Today the term is “visual merchandising.”
Historians date the first intentionally built and “trimmed” or “dressed” shop windows to eighteenth-century London. The art and science of window dressing was established as an integral part of American retailing in the 1880s.
Beginning in the 1850s, department stores in American cities “grew up”—that is, the buildings in which these stores rose ever higher above the street. Street-level plate glass windows allowed shop owners and department store managers alike to appeal to passersby through attractive displays of goods. Gas—and later electric—lighting extended daytime past sunset, allowing for more potential customers to “window shop.”
Publications about window dressing began to appear in the United States in the 1880s. L. Frank Baum–yes, the author of The Wizard of Oz–was fortuitously situated in turn-of-the-century Chicago to promote and chronicle the growth of this form of retail advertising. In 1900, the same year he published the first of his Oz books, he published The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors. Baum had been the editor of The Show Window: A Journal of Practical Window Trimming for the Merchant and the Professional for three years, and had established the National Association of Window Trimmers of America. Relying on his background in theater and in sales, and perhaps on his failure in his own retail enterprise, Baum’s Bazaar, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1888-1889, Baum understood that spectacle sells.
But how did this new form of retail advertising affect country stores? Saturday Evening Post writer Forrest Crissey observed in May 1915:
As a rule, window dressing, as seen in the country store, is a sad and depressing performance; there is large room for expansion along this line in even the most up-to-date country stores, and the skill the storekeeper acquires in this art has no mean relation to the profits of the establishment.*
Photographic evidence shows a tendency, in both city and country, to “mass” goods in windows (whether plate or pane glass), between 1880 and 1920. Not only were these displays of one type or families of goods, they symbolized in their numbers both popularity and abundance. Such a window display also signaled the shopkeeper’s ability to supply all customers’ needs.
Yet the window should not be merely a stack of goods to the top edge of the window. This advice from the March 21, 1908, number of The American Stationer emphasized artistic order.
The emphasis of goods by massing, or by contrasting may well be studied, and this emphasis can be developed by the tyro in window decoration. In massing, make your display all of one class of goods, all papeteries, all pencils, or all something else; or, to vary it, make the display of related articles, like pens and ink, pencils and erasers, or other goods which are similarly related. Make the display as artistic as you can by arranging the goods in the window to represent harmonies.**
The MSU Museum’s general store has three windows awaiting more attention to the types of displays consumers would have seen between 1880 and 1930.
*Forrest Crissey, “Secrets of the Chain Store: Lessons in Efficiency for the Small Retailers,” Saturday Evening Post 187:7 (May 15, 1915): 16-17.
**”The Window,” The American Stationer 63 (March 21, 1908): 21.
Bauer, Alfred Gay. The Art of Window Dressing for Grocers. Chicago: Sprague, Warner & Company, 1902.
Fischer, Albert T. Window and Store Display: A Handbook for Advertisers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921.
Iarocci, Louisa. ed. Visual Merchandising: The Image of Selling. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2013.
Mason, Harry Beckwith. Window Displays for Druggists. Detroit: E. G. Swift, 1908.
Picken, James Hamilton. Principles of Window Display. Chicago: Shaw, 1927.
Reading, Amy. “The Lady Vanishes.” The Appendix 1:2 (April 2013).
Rogers, Lewis A. The Art of Decorating Show Windows and Displaying Merchandise. Chicago: Merchants Record Company, 1924.
Taft, William Nelson. The Handbook of Window Display. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1926.