Few aspects of consumer life hav been hit as hard by online shopping as the department store. Every week, yet another tent pole department store—Macy’s, JCPenny’s, Carson Pirie Scott’s—gets cut off from the parent company, cauterized to keep the fledging company alive.
Honestly, with Amazon’s instant price algorithms, these companies don’t stand a chance.
There are things we will miss (being able to try on clothes before buying them) and things we won’t (the noxious perfume department). During the Christmas season, however, our biggest pang of nostalgia will likely be the disappearing art of the Christmas window display.
Despite claims to the contrary, no one is exactly sure who created the first Christmas window display. Macy’s Department Store in New York often receives credit as being the first to establish the Christmas window as a newsworthy spectacle, which the store unveiled in 1883. Not only did the massive display cover an entire side of the famed department store, but it featured Santa and his reindeer scooting along on a mechanical, circular track as a kind of proto-animatronics. No one in New York, the United States, or even the world had seen anything so elaborate. Newspapers quickly dubbed it “Macy’s Miracle.”
Competing stores found it almost impossible to improve upon Macy’s display, but they would try for the 125 years. Department stores quickly realized they could no longer rely on amateur, in-house window dressers for the competition. Instead, firms created for the sole purpose of three-dimensional art popped up in retail markets. For them, the Christmas window was the an annual Olympics. Among them, Spaeth Design is probably the most famous. Created in 1945, the company still constructs world-renowned window displays, including those of Macy’s, Lord and Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, NBC, The Home Depot, and Filene’s.
Department store window decorations became such a popular cultural art that it featured prominently in several Hollywood movies, such as Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, and, although not a holiday film, Mannequin. It also gave rise to the popular idiom “window shopping” or the act of looking at goods without intending to buy.
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In A Christmas Story, Ralphie and his family head to Goldblatt’s Department Store so Ralphie can beg Santa for a BB gun. But not just any BB gun. An “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!” Although filmed at a Higbee’s Department Store in Cleveland, Ohio, the scene was supposed to take place in Hohman, Indiana (a fictionalized version of Hammond). In the early 80s, suburban Cleveland resembled Hammond of the 1940s.
Just before the memorable scene in which Santa announces Ralphie will shoot his eye out, the family tromps past a collection of sparkling, whirling toys in the store window. In the days before the Amazon app or the Sears Wish Book, those few minutes of gazing must have been a highlight of the pre-Christmas season for kids.
The art of the Christmas window display didn’t only flourish in big cities. It quickly spread to medium and small towns, becoming an intricate part of America’s small business tradition. Over time, businesses large and small learned a few tricks to safe, effective window design, most of which still are used today in the few window displays that are left.
For one, you’ll rarely see a full-sized Christmas tree in a window display. Aesthetically, they take up a lot of space and are almost impossible to decorate around in the confined space of a store window. Practically, Christmas trees are not the safest objects to have in a narrow, tight space filled with hot lights and stagnant air, especially in the days before fire-retardant artificial trees.
Also, windows are never quickly planned designs. Workers spend weeks or even months brainstorming and creating a theme, often creating a full-sized mockup far away from prying eyes before starting on the actual display. The displays of small stores usually feature goods bought and sold on location, but the largest retailers almost never include in-stock items. Instead, they hope the hope the attractive store window will “seduce” you into coming into the store. Like one of those blue bug zappers, but in a nice way. And they pay well for this seduction, ranging from $40,000 to $100,000 for a professional firm display.
Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything like these holiday window displays, at least without traveling to major retail centers in Chicago, Indianapolis or New York City. This has nothing to do with a cultural shift away from Christmas, but a change in consumer spending habits and time management. We don’t have time to gaze fondly through windows and lazily shop.
Today’s big box retailers like Target, Wal-mart, and Best Buy, have no place to display such intricate holiday artwork, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t invest the thousands of dollars necessary to create them. Big box stores operate on thin margins and big volume, not customer entertainment.
For those that desperately desire a Christmas window fix, I do have a suggestion: if you’re near the Indiana Welcome Center, just off 80/94 and Kennedy Avenue in Hammond, Indiana, then you’re in luck. Every year, the Welcome Center features an elaborate display of traditional Christmas windows that capture iconic scenes from the classic film A Christmas Story.
You don’t have to be a fan of the film to appreciate the hard work and detail that go into these pieces, particularly the effects of depth and perspective the artists were able to squeeze into such a compact space. It’s a great way to introduce your own children to the lost art of the Christmas window…and maybe start a whole new Christmas tradition!