Stimulating Retail Sales in Stores 100 Years Ago

At holiday time, a special treat for the family often involved a trip downtown (or to the nearest big city) to see the store windows, talk to Santa, and admire the town Christmas tree. Major cities still have this holiday atmosphere (think of Rockefeller Center and the windows at Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks), but in smaller communities across the country the fabric of the shopping experience has been changed by the rise of big box stores.

Today retailers compete for the consumer dollar during the holidays via enticing catalogs, additional advertising, free shipping, and that all-important factor—special coupons and price reductions. (Almost 6 percent of shoppers this year will be using a phone app to make sure they are getting the best prices on the items they are considering.)

But 150 years ago, the competition for customers was local, and holiday window displays became a key factor. A Santa in the store also helped lure buyers, and many small towns also had Christmas parades to kick off the shopping season. (A few towns still have a Christmas parade, though the numbers are dwindling.)

The Importance of Windows
In the early 1800s, the purpose of a store window was for one thing–to let in enough natural light for business to be conducted. Over time, merchants began using store windows to display their wares. Butchers hung whatever fresh meat they were selling that day, general stores displayed a sampling of their offerings, and specialty shops such as milliners showed off their latest creations. By the 1840s, the ability to make larger panes of glass expanded the opportunity for retailers to present more items in the store windows.

Competition Heats Up
Retailers have always looked for new ways to attract consumers, and in the late 1800s, the focus on creating an inviting and intriguing holiday experience began to grow. In the 1880s, a store in Boston hired a Scottish immigrant to serve as a Santa Claus, and the tradition of the department store Santa seemed to have spread from there.

Stores were also beginning to understand what creative window displays could accomplish for them–sometimes providing publicity, and almost always attracting a crowd. In New York City, Lord & Taylor prides itself on having first ventured into “theatrical” window displays, but the epi-center of change may have been Chicago where the World’s Columbian Exposition took place in 1893. This event attracted the greatest talents from around the world who arrived in Chicago to create their country’s display. The “Midway Plaisance” (the mile-long park area along the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and the list of men (and one woman, Sophia Bennett, the first American woman to receive an architecture degree) who created buildings for the fair reads like a “Who’s Who” of late nineteenth century architects.

The fair introduced Chicagoans and all other fair goers to new concepts of information and entertainment. At the time of the exposition, Marshall Field & Co. (now Macy’s) was headed by Harry Selfridge (1864-1947) who was a brilliant merchant. He is credited with creating the credo that still dominates the air waves today “Only ____ Shopping Days Until Christmas.” While at Marshall Field (before leaving the U.S. to begin the successful, eponymous U.K. chain of stores) Selfridge hired a talented fellow by the name of Arthur Fraser to work at Marshall Field. Fraser began adding themes to his window designs, and over time, he established the concept of each window revealing a new chapter in a story with shoppers following it as they walked along.

Down the street, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward employed in-store Santas to attract customers. After each child would explain to Santa what he or she wanted, Santa would reach into his toy bag and hand the child a free coloring book to keep the child busy until Christmas. In 1939 Montgomery Ward created the coloring book in-house, and the world gained Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, courtesy of Montgomery Ward copywriter. (For more on this touching store, click here.)

By 1948, Marshall Field had created a competing family of characters, led by Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly who lived in Cloud Cottage. Cloud Cottage was originally only used in window displays, but then Marshall Field assigned to ad agency Foote, Cone, & Belding the task of creating a television show based on them. The show opened with a live segment featuring performers Johnny Coons and Jennifer Holt (daughter of cowboy movie star Jack Holt). The program then switched over to a “live cartoon” that was drawn on air by a cartoonist. The cartoon images were projected on a screen using an overhead projector that were then filmed using two different cameras, which gave the general idea of animation. The system was crude but less time-intensive and therefore, more affordable)

If anyone can post a clip of the actual show featuring Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly, it would be wonderful. The best clip I could find seems to have been created in 1961 and features a Nashville Christmas parade intercut with pictures of Uncle Mistletoe. If you watch for only a minute of the 2:37 clip, I guarantee it will cheer your day!

The television program about Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly was very popular in the early 1950s, and lasted for several seasons. However, Rudolph won in the long run, as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, both the song and the television show, are still enormously popular today.

Over time, stores everywhere began to copy the idea of window displays, and today in cities where displays are still featured, music and animatronics have become staples and the displays can take a full year to plan and execute. While people still line up outside some of the major department stores to see the windows, the customer today is very likely to be snapping photos with their cell phones and then using those phones to compare prices on the gifts they are planning to buy today.

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