Friday, December 18, 2020

Department Stores at Christmas

Thelma Ritter and Philip Tonge in
Miracle o 34th Street
In the movie A Christmas Story (1984) the opening scene features Ralphie and his friends rushing to see the Christmas window display at Higbee's department store. The scene reflected real life for many Americans in the 20th Century, as families would visit a local department store to see the window displays during the holiday season, which were always more spectacular than any other time of year. In the days before such discount stores as Kmart, Walmart, and Target, department stores could be found across the United States, not only in large cities. Most small towns had their own local department stores or stores belonging to a larger chain (such as Montgomery Ward).

The Christmas shopping season has long been important to American retailers, and the Christmas shopping season evolved rather early in the United States. It was as early as the 1820s and 1830s that sweet shops and candy stores in New York City began capitalizing on Christmas.By the 1840s many retail shops were already advertising themselves as "Santa Claus's headquarters."

In the late Nineteenth Century other factors came into play that would help shape Americans' experiences at department stores during the Christmas shopping season. It was in the late 19th Century that plate glass became widely available. As a result retailers began fitting their shops with large windows that spanned the full width of the building. Quite naturally, these windows would be used to display merchandise the shops had for sale. In other words, the late Nineteenth Century saw the birth of the window display.

Given the importance of the Christmas shopping season to retailers, it was not long before department stores would dedicate their window displays specifically to Christmas during the shopping season. While it is difficult to definitively say what the first Christmas window display in the United States was, a likely candidate is Macy's very first Christmas window display in 1874. Other department stores in New York City would soon follow suit.

After 1874, Christmas window displays would evolve rather quickly, as department stores competed to have the most eye-catching displays. What might have been the very first animated Christmas window display appeared at Ehrich Brothers in 1881. Ehrich Brothers' "dolls' circus" was notable enough to have an article dedicated to it in the November 27 1881 issue of The New York Times. In 1883 Macy's featured a Christmas window display that included steam-powered figures.

By 1897 department store window displays had become such a large concern that there would be an entire magazine dedicated to the subject. L. Frank Baum, now best known as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels, founded The Show Window, a magazine dedicated to window displays and their use in attracting customers. It was later retitled Merchants Record and Show Window.

With the 20th Century, window displays would become even more extravagant. As early as 1914, Lord & Taylor in New York City was using what is known as "elevator windows," whereby the entire floor of a window display can be lowered to the basement and dressed. For many years Lord & Taylor was the only department store to use elevator windows, and the shop became particularly well known for them.

It would be at Lord & Taylor that the first purely decorative Christmas window display was created; that is, it was a window display with no merchandise at all. James Albert Bliss, a renowned window dresser who had worked for Macy's and Wanamakers, as well as Lord & Taylor, created a display in 1937 called "Bell Windows." It featured no merchandise, only ringing bells over a winter wonderland.

Of course, Christmas window displays weren't the only means department stores had drawing customers into their shops. Even recent generations of Americans might have memories of visiting Santa Claus in a department store. Much like Christmas window displays, having Santa Claus in department stores was something that developed relatively early in the history of retail business in the United States. While it is difficult to say precisely what the first store to have its own Santa Claus was, it could have been Philadelphia merchant J. W. Parkinson in 1841. That year Mr. Parkinson had "Cris Cringle" or "Santa Claus."

Macy's in New York City first hosted Santa Claus in 1861. In fact, this will be the first year that Santa Claus will not be present in the store during the Christmas shopping season (this is due to the pandemic). Santa Claus would become such a tradition at Macy's that his arrival is marked by the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (which was originally called the "Macy's Christmas Parade" when it was first held in 1924, even though it took place on Thanksgiving).

While J.W. Parkinson and Macy's both had Santa Claus in their store in the mid-19th Century, many credit James Edgar for introducing the department store Santa as we now currently know him. In the late 19th Century James Edgar was the founder and owner of Edgar Department Stores in New England. Mr. Edgar was known for being both friendly and generous, and he enjoyed dressing up in costume. For the 4th of July he showed up at The Boston Store, his department store in Brockton, Massachusetts, dressed as George Washington. It probably surprised no one when, in 1890, he took inspiration from an 1862 illustration of Santa by  Thomas Nast on the cover of Harper's Weekly to dress as Kris Kringle at The Boston Store. While James Edgar may not have been the very first retailer to have Santa Claus in his department store, given that artist Thomas Nast largely shaped the modern appearance of the character, he may have been the first to actually look like Santa Claus as we know him.

Of course, in addition to having Christmas window displays and Santa Claus in the stores, the interiors of department stores would usually be decorated for the holiday. Upon entering any given department store, it was not unusual for individuals to be greeted by a huge Christmas tree. The walls might often be literally decked with boughs of holly. Christmas lights might often be in evidence throughout any given department store.

Given how common department stores were throughout the United States and the importance of Christmas to those department stores, it should come as no surprise that department stores have figured in holiday themed movies. Bachelor Mother (1939) features more of New Year's Eve than it does of Christmas, but we still get to see a department store during the holiday season. Ginger Rogers's  character, Polly Parrish, begins the movie temporarily employed by the fictional department store John B. Merlin & Son. We then get to see a department store during Christmas shopping season, complete with the crowds.  It would later be remade as Bundle of Joy (1956).

