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Holiday window | © Phil Roeder / Flickr
Holiday window | © Phil Roeder / Flickr
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A Brief History of New York City Window Displays

Picture of Julia Goicochea
Updated: 21 December 2017
Along with outdoor ice skating and zipping around on vintage subway cars, seeking out window displays has become a winter tradition in New York City. While displays grow more modern with each season, this tradition has old roots, tracing all the way back to the Industrial Revolution.

It was in the late 1800s when plate glass became widely available, allowing shops to build wall-to-wall display windows and birthing the idea of window-shopping. New York City shops quickly adopted this innovation, and after Macy’s presented one of the first major window displays in 1874 (featuring a selection of porcelain dolls and models of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), the concept took off. A hint of what was to come, the 19th and 20th centuries saw big names, including Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, and Maurice Sendak, working on window displays during their careers.

As society advanced, so did the tradition. By the early 1900s, retailers in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were openly competing for customer attention, with New York’s own Saks Fifth Avenue leading the pack in 1914 thanks to its window-unveiling events. The invention of electricity and mechanization further catapulted window dressing to a higher level, one pioneered by New York City-native (and the United States’ oldest luxury department store) Lord & Taylor. In 1938, the store forewent a traditional display in favor of a presentation of gilded bells that swung in synch with recorded bell sounds, marking the first wholly decorative window display. Electricity also allowed retailers to light their store windows after closing time, distinguishing displays themselves as sightseeing destinations.

In New York City today, planning for holiday window displays can begin as early as January of the same year. And by taking in the displays of recent years, it’s easy to see why. From Saks Fifth Avenue’s glowing snowflake-covered façade to Barneys New York’s 2015 display featuring live ice-carving, displays have advanced since the 19th century. As we saw 100 years ago, technology continues to be an important component of window dressing, as seen in Swarovski’s use of LED technology to mimic diamond jewelry in 2015 and Bloomingdale’s depiction of selfie-snapping snowmen the same year.

The displays aren’t all that’s grown bigger and better with time. According to Lord & Taylor, more than eight million people will visit the store between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day when its display is on view. What’s more, Macy’s now employs a National Director of Window Presentation, who is charged with sourcing inspiration from across the globe for New York’s store windows. Now a worldwide phenomenon, it can be said that this tradition dating back to the Industrial Revolution has revolutionized the way we celebrate one of the world’s oldest holidays.