HISTORY's Moment in Media: A New Tradition Is Born – The Advent of the Department Store Holiday Windows

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Sure, the stockings are hung by the chimney with care. And, yep, milk and cookies may be waiting near the fireplace. But for many big-city residents across the United States, the surest sign of the holiday season is the unveiling of elaborate Christmas window displays at bustling department stores, a tradition that was launched in 1874 -- 149 years ago -- by none other than R. H. Macy himself, founder of the eponymous chain that today operates 507 stores around the country.

Back then, Macy's filled several stores on 14th Street in Manhattan, and the industrial revolution had made it possible for shopkeepers to install huge windows on their storefronts to show off their goods. About a decade earlier, Macy had started bringing Santa Claus into his store during the holiday season. But in 1874, for the first time, Macy put special seasonal displays in the windows to delight shoppers and entice them into his store -- a collection of dolls, posed in scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin -- and a new tradition was born.

As early as 1883, according to some reports, Macy's took a leap forward with a steam-powered Christmas window display that included characters that moved along a track. And when the department store moved to what would become its iconic flagship on Herald Square in 1902, the tradition of Christmas windows moved there, too.

But soon enough, other New York department stores were getting in on the game.

In 1914, Saks Fifth Avenue held the first Christmas window unveiling event -- a signal step in turning the stores' holiday windows into the competitive displays they would become. And when Lord & Taylor opened its Fifth Avenue headquarters that year, the department store built hydraulic lifts for its street-level windows -- so that the displays could be constructed out of sight and then lifted into place only when they were ready to be seen.

But Lord & Taylor really made holiday-window history during the Depression.

First, in 1937, L&T became the first store to do what might seem unthinkable: create Christmas-season windows that featured no merchandise at all. This was under the guidance of President Dorothy Shaver, the first woman to lead a major retailer -- and who led the store's successful, design-forward expansion through the middle of the century -- and visual designer James Albert Bliss, who over the years dreamed up memorable window displays for several big department stores. Their seasonal, decorative displays featured winter landscapes and ringing bells, and were so popular they were reprised each year till 1941.

And it was in the next year, 1938, that Lord & Taylor was credited with creating the first "animated" window displays. When the windows were unveiled that year, it was an unseasonably warm November. Bliss's design team used fans to blow "snow" through the display to create a blizzard, and thus movement became part of the Christmas window tradition.

Of course, New York isn't the only city with a tradition of department store Christmas windows. In Boston, Jordan Marsh and Filene's competed to outdo each other. In Chicago, Marshall Field's has a holiday-window tradition that stretches back to 1897. (The store is now a Macy's, to the dismay of most Chicagoans; the windows live on.) In Philadelphia, Wanamaker's turned its Grand Court atrium into an extravagant display of its own each winter for decades in the middle of the 20th century. (That store, too, is now a Macy's; they still put on a holiday light show in the atrium.)

And in New York, holiday windows adapted with the times. Sometimes high-profile artists got involved. Salvador Dalí did Christmas windows for Bonwit Teller in 1939; it ended badly. Around the turn of the 20th century, Barneys became famous for its high-concept, cheeky windows, designed by Simon Doonan, that tweaked celebrities.

But more recently, as department stores have played a reduced role in the culture, they've embraced celebrities -- using their influence to help bring attention to the windows. A few weeks ago, Jennifer Lawrence was in Manhattan to kick off the huge annual light show and window display at Saks, one of four major New York City department stores -- Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf Goodman, and of course Macy's are the others -- where Mr. Macy's old tradition is still going strong.

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