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    

1908 Diamond Dye Display Cabinet With Tin Litho Sign Front By American Art Works1930's Green River Kentucky Whiskey Advertising Display Figure / Back Bar StatueRare Vintage Original Whizzer Bike Motors Lighted Counter Top Display No ReserveLemmy Lemonade Porcelain Sign Door Push Rack Display General Store Grape VintageAntique Lucky Strike Cigarettes Vaseline Glass Counter Display W/ Change TrayVintage Auto-lite Service Parts Metal Display Case Cabinet Storage BinAntique Vintage 3 Beautiful Ladies Wood Cigar Tobacco Box General Store Display12 Vintage Nos Cobbs Slip-on Visors Auto License Certificate Holder Display #150Whistle Soda Porcelain Sign Door Push Rack Display General Store Crate VintageEze Orange Soda Porcelain Sign Door Push Rack Display General Store Pop VintageVintage Wrigley's Spearmint Tin Sign Gum Country Store Display Easle BackDr Pepper Porcelain Sign Door Push Rack Display General Store Crate Soda VintageDavidson's Breads Porcelain Sign Door Push Rack Display General Store VintagePorcelain Sinclair H-c Gasoline Sign Gas Station Display Store Advertising SignVintage 1950s Paul Jones Whiskey Advertising Bar Store Display Metal Statue BustNovelty Stand-up Figural Counter Display: Smoking Sambo, Great GraphicsBlack Americana Advertising General Store Grocery Display SignRare Antique-vtg Chrome Orange Crush Dairy-diner-store Display Advertising ClockCase Knife Display CabinetWr Case Knife Display Countertop Style Huge Wood Counter Display Discontinued NrVintage Department Store Display Mannequin Man Head HatVtg Lot 11 Key Chain Pocket Folding Knife Knives With Original Counter DisplaySnap On Display RackWancher Japan Urushi Lacquer Wooden Box Display Case Dark Brown 50 Pen Original1940's Walker Muffler Skull Display Rack SignDrawing Board Vintage 1977 Star Wars Advertisement Ceiling Hanger Store DisplayZippo Car 1998 Collectible Of The Year Countertop Display Lockable Case Cd-98Vintage Reisman Pretzels Glass Counter Display ShowcaseVintage Auto Hose Clamp Display Rack With ClampsJapan Wancher Lacquer Wooden Box Fountain Pen Display Case 50 Pens VintageLevenger~~20 Pen Glass Display Case~~see Through~~Antique Vintage Camel Winston Wall Counter Cigarette Display Rack AdvertisiingSouthern Dairies Ice Cream Porcelain Sign Store Display Seed Farm Milk Original Lance Store Display-14" Jar W/ Red Lid-frosted Base BOriginal Lance Store Display-14" Jar With Red Lid AVintage Oregon Sprockets Chainsaw Metal Sign Display Case 24"x16"Antique Remington Arms Co. Pocket Knife Store Display Box 1/2 Doz. Vtg CutleryVtg Gordon's Advertising Countertop Display 2 Gallon Jar Delivery Truck LogoVintage 1960s Standard Automoive Service Metal Display Parts Cabinet Gas StationSquirt Soda Porcelain Sign Door Push General Store Display Pop Americana VintageAntique Peerless Hardwater Soap - Glass Jar Advertising Counter DisplayVintage Ac Guide Miniture Lamps 18 Drawer Metal Cabinet - Auto Bulb DisplayBuss Fuses Display Case No. 200 Vintage Antique Fuse For Man Cave Or GarageVtg Energizer Batteries Bunny Rabbit 27" Advertising Store Display Hard PlasticEaster Antique Advertising Store Standing Display Die Cut Chick Rabbit Bunny EggEarly Antique Cora Vermouth Chalk Advertising Liquor Bottle Bar Display VintageUnfired Vintage Zippo Polaris "seapower For Peace" Org Display Case Pat 2517191Wooden 10 Pen Display CaseOvb Hardware Porcelain Sign Cutlery Tools Paints Door Push Rack Display VintageVintage Original Alemite Lubricating & Grease Fitting Counter Top Display No ResNugrape Soda Porcelain Sign Door Push Rack Display General Store Grape Vintage 3 Tier Wood Antler Style Sword Display Stand Samurai Katana RackStout Stag Beer 1960's Bottle And Sign Store/backbar Display Mankato, MinnesotaVintage 70's Pepsi Cola Metal Advertising Display Sign Cola Pop Soda 22" X 10"Pair Vintage Apothecary Glass Jar Cracker Cookie Candy Store Display Metal LidVintage Dorman Products (metal Box) Advertising Counter Display Axle Keys Sk12Flintstones 1993 Candy Sticks 72 Boxes Count Display Case Full UnusedFossil Watch Heavy Ceramic Bus Advertising Store Display Exc Cond Rare!2004 Sith Collection Display Case For .45 LightsabersVtg Buss Fuse Display Rack Gas Service Station Auto Parts Countertop Case Sign