The economy was pumping in 1928, and retail was flourishing. In 1926, Montgomery Ward in Chicago -- which had been a mail-order retailer for some 50 years -- decided to test the bricks-and-mortar marketplace. (Nobody, of course, was using that term in 1926; "clicks" were still more than 70 years away.) It opened its first store, in Plymouth, Ind., in 1926. By 1928, it was operating 80 stores, and the company's newly formed Retail Store Division was predicting that figure would soon hit 1500. As the chain began to grow, Ward hired W.L. Stensgaard, an experienced display person who had beenoperating the display division of Stewart-Warner Corp. (which in those days made and sold radios). Stensgaard assembled a crew of 20 men, "delegated to specialized tasks such as setting up example displays, photographing, carpenters to build special settings, painters, artists, poster artists, card writers, etc." Stensgaard developed a display department work room, in which his staff created example show windows "which represent the standard adopted for all of Ward's stores. The display men set up example displays of various types of merchandise, which are photographed and sent to the chain stores as samples for reproduction. (Early planograms.) It is said that five display men compete with one another for the best results and when this is decided upon, that is the display retained for photographic reproduction and sent to the chain. "Simplicity is the keynote of these displays, which is of great assistance to the various store managers, for reproduction as per the photographs sent to them is comparatively easy. "Display experts are often sent out from headquarters to put in the opening displays for the new stores that are added almost weekly to the chain, and for these occasions special 'traveling'displays -- known as illustrated institutional displays -- are created.
"Special training in the principles of display is given to store managers and assistants to enable them to better handle this important and interesting work throughout the chain." Clearly, retail was beginning to move away -- albeit slowly -- from the merchant lovingly tending his single emporium; and moving towards multi-faceted retail organizations run by businessmen. But Montgomery Ward's growing chain of stores was only a gentle nudge. The explosion occurred later that year. The presidents of four family-owned retail organizations -- Abraham & Straus, F&R Lazarus, its Cincinnati-based subsidiary Shillito's, and Filene's of Boston -- went out for a cruise. When they returned, they had hammered out the agreement that formed Federated Department Stores. The business was begun in 1929, with corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio. (Bloomingdale's joined in 1930.) First-year sales were $112 million. The big business of retail consolidation was on its way. Around that same time -- with investments mounting an stakes growing -- The Association of National Advertisers entered into an agreement with the Window Display Advertising Association to conduct research measuring the impact of display on retail sales. "Some standard must be set up to determine the worthlessness or merit of endeavor, and that standard is results. Display results are measured in their final analysis -- profits -- and there should be very little difficulty in determining the worth of merchandise displays. The successful store of today has space in its windows, show cases, ledges, posts, etc., and each must show a reasonable profit within a certain definite time."
The display industry might have been feeling the winds of change: Over the next several decades, it would find itself fighting to measure its impact and to justify its existence. Marshall Field & Co., Chicago, was one merchant-owned establishment that believed in, honored and invested in the power of display. The kingpin of display in the 1920s was the store's Arthur Fraser, who made his store's State Street windows -- and the grand canyons inside the store -- dazzling theatrical experiences. Pictured are three season-opening displays for fall 1928.