While I was battling the Cold of the Year (from which I'm still recovering), Matt Feltz sent along an article from the Boston Globe on the role of downtown department stores, like Macy's or Filene's or Jordan Marsh, in the infrastructure of the city. I read the article through a haze of Nyquil, but it stayed with me because Christmas in my own beloved City is not without its own traditions, among them, the Macy's Holiday Windows. While other luxury department stores certainly have their own reputable holiday window displays, the Macy's windows are a prime objective among tourists and native New Yorkers alike.
Department stores grew out of rather simple beginnings. Macy's, for example, was originally a dry goods store selling housewares and home goods, which they still do, but it was a far cry from the fashion warehouse that we know today. Dry goods stores were fairly common. Rowland Hussey Macy had already opened four (failed) stores before trying his luck on Sixth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets in 1858. Opening day sales totaled $11.06 (about $280.00 today). The 34th Street location represents the ultimate outcome of the department store, which developed into larger establishments—and anchors of urban centers—in response to consumer demand, growing taller and claiming more square footage to accommodate more merchandise.
Holiday window displays were a part of their role as attractions. People traveled—as they still clearly do—to view these seasonal arrangements, and department stores used them as a marketing device to show off their wares. One source reports the first Macy's window displays in 1874 displayed a diverse offering of porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin. A window from the early 1900s shows an array of dolls and child-sized furniture. Today's windows wrap merchandise in more creative means, but the idea is the same: The 2011 Macy's "Make a Wish" steampunk-themed windows pay tribute to the Make-a-Wish Foundation highlight special designer ornaments, which are of course available for purchase.
These annual displays do much to help create and maintain a meaning associated with the holidays. For example, every year Macy's devotes a set of windows to A Miracle on 34th Street, a story about a little girl who learns to believe in Santa after meeting Kris Kringle. It's an interesting choice as the movie's message both addresses and surpasses the commercialism that has become a part of the season. As such, it serves as a reminder of the magic and generosity associated with Christmas. The annual themed windows echo this sentiment with elements of fantasy. The 2006 Tree-oriented displays provided glimpses into worlds removed from human eyes that emphasized values like friendship and love.
But this annual tradition can also reveal the ebb and flow of social interests. The "Make a Wish" windows mix old with new in the steampunk tradition as we stand on the crossroads of technology and find our lives increasingly intertwined with machinery. It highlights the ways innovation has long intersected with creativity, driving mechanical advancements and encouraging us to dream larger. We've come a long way from a series of dolls and child-sized furniture. Do you have a favorite holiday window display? Tell us about it in the comments, or send in your photos to comments[at]anthropologyinpractice.com to be shared on the AIP Facebook page.