Follow The Red and Green Road To Xmas

Vintage Department Store Window Display

So here’s a fun story as we come to the end of the Xmas shopping season.

Back in the mid 1890’s when department stores were just beginning to become the shopping norm, they very often had dull, uninspired window displays that did little to attract customers into the stores. This is ironic as once inside the shops, storekeepers did everything they could to keep their customers, mostly women, happy and content. They offered amenities such as complimentary tea service and lounges to rest in. Very nice of them, but those amenities were useless if no one was coming through the door.

A failed playwright and actor, desperate for money to feed his family, thought a bit of showmanship could encourage folks into the stores. He convinced a Chicago department store to let him decorate their windows with life sized dolls, these new fangled things he called mannequins, to display clothes and accessories. In addition he set up theatrical scenes that used stuffed animals and other products sold inside as key focal points for the displays. He even devised a mechanical head that seemed to magically float in thin air and then disappear.

Just to be on the safe side and to make sure he could draw a crowd, he hired an actor friend to portray a “gentleman of considerable wealth” to walk down the street and be suddenly (and very theatrically) entranced by what he saw in the window. This tactic is still used by stores even today. And of course it has morphed to online shopping. Or did you think influencers just popped up out of nowhere?

Though the department store owner had been skeptical at first, the crowds streaming into his store convinced him otherwise. This window display idea was a hit. So much so that it didn’t take long for this new style to catch on. Quickly the failed playwright and actor was in demand from all the department stores in Chicago to do their windows. Even the venerable Marshall Fields store, then managed by the legendary Harry Selfridge, asked him to do their window displays. Soon stores around the country came calling. When Selfridge moved to London and opened his self-named store, one of the first things he did was to imitate the window displays. Once again they were a rousing success.

Our wizard of windows eventually started a magazine detailing the techniques he used, a magazine that became the bible of the window dressing industry for many years to follow called The Show Window. He was also the founder and for many years after an officer of the National Association of Window Trimmers of America and published the first book dedicated to the subject in 1900, “The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors”. That book would be a boon to the industry, but it’s selective audience made it’s sales minor, especially compared to the OTHER book our man published that year.

You see his window display work made him a lot of money. That money allowed him to go back to his first love, that of writing; specifically writing children’s books. One of the books he wrote was about a young woman who goes on a journey to find a fabulous storehouse of wondrous things, aided by a couple of mannequins (one straw, the other metal) and a stuffed animal. The mysterious mechanical head makes an appearance as well, as do all of his other display ideas like a fairy granting wishes and yes, even flying monkeys.

Oh I’m sorry. Have I ruined The Wizard of Oz for you now that you know it’s really all about going shopping at a department store? L. Frank Baum wouldn’t think so.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Holidays. Be kind to one another, that’s the greatest present of all. And remember, there’s no place like home.

And that while you can get back, you can’t buy love…

Shapiro Out

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