Smithsonian Exhibit Celebrates Holidays Displays

Examines history of department store windows and parades
Posted November 12, 2009

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (Washington, D.C.) opens an exhibit tomorrow titled "Holidays on Display," which examines the art, industry and history of commercial holiday displays that have enchanted the public from the 1920s to the 1960s.

"Holiday celebrations with their festive parades and animated window displays have always had a place in American history," says Brent Glass, museum director. "This exhibition looks closer at these commercial displays to understand the emotional responses evoked by them and why they hold such treasured memories for many people."

The exhibit is divided into two primary areas of holiday visuals – parades and department-store displays, which historically were made by the same companies and shared common construction materials and techniques. The craftsmanship and creative effort involved in these crafts are examined through a collection of photographs, postcards and illustrations of parade floats – including from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade – and window displays from retailers such as Marshall Field and Co. and John Wanamaker’s. Objects on display include prop stars, illustrated children's storybook souvenirs, a paper novelty toy chest with miniature merchandise and an animated seal figure that balances a ball on its nose.

The first section of the exhibit focusing on parade floats illustrates how early 20th century themes of spotlighting workers and manufacturing by heralding a product eventually evolved to themes of home and community life. An archway modeled on an artist's rendering for a toy department display leads visitors to the second area, which explores the history of department-store theme settings. The popular "storybook style" of the 1920s' holiday display, noted for its village scenes and walk-through attractions, remains popular today as a visual announcement of Christmas.

"Holidays on Display" will run through September 2010.