When Downtown was a Holiday Destination
Do you remember being promised a trip “downtown” to see Christmas windows?
Major stores in big cities became nationally known for the creativity of their holiday windows, but even small towns took part in staging special window displays to bring families into town to shop for the day. Most store windows were used as one would expect–to feature merchandise store owners hoped would be coveted by passersby. However, over time, a tradition evolved that December’s holiday windows were designed to delight rather than to pitch merchandise. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and Santa’s workshop are just some of the intriguing themes that are used each year.
Elementary mechanization of the window display occurred in the mid-19th century. Macy’s was said to have featured a not-for-sale mechanical singing bird in 1858 that was used to draw people to the store. Visitors were quite intrigued with movement, but mechanical figures were hard to come by in the late 19th century, so stores took to employing actors to appear in the windows making robot-like movements.
Lord & Taylor was one of the leaders in holiday window décor, and when the new flagship store opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street in 1914, it featured hydraulic lifts under each of the store windows. Artisans could work on the window scenes in a sub-basement, and later the platform could be elevated to street level.
Today malls and big box stores still decorate for the holidays but the “come visit” window displays exist only at the major department stores in big cities. Macy’s has maximized the work that takes place for the Herald Square flagship store by replicating the 34th Street windows for other locations. In a nod to maintaining local tradition, the Macy’s in San Francisco features this year’s New York design but also includes a window that honors a long-time partnership with the SPCA. One carefully-monitored window features dogs and cats in need of homes; shelter employs have space within the store to accept donations and/or arrange adoptions.
As part of my research, I have watched countless videos of recent window displays. This year, I found Macy’s “steampunk” themed windows, created to support the Make-a-Wish foundation, to be particularly wonderful, but for sheer impact, I loved the light show that Saks presents utilizing the entire front of their Fifth Avenue building. Bloomingdale’s, known for their terrific holiday shopping bags, has replicated scenes from some of their favorite bags. Barney’s is usually remarkable, but I was not particularly taken with Gaga’s Workshop.
Take a look at my two favorites. Here is Saks:
Tiffany has used the theme of the Central Park carousel, and if you have a few extra minutes, search out their clip on Youtube.
The World of Department Store Santas
The tradition of a Santa land–a part of the store where families wound through a carefully planned pathway with intriguing things to see–may have started in Britain in 1879. Some stores even used live animals and circus acts to create attention along the way.
This description of Miller & Rhoads in Richmond certainly presents the feel of what these environments were like: “The room was dimly lit, but thousands of tiny, white lights gave the appearance of night stars overhead. Woodland scenes with lifelike, animated animals were strategically placed throughout the room. Fully decorated trees adorned a path leading to the beautiful stage. Onstage were a huge fireplace, a Christmas tree, and a golden chair with a red velvet back and seat where Santa Claus sat.”
Children could then sit on Santa’s knee and tell him what they wanted for Christmas. It became customary for Santa to send each child home with a small treat. (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer began as a storybook given out at Montgomery Ward; click here for the story.)
Macy’s first department store Santa was hired in 1870, but Brockton, Massachusetts created a website that claims they were first with a Santa in 1890. The story is so American that I’m glad I found it, regardless of the veracity of the claim: James Edgar was a department store owner who decided he would play the part of Santa in his store. He created a red suit per Thomas Nast’s illustrations and is quoted as saying, “I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole. He is so far away. He is only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.” His effort to solve this problem was to become his store’s Santa at holiday time.
Of course, the most famous department store Santa was portrayed in the heartwarming 1947 classic film, Miracle on 34th Street. I was also intrigued by learning that the first Santa Claus Training School opened in Albion, New York, on September 27, 1937, where one could get a B.S.C. (Bachelor of Santa Claus) degree for $75.
A Holiday Tradition: Hess Toy Trucks
The Hess Company was founded in 1933 by New Jersey resident Leon Hess, who at age 19 bought a used oil delivery truck and began making residential deliveries seven days a week. By 1937 Hess saw that businesses were switching from coal to oil, so he purchased additional delivery trucks and expanded his operation. A year later he bought a dockside terminal so that imported oil could be unloaded from barges.
The company continued to grow under Leon Hess’ management, and in 1964 Hess decided to create a promotional toy truck to sell at holiday time. The first truck was a B Mack Tanker painted to replicate the Hess trucks. It could be filled with water using a red funnel (included), and it could then be emptied through an attached rubber hose. A battery powered working head and tail lights. The original price was $1.29.
Since that time, Hess has created a new truck almost every year. Some years there were variations on the theme with a different toy (tanker ship based on a Hess tanker) or the race cars that have been added in 2009 and 2011. All vehicles have battery-operated lights as well as doors that open and close. The toys are only sold at Hess stations (and eBay) and are collectibles; older models sell for a few hundred or even thousands of dollars.
Today the Hess Corporation still maintains Hess service stations along the eastern seaboard, but it is also a global company engaged in all aspects of oil and gas exploration and production as well as other forms of energy development.
Fast Facts about Holiday Decorations
- Early in U.S. history, Christmas trees were lighted with candles, but it was a risky affair. Families would light the candles only briefly and usually kept a bucket of sand or water nearby. The tree was taken down shortly after Christmas as they became more dangerous as they dried out.
- The first known Christmas tree to be illuminated by electric lights was in the home of Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company (predecessor of Con Ed). On December 22, 1882 at his home on Fifth Avenue, he put up a tree wired with 80 red, white, and blue incandescent light bulbs.
- Average people could not afford to put lights on their Christmas trees until after the 1930s.
- The first president to have an electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House was Grover Cleveland in 1895.
- The first Christmas tree to be lighted on the Ellipse in Washington was in 1923;Calvin Coolidge flipped the switch. In 1978 a tree was permanently planted there to serve as the National Christmas Tree.
- To read about the tradition of the ball drop in Times Square, click here.