At the turn of the 20th Century, store owners largely displayed their merchandise in the windows, regardless of the season. In 1938, Lord & Taylor took a big marketing risk by removing the merchandise from its windows at Christmas and replacing it with large, gilded bells that swayed to the sound of recorded bells chiming. It was a hit that led to many department and speciality stores competing with each other to come up with the most gorgeous and magical animated displays. You can still see those displays with a little digging and ingenuity.
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Many Christmas films of the 1950s capture department store Christmas windows as they were then. Check out such films as "White Christmas," (1954) and the short Canadian film, "The Days Before Christmas," (1958) for pictures of actual department store displays of the decade. Though not made in the 50s, two of the most popular movies that had scenes prominently displaying the growing trend of magical Christmas displays were 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Bishop's Wife."
Libraries and historical societies keep public records of photos and documents. The larger the city, the larger the collections are. The most elaborate Christmas window displays of the 1950s were in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and other large cities on the Eastern seaboard. While animated windows became the most common variety of Christmas window, some stores had live Santas and other seasonal characters in the windows. In some of the cities, local newspapers would do a large photo section on the Christmas windows of larger department stores shortly after Thanksgiving.
Many department stores keep records of their old Christmas windows. Macy's, based out of New York, was at the leading edge of elaborate, animated Christmas displays in its windows. The same is true of Marshall Field's in Chicago. Field's was bought by Macy's in 2006, but the records remain. Most of the larger stores have an institutional pride about their heritage and are glad to help you access archives of such displays.
The largest cities, such as London or Birmingham, have an abundance of art and photo shops surrounding their downtown areas. While these are not as reliably catalogued as other sources, if you check them out regularly, particularly when there is a display of local black and white photography, you will stumble onto photos of old Christmas windows more frequently than most people would imagine.
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