr3 Vintage Wood, Hat / Wig Stands, Pedestal, Display, Tole Paint Spool, EstatesAntique 6-pan Old Diner Counter Top Pie Display Rack W Old Green Paint C1930sVintage Tom's Peanut 1st. Red Jar W/ Glass Lid, Lance Gordons Display StoreVintage Henry L. Hanson Co. Oak Wood Hardware Store Display Tap Die SetVintage Arabic Marlboro Metal Sign Store Display Litho Philip Morris Usa LebanonAntique C 1930's Nicholson Files Store Display Easel Back Sign Vintage #2Porcelain Johnson Gasolene Sign Station Store Display Sign Advertising Piece Mid Century Tammis Keefe Large Linen Tablecloth Drug Store Candy Display Jars