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]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1950s Smith Miller Mack Stunning Tandem Truck And Trailer Unused Store DisplayAntique Mahogany Microscope Slide Collectors Display Cabinet By M.pillischer. Santa Store Display. Green Coat. Blue Pants. Large. Ayer's Cherry Pectoral SignVintage 1950's Bardahl Motor Oil Display Rack Original Sign Porcelain Polar Bear Tobacco Sign Trade Store Display Cafe Not Neon Door Push Rare Vintage Skunk Automaton Animal Novelty Toy Store Display Electric Movement1930s Or 1940s Huge 30 Inch Dutch Boy Paints Paper Mache Store Display StunningVintage Tums Tin Thermometer Sign Antique Glass Wood Drug Store Old Display Usa00 Gauge Wall Hanging Diorama Layout Display Case Track Scenery 69 X 20 X 9 CmStore Display Box For Selling Flower Seeds 9x11in Rice's Seeds Cambridge Ny00 Gauge Hanging Diorama Layout Display Case Track Scenery 62 X 20 X 900 Gauge Wall Hanging Diorama Layout Display Case Track Scenery 87 X 20 X 9 CmVintage Gas Pump Lighter Station Counter Display Shell 76 Chevron MobilRare Antique Counter Top Glass Display Case Showcase Glass Candy Container Mint!Rare 1930s Vintage Winchester Old Country Store Display Strip SignOld Vintage 1920's Blatz Chewing Gum - Store Display Advertising Card / Sign Vintage 1950's Stp Motor Oil Display Rack Original Cool!Vintage Antique Tackle Hildebrandt Musky Fishing Counter Top Display PlaqueVtg Art Nouveau Tabletop Display Case Trinket Box Metal Decorative Corners GlassVintage Barber Shop Store Display Merchandise Card 25 Packs Gillette Thin BladesVintage Jeepers Creeper Lisle Corp Advertising Tin Metal Store Display Rack SignOld Vintage Hood Tires And Lube Metal Store Display Tire Holder StandVtg 1970 Pepsi-cola Soda Advertising Metal Display Sign W/ Full Calendar UnusedShark Teeth 100 Lot With Display Case Great White Meglodon Sand Tiger Shark !!!!Vintage Original Soda 3 Bottle & Topper Store Display Virginia Dare RareVtg 1977 Schlitz Beer Globe Advertising Cash Register Non-lighted Sign DisplayWood Cobbler Repair Boot Shoe Trade Sign Old Primitive Americana Store DisplayVintage Antique Tackle Hildebrandt Slim Eli Counter Top Display PlaqueVintage Advertising Sign Tobacco *floe De Belar Cigars* Counter Top DisplayVintage Original Soda Bottle And Topper Store Display Mason's Root BeerVintage Die Cut Squirrel Brand Peanuts Nut Sign Peanut Butter Store Display NiceNos Vintage Counter Display, Marlin Safety Razor Blades, 12 Packs - 18 For $.25Vintage Fitzgerald Bros Brewing Beer Advertising Bar Display-troy NyVintage Pepsi-cola "take Home A Case" Metal Store Display Advertising Sign- NiceGlass Candy Display Case Candy Container 3 1/4 Inches Showcase Great ShapeFrench Beveled Glass & Bronze Tufted Silk Ormolu Vitrine Box Casket Display CaseRapala Fishing Lures Embossed Metal Sign Bait & Tackle Shop Store Display Winchester Special Store Display Window PosterVintge Jax Beer Advertising Lighted Two-handled Mug Countertop Display Sign1995 Camel 12 Zippo Lighter Collection Wood Wall -mount Display AdvertisingVintage Advertising Store Display Countertop Mccall's Mannequin Lady 28" Tall 1970's Gm Mr Goodwrench Embossed Plastic Sign Vintage Dealer Counter Top DisplayC1950s Diecut Metal Tractor Store Counter Display Sign,land Loans,equitable InsWeatherby 9 Shell Lucite Cartridge Display 224 Cal. To 460 Cal. No ReserveFenton Art Glass Photo Of Marshall Field Dept. Store Display For FentonVintage Budweiser Light Advertising Display Sign Bottle In Ice Lighted SignHarry Potter Hogwarts House Bookmark Set In Display Case Noble CollectionNike Wooden Store Display Advertising Sign 5" X 5"Vintage Original Soda Bottle And Topper Store Display Squeeze Panda BearSuper Powers Promotional 1985 Standee Batman Superman Aquaman Display Vhs RareLot 30 Vintage Lighters Zippo Advertising Marlboro Camel Military W/display CaseVintage Wooden Cigar Tobacco Store Indian Store Statue Hand Crafted Wood #3Vintage Wire Hat Stand/wall Mounted Millinery Display Head Form MetalTurned Wooden Hat Stand Vintage Antique Store Display~dowel Jointed~great PatinaTourneau Mens Watch World Clock Store Display Ad Rolex Cartier Zenith MovementVintage Original Soda Bottle And Topper Store Display Mission PineappleVintage Original Soda Bottle And Topper Store Display Orange KistAdvertising Better Measure With Lufkin Store Display Sign Metal 7.25" X 5.5"Vintage Black Americana Fireworks Smoking Sambo Advertising Counter Display SignRare Rhonda Rousey Store Display Cardboard Sign/poster Ea Sports Ufc 2