Store Window Displays

Store Window Displays

Department stores present window displays to the public all year round. But the scenes displayed at Christmas time are different. More imaginative, more opulent, and tinged with fantasy or nostalgia, these scenes add to the enjoyment of many holiday shoppers. The enticing Christmas window display is as old as the contemporary Christmas, having established itself as an important seasonal tradition in the late nineteenth century.

Nineteenth-Century Beginnings

Historians trace Christmas window displays back to the 1820s. These first few displays featured nothing more than merchandise surrounded by a few flowers, some greenery, and patriotic symbols. Still, during the 1820s and 1830s many inhabitants of New York City spent some part of Christmas Eve making the rounds of the better toy and candy stores, admiring the modest displays of shop wares nestled among evergreens and lit by gaslights.

Christmas shop windows quickly evolved beyond serving as mere functional displays of goods and became a form of commercial entertainment. By the 1870s New York shop window displays had reached such artistic heights that they were being reported in the newspapers. In 1872 a toyshop called L. P. Tibbals tickled the public's fancy with a large display of toy trains and other mechanical, moving toys. Macy's became famous for its yearly display of dolls. In 1874 its designers created a miniature croquet party populated by $10,000 worth of dolls imported from Europe (for more on Macy's, see Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade). In the same year reviewers lauded Lord and Taylor for their fine display of Christmas trees and garlands.

Each year window dressers at rival stores vied with one another to produce the most eye-catching and talked-about Christmas displays of the season. By the 1880s New York window dressers were treating the public to a series of mechanized, moving displays. When one store mounted a tableaux featuring scenes from Montreal's winter carnival - complete with sledders sliding down an icy hill - Macy's countered by creating a miniature reproduction of a scene from the popular novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-52) - the one in which the character Eliza is chased by bloodhounds. Displays such as these tended to sacrifice the capacity of the store window to advertise goods for sale in favor of attracting attention by means of novelty. Nevertheless, such lavish and artistic displays offered a form of free holiday entertainment to the public and thereby added to the store's prestige.

Though people thought the store windows entertaining, storeowners were well aware of the commercial value of these displays. In 1895, the Dry Goods Chronicle advised businesses gearing up for the Christmas shopping season to:

Fit up your place as it was never fitted before. Dress it in evergreens and bright colors. Make your store such an inviting bower of Christmas loveliness that people cannot stay away [Schmidt, 1995, 161].

These extravagant Christmas fantasies invited shoppers to treat the holiday as a season of material abundance and wish fulfillment. Shop owners hoped that this attitude would inspire purchases.

Twentieth-Century Trends

In the twentieth century store window displays continued to serve as a form of Christmas season entertainment. In many large cities, stores unveiled their holiday displays the day before Thanksgiving or on Thanksgiving Day itself. These "openings" sometimes attracted crowds. Families often made special trips downtown during the holiday season to admire the Christmas windows. In many cities one store emerged as the perennial favorite in the unofficial yearly competition in Christmas window dressing. In Chicago Marshall Fields grabbed the spotlight. In Cleveland Higbees and the May Company split the honors. In New York City Macy's, with its 75 feet of display windows along 34th Street, established a solid reputation for outstanding Christmas windows. In Minneapolis Dayton's won rave reviews, while in Philadelphia Wanamaker's wowed the public with its yearly Christmas extravaganzas.

These last two stores hit upon the strategy of moving their displays inside the building, so that customers would actually have to enter and walk past merchandise for sale in order to view the decorations. Wanamaker's offered the public religious displays, while Dayton's specialized in the secular aspects of Christmas. The "Grand Court" in Wanamaker's interior held what was at one time the largest pipe organ in the world, making it easy for window dressers to turn the court into an elegant "cathedral" at Christmas time. The store played up this theme by hiring its own musical director, who led Christmas carol sing-alongs for shoppers and organized Christmas concerts in the court. In 1966 Dayton's of Minneapolis recreated an entire "Dickens Village" in the interior of the store (for more on Charles Dick-ens, see Christmas Carol, A). The "village" contained 34 buildings, 150 characters (automatons and humans), and 25 vignettes, all built at three-quarters life size. The attraction took up 12,000 square feet of floor space and cost about a quarter of a million dollars. The village was a hit with the public. It drew 110,000 people into the store in its first week alone, and 20,000 a day thereafter. To defray the tremendous cost of the exhibit the store decided to use it again the following two years.

Some have predicted that holiday shoppers' increasing reliance on catalogs and the internet as a means of simplifying holiday shopping will hurt brick-and-mortar merchants, leading to the eventual decline of the Christmas window display. The rise of large suburban shopping malls, with common areas available for holiday decorations, may also influence how stores choose to spend their display dollar. Nevertheless, the tradition of extravagant Christmas window decor continues in many quarters, much to the delight of dedicated holiday shoppers.

The View from the Other Side of the Window

The public may forget the delights of decorated store windows as soon as January rolls around. By contrast, many professional window dressers working for big city department stores begin planning their next Christmas display as soon as the holiday season ends. Coming up with a workable new idea may take time. Concepts and budgets generally require executive approval, and some materials may need to be ordered well in advance, such as custom-made mechanized mannequins and the designer clothes they wear. Though store windows change year round, many designers consider their Christmas windows to be their most important effort of the year, a chance to show off their skills and to make a reputation for themselves in the world of window dressing.

Further Reading

Bellman, Sheryll. Through the Shopping Glass. New York: Rizzoli, 2000. Marling, Karal Ann. Merry Christmas! Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pool, Daniel. Christmas in New York. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holi-days. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
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