Losing Ourselves in Holiday Windows

December 20th, 2013

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As the deadline approaches for ordering last-minute gifts online, most of us must finish our Christmas shopping the analog way—walking into stores and picking things out by hand. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with an old-fashioned department store, you might get a glimpse of their fantastic holiday displays, packed full of animated elves and artfully piled gifts. But in most places, such scenes are extinct, remaining only in childhood memories.

“Nostalgia has always been harnessed or packaged to sell things.”

For over 150 years, familiar brands like R.H. Macy’s invested heavily in over-the-top store displays. Dr. William L. Bird, Jr., a curator at the National Museum of American History and the author of “Holidays on Display,” says that Macy’s made its name in seasonal decor when the New York City store revealed an animated shop window in 1883. “They had what they called a ‘panoply window display,’ where they took over all of the store’s front windows, installing a circular track with a mechanical sleigh. It would move around the window as if Santa were in a parade being pulled by reindeer.” Word spread of the Macy’s miracle, and shoppers would come from across town to marvel at the scene.

By the 1890s, all major department stores, like Selfridge & Co. in London or Marshall Field’s in Chicago, were committed to the Christmas display tradition. Each company attempted to outdo its rivals with more complex holiday displays, making particular use of their new plate-glass windows, a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution.

An early rendering of the decorative display at R.H. Macy's in New York City, circa 1884.

Top: Eyeing a Christmas toy display in New York, circa 1910. Above: An early rendering of an animated display at R.H. Macy’s in New York City, circa 1884.

When Lord & Taylor opened its Fifth Avenue location in New York in 1914, the store took window dressing to new heights by installing hydraulic lifts that would raise displays from a basement studio up to the street-level windows, allowing for dramatic overnight reveals. Other display innovations led to new products, like the first Lionel model train, which was invented in 1900 when the company founder, Joshua Lionel Cohen, began tinkering with ways to make a more lively toy store display. After a customer bought the first prototype right out of the window, Cohen knew he had a winner.

Prior to World War II, many stores were already threading a single narrative across all of their windows, often relating to a particular fairy tale or holiday theme. Marketing departments even created their own Christmas myths, as with Montgomery Ward’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” who first starred in a free coloring book given away during the 1939 Christmas season. Most shops aimed these tableaux at children, filling them with colorful candy containers overflowing with chocolates, doll-sized villages amidst miniature snowy mountains, or stacks of bicycles and games stretching up to the ceiling.

“In terms of ambition, there was one that Macy’s did around 1959 where they made this elaborate tin front that was built onto the Broadway side of the store,” says Bird. “It was called ‘A Fantasy of Christmas,’ and was made by the Bliss Display company. But there are others we don’t have much documentation of, like the panoramic display that Tony Sarg, the champion of marionette theater, made for Macy’s in the 1920s. Sarg’s display was probably just as spectacular, with miniature castles and animated circus acts right out of his whimsical children’s books.”

Crowds form around Macy's storefront for "A Fantasy of Christmas" in 1959, which incorporated an ornate tin facade. Image courtesy Macy's.

Crowds form around Macy’s storefront for “A Fantasy of Christmas” in 1959, which incorporated an ornate tin facade. Image courtesy Macy’s.

Unfortunately, merchandising departments typically didn’t keep thorough records of their artistic creations, and when a new designer was hired, they sometimes destroyed all documentation of displays created by previous employees. As with Sarg’s installation for Macy’s, many fabulous displays weren’t well cataloged, and survive primarily through notes or memories. Today, holiday decor is often fueled by our sentimentality for these “simpler” times, which department stores capitalize on by filling their windows with vintage objects and imagery. But Bird believes this kind of comforting nostalgia isn’t a new trend.

“As a kid, holiday traditions are all new to you,” says Bird. “But looking at a snowy landscape or little animated figures trimming a tree was just as nostalgic in the 1950s as it is today. Those images tap into classic stories that we all know and love, and something about them elicits a very human, emotional response. It’s this larger idea of the holidays.”

Like Mr. Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” shoppers seem to prefer scenes of Christmases past, rather than the unknown that lies ahead. Yet retailers must still strike a delicate balance between pulling at our heartstrings and advertising their products. “Nostalgia has always been harnessed or packaged to sell things,” says Bird. “Today, they’re using new technologies and making interactive windows, but this has to be tempered, so that these displays don’t seem like anything less than a gift to the public.”

