Window Displays – Magical Holiday Extravaganzas Behind Plate Glass
While stockings are hung by the chimney with care, window displays elicit magic with animated story creations in storefront settings.
Shining like bright holiday stars, holiday window displays have enchanted shoppers and created a festive atmosphere since the late 1800s. In the early days storefronts featured live circus acts at Christmas to captivate customers and thus draw business.
Before becoming famous for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum was an avid chronicler of holiday window decoration and awarded prizes to the most artful. In 1899 he happily noted that “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.”
The use of electricity made it possible for electric motors to animate papier-mâché figures in the early 1920s. Long before George Lucas’ famed Industrial Light and Magic crafting genius, display making companies such as Messmore & Damon, and Bliss Display elevated holiday window displays to an art form. Carefully lit stages illuminated Santa and his elves, snowmen, fairies, and story folk that twirled, twisted, and gestured their way into the hearts of shoppers.
The John Wanamaker store in New York City was the first to present an animatronic circus in its storefront in 1920. The walk-through attraction featured mechanical clowns, monkeys, elephants, and performing seals. The display left families basking in the warm glow of the holidays.
Macy’s began staging more and more extravagant “revolving windows” in the early 1900s. They hired a celebrated children’s author and marionette maker to create their window wonders. The annual build-up of anticipation to these window confections gave Macy’s an edge which its competitors never recovered from. Stores such as Wanamakers and others eventually went out of business.
Macy’s holiday displays spanned seventy feet of midtown Manhattan and presented 26 animated fairytale scenes featuring everything from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves to Cinderella and Humpty Dumpty. The public spilled onto the sidewalks to see them. Of course, aligning with its glorious displays, Macy’s kicked off its fabulous Thanksgiving Day Parade, a beloved tradition to this day.
Other stores followed suit with enchanting spectacles including Sax, Bloomingdale’s, Woodward & Lothrop, Marshall Field, and in Canada, Eaton’s and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Many of the people crowding the sidewalks during the holidays came solely to view the festive displays that filled the windows of downtown department stores. Visitors developed lasting emotional attachments to the store’s animated window magic.
The heyday of holiday window shopper-stopper displays was from the 1920s to the 1960s. Rather than junking these animatronics, many beloved Christmas displays have been faithfully kept alive by nonprofit groups or city governments and some are still rolled out for public viewing during the holidays.
Some stores are enjoying a revival of the window displays, using beloved animatronic creations to draw the community together, enticing families out of their homes in the winter cold to marvel at the magical, moving menagerie.