Making displays better and better.

Macy’s is said to have displayed in its Christmas windows a not-for-sale mechanical singing bird in 1858.

When Lord & Taylor opened its flagship store in 1914, to aid in the process of creating window 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.

In the early days, peopled powered the animated holiday scenes. Employees took turns walking a treadmill below the windows that kept everything in motion.

In 1938 Lord & Taylor went to a purely decorative display of gilded bells that swung in sync with the sounds of recorded bells. At the same time, electricity allowed lighting of windows at night, drawing crowds to the stores even past closing time and marketing the windows as a sightseeing destination.

When air-conditioning became readily available Dallas-based Neiman Marcus filled a copper-tubing tree with Freon to create the illusion of frosted branches.
1910 Marshall Field’s, Chicago, window display.
Writing in “The Show Window” magazine, L. Frank Baum (author of “The Wizard of Oz”) remarked in 1899 “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.”

Development of Fifth Avenue.

At this point in time there was not a Fifth Avenue shopping area in New York. The area before the 1850’s was residential and was filled with charitable organizations like orphanages, hospitals, churches, and the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. In the late 1850’s John Jacob Astor III and his brother William (of the wealthy Astor family) built two separate houses on 33rd and 34th streets on the site that now contains the Empire State Building. In 1862 Caroline Schermerhorn Astor moved to the southwest corner of fifth Avenue and 34th street, confirming the changing status of the area.

In 1893 the Astoria Hotel was erected on the site of her house, later linked to its neighbor as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In 1896 Benjamin Altman bought the corner lot on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th street and demolished the Marble Palace. In 1906 he built his department store, B. Altman and Company, which occupied the whole of its block front. Originally a narrower thoroughfare, much of Fifth Avenue was widened in 1908, sacrificing its wide sidewalks to accommodate the increasing traffic. The result was the creation of a high-end shopping district that attracted fashionable women and the upscale stores that wished to serve them.

Lord & Taylor was the first major store on Fifth Avenue and was the first to show innovating holiday window displays. This flagship store, located between 38th and 39th streets, opened in 1914. Sakes Fifth Avenue opened in 1926 between 49th and 50th streets. Bergdorf Goodman moved to Fifth Avenue in 1928 between 57th and 58th streets.

Today Fifth Avenue is home to some of the great department stores, like Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, and Bergdorf Goodman.

As department stores grew, so did the popularity of window displays, and with it the competition to have the best displays. 
1915 Macy’s, New York, window display.
Pre-Fifth Avenue. 

The Marble Palace (1846) was located on Fifth Avenue and 34th St. It was clad in white marble, but the building’s cast iron construction permitted large plate glass windows that the company used for seasonal displays, especially during the Christmas shopping season.

Macy’s (1858), however, outgrew its first location and moved to Sixth Avenue and 14th St. It expanded into neighboring buildings and used publicity devices such as a store Santa Claus, themed exhibits, and illuminated window displays to draw in customers.'s_Herald_Square

Santa's Whiskers

Is it worth it? By Lord & Taylors count, more than 250,000 people pass by their windows daily during the holidays. Macy’s windows attract about 7,500 people an hour.
Over the years department store Christmas windows have become major annual events. Artists like Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Maurice Sendak and Jasper Johns have all worked on window displays during their careers.

Macy’s Paul Olszewski works year-round with a team of 100 full-time and part-time animators, hair stylists, makeup artists, composers, musicians and copywriters to create the mechanical scenes. “It’s like putting on a Broadway show,” says the 47-year-old designer. “You’re working with different pieces and different departments, but it all comes together on opening night”, usually the week before Thanksgiving.
According to Martine Reardon, chief marketing officer for Macy’s, “We are still the keeper of the tradition we started back in 1868 when we introduced Christmas-window displays as a way to celebrate the season with our customers and Christmas shoppers.”

By 1894 the major stores in New York were competing during the Christmas season with elaborate window display and in 1895 Macy’s featured 13 tableaux, including scenes from Jack and the Beanstalk, Gulliver’s Travels and other children’s favorites.

Similar developments were under way in London at Whiteleys store and in Paris at the La Samaritaine.

And in 1897, Chicago’s Arthur Fraiser, Marshall Field’s display manager, began pioneering window design in that city with his Christmas toy windows.,7,1,1,8

Window Shopping

For the last month of the year they amaze us. Stories, Christmas traditions and holiday fashions brought to life behind glass. A special gift from department stores to get us shopping.

The Christmas shopping season is extremely important for American retailers, accounting for upwards of 40 percent of their annual sales. The length of the season is critical to retailers and decorating store windows is an important part of attracting shoppers into the stores.

Length of shopping season.

Lincoln issues the first Thanksgiving Proclamation
 declaring Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, and succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamations declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of  Thanksgiving. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939 the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. Retailers complained to FDR that  this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more. So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month.
Rise of department store windows.

While one of the first department stores may have
been Bennett’s (1734) in Derby, England, the first reliably dated department store was Harding, Howell & Co., which opened in 1796 on Pall Mall, London. It had all the basic characteristics; it was a public retail store offering a wide range of consumer goods in different departments. It closed in 1820.

But as it closed, rising prosperity and social mobility increased the number of people with disposable income in the late Georgian period (early 1800’s), and window shopping was transformed into a leisure activity.

By the 1840’s and 50’s department stores were being established on a large scale. In France it was Le Bon Marche in 1838, La Samaritaine in 1870 and Grands Magasins Dufayel in 1890. In the United Kingdom it was Harrods in 1834, Kendals in 1836, Bainbridge in 1838, Lewis in 1856 and Selfridge in 1909. And in the United States Marble Palace in 1846, Macy’s in 1858, Stewart’s in 1862 and Lord & Taylor in 1914. Also Marshall Field’s in 1852, Hudson’s in 1881 and Wanamaker’s in 1876.