In today’s world of specialty shops, discount superstores, and all the choices we have online, it’s hard to imagine the role the department store once played in American life. Each town had one of these emporiums, housing thousands of square feet of merchandise beneath a single roof. Located in the town’s central shopping district, the department store served as a kind of town square. Wealthy people could not go to a “better” store, and poor folks would not be turned away. As an economic blender, it was great.
Department stores also played a unique role at Christmas time. Because their budgets, floor space, and potential profits were so much larger than smaller shops, they took the lead in marketing Christmas as an in-store event. It cost a quarter to go to the movies, but for free one could linger for hours over fantasy windows, spectacular toy lands, mechanized villages, and red-suited Santa, all set against the backdrop of alluring and highly desirable merchandise. Whole families trooped downtown each year to enjoy these spectacles, and a new annual tradition became part of millions of American lives.
Retailed realized early on that windows made ideal picture frames for their merchandise. In the 1920s, Christmas windows took a revolutionary turn. Ed Dean, display manager for Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis, began designing windows that were whimsical rather than merely merchandise-filled. Although Macy’s in New York had long incorporated merchandise into various window themes, Dean’s windows skipped the merchandise altogether. Among his creations were mechanical cutouts illustrating scenes from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a life-size elephant that swung its trunk and swished its tail, and several circus acts and nursery rhymes. The idea was to give the windows a new theme each year and to make each season’s offering grander and more alluring than the year before. One year it was dolls, another the circus, still another nursery rhyme characters.
Soon other stores adopted the merchandise-free strategy, and fantasy windows became the rule of the day. In 1946, Marshall Field’s in Chicago used its long parade of windows to tell the story of The Night Before Christmas from start to finish, which proved so popular with shoppers that the store offered the public a new story every year after that. In cities across America, each season’s store windows became an annual news event, and town residents turned out to see the show. The amount of free advertising, customer goodwill, foot traffic, and attention from the retail world was enormous.
Why are holiday windows always so secular? Has commercialism completely drowned out Christmas’ true origins? It turns out the opposite is true – retailers have always been cautious of anything that might seem to exploit religion. In 1952, to satisfy customers who’d requested a nativity display, Dayton’s in Minneapolis created a sacred side of the store, keeping it separate from the Santa’s, sleigh bells, toy soldiers and decorated trees that enlivened the rest of the store.
Windows were by no means the only investment retailers made. Awnings garlanded with holly, Santa’s and sleighs climbing store roofs, interior pillars wrapped with pine, elaborately decorated Christmas trees and Santa Villages and Toylands – all these were important in setting the holiday mood. Marshall Field’s, in Chicago, was a leader in cellar-to-ceiling decorating. In the 1940s, instead of having windows to delight the children and decorations of various sorts in different departments, Field’s designers began decorating the whole store around and single theme. This required not only ingenuity but massive effort as well – the store estimated that some 4,000 employees were required to complete the decorations each year. The effect was dazzling, and people who might before have been content to see only the windows and the main floor now became interested in seeing the whole store, and as they walked through each floor they invariably made purchases.
The 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of downtown windows, with stores striving each season to surpass their previous year’s efforts and those of their competitors. Stores that had kept their windows dark on Sundays began to light them up. Eventually, by the mid-1960s, states started to repeal their Sunday closing laws, and stores began to keep limited hours.
After the 1960s, while large stores could still be counted on for interesting and delightful windows, soaring costs caused many retailers to scale back their efforts, to recycle decorations form one season to another, or rely on rented window decorations. An even bigger factor may have been that new feature on the American landscape, the suburban shopping mall. With branches of the main store located in the customer’s own neighborhood, there was no reason to lure shoppers downtown, and the advent of the sophisticated attractions like color television, animated movies, television specials, and later VCR’s and DVDs, made children just a little less excited about the prospect of pacing a long line of windows in the cold.