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Christmas window displays: how it all started

Two children wrapped in winter clothes looking into a christmas window display

It’s an enduring Christmas image; that of tiny, excited faces pressed up against a shop window, marvelling over a magical display of toys and treats. Great ones can both evoke and create memories, tugging at the heart and purse strings simultaneously. At a time when retailers will do anything to encourage people back to the High Street, the annual Christmas window display has never been so crucial. 

For years, the unveiling of such festive displays has been highly anticipated and is ingrained as a holiday tradition in itself. An incredible window display - no matter how big or small the retailer - will always attract attention, but how did it all begin?

Rowland and Harry do christmas window displays first

While window-shopping had long been a hobby for the public, innovations in gas lighting and plate glass production meant that the windows themselves were sturdier and safer illumination was possible - perfect for showing shoppers what was on offer in a new, more exciting way. At the turn of the 20th Century, initial decorations likely comprised seasonal foliage and food, and featured the latest trend, Christmas trees.   

RH Macy & Co (now Macy’s) is widely thought to have been the first to dress its windows for Christmas, boasting a display of porcelain dolls depicting scenes from the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, way back in 1874. By 1883, Rowland Macy’s store exhibited a fully animated Santa’s sleigh on a track. The impact of such a spectacle soon caught on around the world. In the UK, retail pioneer Harry Gordon Selfridge incorporated these American celebrations into his Oxford Street store, revealing his festive window displays in 1909. This was the first instance of windows remaining lit after the store closed, which was quite a sight, given the store possessed the largest windows in the world at that time (imagine the window cleaning!). The talk of the town, shoppers were lured inside with the promise of more tempting attractions within and the sales mounted up. 

An old photo from the 1900s of a Mother and Son window shopping for xmas toys

Image: looking at a Christmas window display, circa 1900.

The first record of an official ‘unveiling’ was in 1914, when Saks Fifth Avenue in New York advertised when it would be drawing back the blinds, transforming the window display into a real event. The tradition endured even during Wartime, where retailers on Oxford Street proposed the erection of a blackout-proof arcade to enable the lights to stay on. 

The success of the window displays on the bottom line meant that the ideas grew increasingly ambitious over the years. By the mid-20th Century, teams of professionals were called upon to make scenes that could beat their rivals’ efforts and win shoppers. 

Today, planning months in advance is key - many of the big retailers start fleshing out ideas before last year’s windows have been cleared away. Putting the displays together can be a gargantuan task - apparently, Selfridges requires 500 additional staff, 100 per day on 24-hour rotation, to physically set up the windows, but these can attract 30 per cent more customers than at any other time of the year. Macy’s boasts an extra 200 employees, working day and night for three weeks, but is rewarded by visits of 10,000 people an hour, which must translate very healthily in financial terms.

These days the big department store windows are not so much a simple display of gift ideas, but a full-blown festive tableau which wouldn’t look out of place at the theatre. However, the ideas don’t always hit the mark.

A museum exhibition of a christmas window display

Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Broadloom Mills in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1963

Hourly cleaning on the shop floor

With scores of people involved in the window display decision process and all eyes on the finished product, no retailer wants to create something which falls flat, but it has happened. 

Fenwick’s 2022 display, in collaboration with Charlie & Lola illustrator, Lauren Child, was criticised for not being lavish nor traditional enough at a time when people needed ‘Christmas to be Christmas’, according to ArtReview.

M&S felt the consumers’ wrath, says BBC News, when its 2018 windows promoting ‘must-have fancy little knickers’ to women was branded “vomit-inducing”. Especially galling when placed next to the men’s display which advertised ‘must-have outfits to impress’. 

Lastly, an unidentified major retailer on Oxford Street made the mistake of using fake snow in its windows and had to scrap it early after the mess made the shop look like a foam party, which staff were required to clean out every hour. Designing a display that won’t impact the cleanliness of the internal areas is a fairly obvious consideration, you’d think. 

It would seem that the real deciding success factor is simply making the Christmas window displays relatable and magical; giving spectators the wow factor and something they will remember for years to come. Just as those early pioneers did, over 100 years ago. 

A beautiful christmas shop window with giant decorations

Of course, the issue with a large store is the sheer number of windows to maintain. Selfridge’s numbers 12, while Harrods has a whopping 27, so keeping them clean of sticky finger marks and hot breath at all times can’t be easy, particularly when many stores stay open late into the night in the run-up to Christmas. What’s more, many of the panes are huge, necessitating specialised techniques which may include water-fed poles or even abseiling/ rope access

REACT, and its partners, LaddersFree and Fidelis, can clean windows on regular, scheduled dates using a methodology which is appropriate for the situation - avoiding external lighting and decorations where needed. Our trained operatives, based across the country, can also undertake work out of hours, to avoid any disruption to business and ensuring that glass gleams every morning at opening time. We know how important the Christmas period is to our clients, so are available 24/7/365. Get in touch for a quote or to find out more. 


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