"Displays weren't only about the merchandise but in creating a whole elaborate scene reflective of the times."
In the early days of department stores, the windows were simply used for storage. However, by the late 1800's, store owners saw them as a way to attract window shoppers. The art of window dressing started to come into its own. In 1898, the National Association of Window Dressers was formed. Publications appeared offering tips on the topic: Nearly Three Hundred Ways to Dress Show Windows by J. H. Wilson Marriott in 1889 and A Wide Awake Window Dresser by Frank L. Carr in 1894. One early window dresser, Frank Baum, put out a publication about the topic called The Show Window Magazine in 1899. "Baum was an incredible innovator and his displays literally stopped shoppers in their tracks," explained Professor Barry Davies.
American department stores started to practice window dressing including New York City's Macy's and Bloomingdale's , Chicago's Marshall Fields, and Philadelphia's Wanamaker's. R. H. Macy featured one of the first major window displays, featuring a collection of porcelain dolls and scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin. The competition was stiff as other stores tried to up the ante with their window displays. Early window designs featured electric lights, mannequins and novelty materials.
"Displays weren't only about the merchandise but in creating a whole elaborate scene reflective of the times." Different decades focussed on different themes. For instance, the Twenties featured Egyptian motifs as King Tut's tomb had just been discovered; the Thirties stressed surrealism in movies and musicals; the Forties promoted patriotism, such as war bonds and the Red Cross; the Fifties focussed on the traditional; the Sixties saw the appearance of the skinny model, Twiggy; the Seventies pushed the bold and the shocking.
Unveiling display windows became part of the adventure at Christmas time. Macy's would draw their blinds until after the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the arrival of Santa. Then they would unveil their magical display for all of New York to feast its eyes on. "Windows became a destination attraction all their own." At New York's Lord & Taylor, 250,000 people would pass by their windows every day.
Toronto Eaton's was also known for its window displays. Parents would watch the Santa Claus Parade with their children, entertained by the craft and creativity of the scene inside the window, as they waited for a chance to see Santa.
A beautiful Christmas scene from Toronto Eaton's circa 1958 courtesy http://whyilovetoronto.tumblr.com/post/38397663591