Holiday displays of old brighten Smithsonian exhibition

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

In most places, the big department stores have left downtown. With them have gone the showcase window displays decorated with elves, snowflakes and the obligatory figure skater gliding along on a mirror, not to mention the families lining up to see these holiday tableaux.

Such sights, of course, are still visible in certain major cities, but the heyday of elaborate store decorations and seasonal parades is clearly behind us, so much so that a review of the best of the tradition is now something you'd find in a museum. Which may be one reason the National Museum of American History created "Holidays on Display," an exhibition that opened Friday. Composed mainly of photographs and illustrations, the show looks at the art and business behind such seasonal spectacles as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Tournament of Roses Parade, the Miss America Pageant boardwalk parade, even the Washington Monument Centennial Celebration in 1948.

What immediately becomes obvious is that America has always loved a parade, or at least ever since the Colonial marches of the military units, and some annual marches have lasted for decades. From the Smithsonian we learn that Santa's involvement in parades dates back to around 1909, when S.B. Call, a toy merchant in Springfield, Mass., donned a beard and red suit, decorated his wagon and paraded through town. The stakes were raised when Macy's entered the field in 1924, and raised even higher when the department store created a giant elephant balloon for its 1927 parade. From there, it was just a matter of time before Macy's became an enduring symbol of the start of the holiday season.

Speaking of which, Macy's is the only corporate sponsor of the Smithsonian show, an arrangement that has raised a few eyebrows. But Brent D. Glass, the museum's director, brushed off the criticism. "We told them we [would] have a variety of stores represented in the collection," said Glass. Accordingly, Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago, Wanamaker's in Philadelphia and Woodward & Lothrop here in Washington are also featured, as well as many small businesses. Still, Glass added, it wouldn't be right to underplay the impact of Macy's, especially as the story "is almost an iconic name associated with . . . the Thanksgiving parade."

But it's the late, much-lamented Woodies (1887-1995) that actually inspired the exhibition. William "Larry" Bird Jr., a curator of politics and reform at the museum, usually spends his days collecting political banners and buttons, but something intrigued him about the intersection of holidays and department stores. Bird remembers going to Woodies during its last days, astonished to find that the store, about to close forever, was decorated for the holidays even though it wasn't Christmastime.

"It was October, but people wanted to see it decorated one more time. And then, when the building was empty, the owner decorated the windows with holiday scenes, and people lined up," Bird recalled. Included in the exhibition is a 1965 postcard of the Woodies' main aisle decorated with trees, "snow" and a shopping Santa. "The display transcended the life of the store itself." In a heavily illustrated catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Bird tells how displays were recycled and passed from store to store. During the 1966 Christmas season at Woodies, thanks to figures brought in from a German workshop, a single store window attracted 50,000 viewers a day.

The Smithsonian show was mounted, Glass said, to help us understand the emotional responses people have to the holidays. "When you drove around small towns in Pennsylvania right before the Thanksgiving parade, there would be empty chairs lining the streets. That's how important it was to people," explained Glass, who was the president of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission before coming to the Smithsonian.

The exhibition, housed entirely in one long room, manages to cover the art, the business and the spirit of this enterprise. In one case is a file card box with design ideas from Vaughn Displays, a Minneapolis firm that was the world's largest manufacturer of parade floats in the 1950s. Another contains an animated seal balancing a ball on its nose from a 1955 Wanamaker's display. The family of theatrical designer Landy R. Hales contributed drawings and photographs of his work for New York department stores. One inspired the decorated entrance to the Smithsonian show, and several are displayed.

As the popularity of holiday window displays grew, so, too, did the competition to leave visitors awestruck. Some stores didn't stop at the windows, creating fantasy villages and home settings in other areas of their retail spaces. A photograph from 1966 shows Lit Brothers in Philadelphia, which mounted an "Enchanted Christmas Village," a walk-through attraction. And there were other incentives. Giveaways were employed to entice families into a store for a visit with Santa and shopping. In 1925, Marshall Field gave away a paper toy chest, which included cutouts of merchandise and a facade of the landmark site.

And before you ask: No -- a float and a balloon from Macy's or the Roses spectacle would never have made it through the museum's doors.

One's relationship with holiday traditions is deeply personal, of course, and the Smithsonian exhibition will no doubt stir emotions and memories in most who see it. For his part, Glass said the exhibition is a prototype of a larger one down the road, one he hopes will include oral histories of the holidays. That's fitting, because this is the sort of subject that cries out for voices, maybe some squeals. And a marching band.

Holidays on Display

through September 2010 at the National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://americanhistory.si.edu.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company