Losing Ourselves in Holiday Windows

Just yesterday I was telling my daughter about how Macy's, Gimbels, and other New York City stores would build elaborate displays in their windows to draw Christmas shoppers. People go the city from all over to see what the stores came up with this year. In my memories, "window shopping" has always been just a normal part of the Christmas shopping experience -even in small towns, to some extent. Have you ever wondered how that custom got started?

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 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 5th 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.

In addition to an article about the history of those elaborate Christmas window displays, Collectors Weekly also has a gallery of 30 of the most elaborate, most beautiful displays from the past.

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