With that in mind, we invite you to pop open some eggnog and indulge yourself in a few scenes of holiday shopping from yesteryear—our gift to you.

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Many holiday displays of the late 1800s focused on products, rather than creating a Christmas fantasy.

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Many holiday displays of the late 1800s focused on products, rather than creating a Christmas fantasy.

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Above a pile of miniature carriages, an endless sea of dolls fills this seasonal shop window of the 1910s.

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By the early decades of the 20th century, departments stores like Houghton & Dutton in Boston were using electric lights to decorate their Christmas facades. This 1915 photo shows the brilliant entryway that declares the store "Home of Santa Claus."

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A holiday toy window in New York during the 1910s.

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In 1921, this persuasive slogan hung in the window of Washington, D.C.'s Sport Mart. Image via the Library of Congress.

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The McHugh Lawson storefront in Washington, D.C., displays the audio gadgets of 1921 among a hand-painted Santa and reindeer. Image via the Library of Congress.

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H.I. Scharr Electrical Co. display in Washington, D.C., circa 1921. Image via the Library of Congress.

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The Oldsmobile company poked fun of Santa's chimney routine with its 1922 display in Washington, D.C.

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An Art Deco fantasy at Marshall Field's in Chicago, circa 1928.

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Macy's 1933 display was entitled "Around the World at Christmas Time" and linked all of its shop windows with a train-travel theme. Image courtesy Landy R. Hales Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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"Christmas Suggestions" from the Woolworth's Toy Department in New York, circa 1935.

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A magical scene created by Dayton's of Minneapolis (now known as Target) in the 1930s.

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Boys at a toy store window, circa 1941. Image via the Library of Congress.

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A handmade holiday display for a florist's storefront, circa 1941. Image via the Library of Congress.

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A festive display for Arrow shirts and ties at Shears department store in Evansville, Indiana, circa 1948.

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Creative displays weren't limited to department stores, as seen in this photo of Mrs. Backer's Pastry Shop in Salt Lake City, circa 1947.

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Another edible display at the Newcastle Co-op Shop, in Newcastle, England, circa 1952.

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A side-view of a snow-covered scene in the window of Scranton, Pennsylvania's Household Outfitting Company, circa 1950.

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A later incarnation of the window at the Household Outfitting Company, called "Lionel Trainland," in 1952.

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By the 1960s, the Household Outfitting Company's train display had entered the space age.

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Livingston's department store in Bloomington, Indiana, urged shoppers to "Be of Good Cheer" in 1955. Image via pantagraph.com.

Christmas Display Window at Simpsons Department Store at the SW corner of Dundas & Richmond london ontario c1950s

A marvelously elvin display from the 1950s.

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In the 1950s, Marshall Field's in Chicago created these massive spinning Christmas tree decorations inside its central shopping hall. Image courtesy Macy's.

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High-end seasonal displays sometimes forgo the typical Christmas imagery in favor of a refined wintry vision, like this window at Dayton's in Minneapolis from 1959.

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The exterior decorations at Lazarus's department store in Columbus, Ohio, during the 1950s. Image via ohiohistory.org.

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Crowds gather around the "Christmas Circus" windows at Lazarus's during the 1950s. Image via ohiohistory.org.

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A closer view of Lazarus's "Christmas Circus." Image via ohiohistory.org.

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A young customer is mesmerized at Wiebolt's in Chicago, circa 1969.

Bergdorf Goodman's 2012 windows followed an Art Deco

Bergdorf Goodman's 2012 windows followed an Art Deco "Ziegfield's Follies" theme, and featured several miniature mannequins from earlier eras loaned by Show & Tell user Manikin. Image courtesy Manikin.

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A few of the miniature models in Bergdorf's 2012 Deco-style display. Image courtesy Manikin.

4 comments so far

  1. Tamra Says:

    The photos are wonderful…..a simpler time. Thanks for sharing.

  2. tom61375 Says:

    Great article Hunter! Love It!!
    Happy Yuletide & a Prosperous New Year! =)

  3. sean Says:

    Great Article!!! and thankyou for sharing the great pictures!!

  4. valentino97 Says:

    What a beautiful article w/lots of gorgeous photos. Thanks also for the great ones from Manikin. Many of us can’t afford the goods but we all stood before the windows and enjoyed and dreamed. Meant to post right after I watched “Scatter my ashes at Bergdorf’s”. And thank you for including their windows in your article. I’m the one drooling at the window and then embarrassed I can’t go into the store and buy….I need to get over that right?


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