Going to the mall for Christmas shopping is an experience and not necessarily a good one. Because there are so many other distractions, I rarely look at window displays, but American retailers have a long tradition of decorating their store windows for Christmas.
Department stores and other retailers began designing special holiday windows in the late 1800s, with Macy’s of New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago leading the way. Displaying goods in their windows was an inexpensive means of advertising new products, trends, or ideas, as well as a magnet for potential shoppers. But even those who couldn’t afford to buy the products displayed were enchanted by the window displays, as the picture below of little boys in front of a NYC store window before 1914 shows.
But not every retailer wanted non-paying spectators for their store windows, and in the 1890s some NYC stores specified certain times for “Poor” children to view their windows. The children could not enter the store itself – just look at the products displayed.
There were other reasons that these holiday window displays became popular. One was because of improvements in the making of plate glass; by 1900, large sheets of plate glass could be produced and installed on the buildings’ facades. Another technological improvement was the lighting; by the second decade of the twentieth century, most cities (large and small) had a municipal electrical lighting system that made window lighting safe and inexpensive.
Another innovation that revolutionized window displays was mechanization. Miniature trains and moving dolls and other figures fascinated shoppers and even the casual walker when they were introduced after the First World War.
But even without mechanization, some window displays still thrilled consumers and their children, as the photo below demonstrates.
Product tie-ins to popular movies and cartoons was introduced by (you guessed it!) Walt Disney in the early 1930s. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were always big hits in Christmas windows, but Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were big draws as well. Disney characters still continue to charm many children and their parents (OK, I get the attraction of “Frozen”, but really don’t understand “Minions”), although it wasn’t just the merchandising that Disney invented. His use of automation has been adopted by many retailers as well.
Until the 1980s, local department stores also maintained their own store identities .Bloomingdale’s and Barney’s, in NYC, are still known for their cutting-edge holiday store presentations. In Syracuse,New York, the unveiling (windows were covered by curtains while the displays were being set up) of one of the local department store’s holiday windows was announced in the local newspapers, and people lined up to see the windows. But not all of the windows were visible on Sundays – Dey Brothers, founded by Scottish Presbyterian brothers in the 1880s, kept their display windows covered (and the store closed, of course) on Sundays. Other local stores traditionally used certain themes, often involving store colors or local events.
Sadly, as local department stores have disappeared, so has the local flavor of shopping. Walking through Destiny Mall here in Syracuse is not all that different from walking through most malls in America, and perhaps that is one reason why fewer people are venturing out to shop. Instead, they stay home with their IPad or smart phone and let their fingers do the shopping.