The History of Department Store Holiday Window Displays
In major cities around the world, the holiday season is often heralded by the appearance of festive decor in shop windows. From grocery stores to home-decor boutiques, most retailers opt to ornament their storefronts to mark the beginning of the busiest shopping months of the year. However, it is the major department stores that are best known for their holiday displays.
Now elaborately planned projects, department store holiday windows trace their beginnings to the Industrial Revolution. In the late 1800s, the widespread availability of plate glass allowed store owners to build large windows spanning the lengths of their shops where merchandise from the store could be appealingly displayed to draw in customers. Thus the notion of “window-shopping” was born.
R.H. Macy of Macy’s in New York City was one of the first department store owners to construct special holiday presentations. And in 1862, he was the first to feature an in-store Santa for children to visit. Several years later, in 1874, he created one of the first major holiday window displays with a collection of porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
By the early 1900s, many of the largest retailers in the United States had set up stores in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Competition for customers occurred all year but reached its pinnacle each holiday season. To lure shoppers, store owners and managers began to compete to create the most elaborate window scenes. Writing in 1899 in The Show Window magazine, L. Frank Baum (better known as the author of “The Wizard of Oz”) explained that “the recent holiday displays have thoroughly demonstrated the progress of the art of window trimming. Every village and hamlet in the land has had some sort of a window display of unusual merit to attract the public and further the sale of Christmas wares.”
In 1914, Lord & Taylor opened its flagship Fifth Avenue store. The store quickly became famous for its window displays. To aid in the process of creating these spectacles, staff built hydraulic lifts under each window. This innovative new method allowed teams of artisans to work on new decorations in a sub-basement, then the platform could be raised to street level overnight for a dramatic unveiling event.
With Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in the mix, competition for the most elaborate windows boomed. This rivalry reached new levels with the advent of mechanization. Macy’s is said to have displayed a not-for-sale mechanical singing bird in 1858. But it was Lord & Taylor that really pioneered this effort when, in 1938, the owners eschewed the traditional method of presenting store merchandise in favor of a purely decorative display of gilded bells that swung in sync with the sounds of recorded bells. At the same time, electricity allowed shop owners to light their windows at night, drawing crowds to the stores far past closing time and marking them not just as retail outposts but as sightseeing destinations.
Of course, these holiday displays were by no means limited to New York City. In Chicago, the tradition can be traced back to the early days of Marshall Field. Founded in 1852, the store began, like many department stores, as a dry goods depot but quickly grew. In 1897, the store’s display manager, Arthur Fraiser, began to implement window decorations, focusing specifically on Christmas toy displays.
Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American founder of the iconic British department store Selfridges, first worked at Marshall Field, where he is credited with coining the marketing phrase “Only __ shopping days until Christmas.” When he founded his namesake store in London in 1909, he also employed elaborate holiday window decorations, prompting other institutional retailers, such as Harrods, to follow suit.
Over the years, department stores have employed increasingly technologically advanced and elaborate methods to ornament their windows. When air-conditioning became readily available, for example, Dallas-based Neiman Marcus filled a copper-tubing tree with Freon to create the illusion of frosted branches. And in the 1950s, Washington, D.C.’s Woodward & Lothrop opted to house live penguins in its display.
Hundreds of designers and craftsmen worked together behind the scenes to produce these complex scenes over the years. “Window dressing is, at first glance, so gorgeously useless that it resists all comparison with other derided professions,” Simon Doonan, the quirky designer behind the Barneys windows for many years, has said. In fact, artists such as Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Maurice Sendak and Jasper Johns, all worked on window displays during their careers.
Now, major department stores begin to plot the themes for their holiday windows more than a year in advance. With storyboards, auditions and custom-commissioned pieces, “It’s no different than a small Broadway production,” Manoel Renha, a window designer at Lord & Taylor, told The New York Times. “It’s very elaborate.”
And like a Broadway performance, the windows have become a destination attraction all their own. Though their goal may be to entice shoppers to make holiday purchases, many people visit simply to be delighted by the shows. Each year, tourists descend on major cities like New York and London during the Christmas season, many of them with holiday-window viewing at the top of their agendas. By Lord & Taylor’s count, more than 250,000 people pass by their windows daily during the holidays. Additionally, between their unveiling at Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, over 8 million customers will visit the store.
Today, what began as a retail strategy has become an iconic holiday experience. And though we are often guilty of looking through the glass of our phone screens more than the glass of any store windows, there is no doubt that the crowds will continue to gather in front of department stores when their decorations are unveiled this season. Some things are best left to tradition.
Victoria Lewis is a freelance writer and Princeton grad who was previously an assistant fashion editor at Teen Vogue.