Like the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting or Radio City Rockettes, New York City’s impressive window displays are a vital part of the holiday experience. Here in the city, the holiday season doesn’t officially begin until the city’s biggest retailers unveil their annual displays. Since Macy’s debuted the tradition in 1883, the department store window setups have become more intricate and spectacular in their technical design.

In recent years, more retailers have taken advantage of innovative technologies to power their window displays. In 2015, for instance, Barneys New York featured live ice-carving inside their windows, and other high-end retailers have upped their game, too, like when Swarovski used LED technology to mimic diamond jewelry adorning storefront mannequins in2015.

Considering how these displays have evolved into elaborately-planned technological feats, it is especially fitting that the history of department store holiday windows stretches back to the days of the Industrial Revolution. It was then, during the late-1800s, when plate glass became widely available, that store owners were motivated to build large floor-to-ceiling style windows spanning the lengths of their shops.

As a tribute to this New York City tradition and in anticipation of the most wonderful time of the year, let’s take a closer look at famous window displays from New York’s past.


Christmas shoppers in New York City, 1900.

Christmas shoppers in New York City, 1900. [Image: Library of Congress]

 

By 1914, Saks Fifth Avenue stirs public intrigue at their flagship location by staging ‘unveiling events’ for their holiday display window. Displays at this time incorporated hydraulic lifts beneath the windows, which allowed teams of artisans to work on new designs out of public view.

Holiday Windows in New York City, 1910.

Passersby admire R.H. Macy’s holiday window display, c. 1910s.

macys-1933-NYC-animated-windows

In 1933, Macy’s window display was entitled “Around the World at Christmas Time.” All its shop windows embodied a train-travel theme. [Image: Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution]

In 1938, Lord & Taylor eschewed the traditional method of presenting store merchandise in favor of a purely decorative display. The department store hangs gilded bells that swing in sync with recorded sounds of sleigh bells.

Holiday window shopping in New York City, 1950s.

Holiday window shopping in New York City, c. 1950s.

 

Novel properties

Crowds form around Macy’s storefront for “A Fantasy of Christmas” in 1959, which incorporated an ornate tin facade.

 

2012-bergdorfs

Bergdorf Goodman’s window display followed an Art Deco “Ziegfield’s Follies” theme and featured several miniature mannequins from earlier eras, 2012.

In 2015, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology debut a new kind of transparent display technology, which they developed by embedding nanoparticles in glass screens. If the product is marketed to retailers, New Yorkers can expect to see a new class of spectacular display windows in the years to come.