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.
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.”
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.