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    

Antique Victorian Microscope Slide Collectors Display Cabinet.Winchester Antique Advertising General Store Cash Register Display Case ShowcaseVtg Rare Animated Figures Christmas Store Display Boy & Girl Decorating Rk Intl.Vintage Saks Christmas Store Display Victorian Lady Mechanical Automaton Wow YqzVintage Saks Christmas Store Display Victorian Man Mechanical Automaton Wow YqzVintage 1947 Squirt Drink Soda Bottle Display Figure Advertising Boy N992 PpVintage 1950's Harold Gale Pink Velvet Santa Claus Store Display 15 Inch Nice!!Antique Advertising General Candy Store Vaseline Glass Chewing Gum Change TrayVintage Snap On Tools Wheel Weights Cabinet Bin Advertising Display Old GarageRemington Thermometer Sign Store Display Man Cave Cabin Garage Art Vintage Dawson's Brewery Clock Metal Lighted Glass Sign Ohio Advertising DisplayAntique Silverplate Mirror Plateau Vanity Dresser Perfume Bottle Display JewelryVintage Champion Spark Plugs CabinetVtg Rare Animated Figures Christmas Store Display 2 Choir Caroler Kids Rk Intl.Griswold Store Display Rack1939 Eveready Sealed Beam Auto Lamps Counter Top Gas Station Display CabinetBig Vintage 50s Santa Claus Department Store Christmas Display DecorationVintage Harold Gale 15 Inch Santa Claus Christmas Store Display 1950 Pure WhiteVintage 1937 Wrigleys Gum Counter Display Advertising Sign Litho Great Shape Vintage Store Display - Kodak Film Photo Finishing - Neon Products IncorporatedVintage Christmas Store Display Ad Cardboard Gibson Greeting Cards SnowmanAntique Cast Iron / Green Porcelain ,store Display Stove Us Gothic 68-18 Case Of Vintage Aladdin Lox-on Lamp Mantles In Display Box 12-b-c & 21cVtg Life Size Midway Mortal Kombat Arcade Game Store Display Nintendo Sega Boy 1950 S Nos Sinko Flag Counter Display 12 Wind Bug Deflectors With Holders Vintage Marshall Fields Store Display Uncle Mistletoe Large Omg RareCigar Store Indian Sign Old Vintage Trade Sign Wood Sign Motorcycle Folk Art Original Remington .22 Ammo Counter Top Display Case " Hi-speed" 22'sOld Vintage Hohner Harmonica Store Display 1940-50"s ? Rare, Good Condition !!Original Miniature Coleman Store Display Tent 14"x14"x14"Vintage Advertising Display Cabinet Weatherhead Metal 4 Drawers Service Station1940's-1950's Goodyear Tires Gas Station Portable Tire Display Rack Vtg Buss Fuses Gas Service Station Counter Display Rack Sign Automotive OriginalRare! 1920's Large Davis Made Dayton Bicycle Die Cut Store Display Sign Ww1Vtg.1960's Mid Century Counter / Window Mannequin Head, Millinary Or JewelryVintage 1950s Gas Station Anco Windshield Wiper Hose Advertising Display SignVintage Victor Record Dealer Counter Display Standup Benny Goodman Unused Ad1930's Red Top Beer Malt Store Label Sign Display 1932 Mississippi Tax Stamp Vintage Lot Of 4 1940's Winter / Christmas Scenery Store Paper Display Banners56 Challenge Coin Display Case Rack Cabinet, With Door, Shadow Box Coin56-blVtg General Electric Ge Telechron Clock Store Counter Display Sign Double Sided Antique Oak Sphinx Watch Display Case Very Rare Excellent L@@k Vintage Kellogg's Metal Store Display RackAntique Advertising Tip Tray Pharaohs Horses Store Display On Old Brass Stand Vintage 1940's~genuine Imperial~metal Parts Cabinet 5 Drawer Organizer W/labels Circa 1955 ??? Radiator Seal Counter Display Stop LeakRare Gulf Oil Map & Tourgide Service Map Rack Display 18 3/4"Original Vintage Gordons Fresh Nut Meats Metal Store/counter Display - Peanuts Antique Display Case For Spencerian Steel Pen Points With Pen PointsAntique Flashlight Battery Ray-o-vac Batteries Battery Store Rack Advertising Vintage Animated 50's Mechanical Christmas Santa Gimbels Store Display 53" TallOld Chalkware Store Display "peter Rabbit Fine Shoes For Little Folks" Wow!Vintage Howard Gale 31" Mechanical Macys Store Display Santa Christmas Working Vintage Zig -zag Rolling Paper Store Dispenser Wall Display TobaccoianaVintage * Weatherhead Parts Cabinet * Gas & Oil Advertising Display Fittings BinVintage Santa Claus Christmas Soda Store Display As IsAntique Flashlight Battery Ray-o-vac Batteries Battery Store Display RackVintage Die Cut Squirrel Brand Peanuts Nut Sign Peanut Butter Store Display NiceVietnam Era Full Size Display Colt M16-a1/ M-203 With Original Vietnam CaseVintage Original 1930s Tom's Peanut 5c Jar / Metal Lid, Toms Lance Store Display