While the average American may not be familiar with Bachelor Mother these days, they are certainly familiar with Miracle on 34th Street (1947). What is more, Miracle on 34th Street is largely set at a real life department store, Macy's itself. Lending authenticity to the film is the fact that as much of it was shot in New York City as possible. Indeed, the movie even begins with the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Some of the film's earliest scenes were shot during the 1946 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. As the parade would not be stopped because of the movie being shot, the cast and crew had to work as quickly as possible. Each scene could only be shot once. For those who may be wondering, Edmund Gwenn did indeed play Santa at the 1946 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  The crowds present to watch the parade were not aware that it was Edmund Gwenn. They found out only after The New York Times published an article on Mr. Gwenn's stint as Santa the next day.

Not only were there scenes shot at the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but many scenes were actually shot at Macy's in New York City. This required the cast and crew to shoot in the store at night, because it would have been impossible to shoot during the day given the holiday shoppers that crowded the store during the day. This means that in Miracle in 34th Street we get to see something of the Christmas shopping season in Macy's during 1946.

Once Miracle on 34th Street finished shooting, 20th Century Fox had to screen the movie for Macy's executives and then for Gimbels executives (Gimbels was Macy's chief competitor, both in the film and in real life). Either company's executives could reject the movie if they didn't approve of it. Fortunately, both sets of executives were enthusiastic about Miracle on 34th Street, and felt that it presented Macy's and Gimbels in a positive light.

While Miracle on 34th Street centred on Macy's, Holiday Affair (1949) centred on another department store. There actually was a Crowley's department store, but it was located in Detroit. They did not have a store in New York City, as portrayed in Holiday Affair. In the movie, widow Connie Ennis (played by Janet Leigh) works as a comparative shopper for the fictional department store of Fisher & Lewis. Steve Mason (played by Robert Mitchum) is clerk at Crowley's and figures out that she is a comparative shopper. Unfortunately for Steve, he finds himself fired when he does not report her.

Unlike Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Affair was not shot at an actual department store, although the interiors of a department store were realistically re-created on the RKO lot. We get to see Crowley's in all its holiday finery, complete with wreaths hanging on the wall. The movie also re-creates the crowds of holiday shoppers found in department stores during December.

While department stores figure in the plots of both Miracle on 34th Street and Holiday Affair, a department store figures only in two scenes in A Christmas Story (1983). That having been said, both scenes are significant to the plot. What is more, the department store featured in A Christmas Story was an actual department store. Higbee's was founded in 1860 in Cleveland. It moved to its Public Square location where it spent most of its history and was featured in A Christmas Story. Of course, here it must be pointed out that Higbee's stores were only found in northeast Ohio, while the film is set in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana. The actual department store located in the hometown of Jean Shepherd (who wrote the stories upon which A Christmas Story) was Goldblatt's, a chain with stores in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

As mentioned earlier, the first scene in the movie involves Ralphie and his friends looking at the Christmas window display at Higbee's, it is here that we first learn that Ralphie wants an "official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle." The second scene in A Christmas Story in which Higbee's appears is when Ralphie and his brother visit Santa Claus there. Just as the window display scene was shot at Higbee's, so too was the visit to Santa Claus. Here it must be pointed out that A Christmas Story turns the tropes of visiting Santa Claus on their heads. Many of the children are downright frightened of Santa. Santa and his elves aren't particularly polite. Of course, here it must be pointed out that A Christmas Story is largely told from Ralphie's point of view. As Ralphie and his family leave the store, there is a long shot of Santa and his elves. Santa is jolly as one would expect him to be, while the elves are polite to the kids. One can only assume that Ralphie's desire for a Red Ryder air rifle affected his perception (and memories) of the experience. Higbee's effectively ceased to exist in 1992, when it was bought out by Dillard's and its stores rebranded as Dillard's stores.

Sadly, department stores would begin a slow decline in the Sixties with the rise of such discount stores as Kmart, Target, and Walmart. By the mid-Seventies many department stores were experiencing difficulties. Since then, many of them have closed. Gimbels closed in 1987, as did Orbach's. Barker Bros. closed in 1992. The original Montgomery Ward shut down in 2001.  Many of the local department stores in small towns across the United States closed down much earlier. Today actual department stores can only be found in large metropolitan areas.

While department stores no longer play the role in Americans' lives that they did in the 20th Century, because of their ties to Christmas they continue to appear in recently released holiday themed movies.  Department stores feature in such movies as Serendipity (2001), Bad Santa (2003), Elf (2003), and yet others. Department stores may be a thing of the past and it can be argued they represent the epitome of Christmas commercialism, but for many Americans they form some of their earliest memories of the holiday experience.


Evil Woman Blues said...

The Godfather, while famous for other reasons, contained a memorable Xmas/shopping scene where MIchael Corleone and his soon to be wife Kate are seen walking in front of Macy's on 5th Avenue doing some last minute shopping.

Lesa said...

Fascinating article. Thank you. Not related to a movie, but to a department store. Halle Berry was named after Halle's Department Store in Cleveland. And, like Higbee's, it was famous in northern Ohio. Any child who grew up in northcentral/northeastern Ohio in the 1960s can sing the song, "Mr. Jingeing, how you ting-a-ling with your magic keys. On Halle's 7th floor, we'll be waiting for, you to turn the keys."

According to Wikipedia, "Mr. Jingeling is the "Keeper of the Keys" to Santa's workshop - a holiday tradition in the region around Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Jingeling was originally sponsored by Halle's, a local department store. He served as the store's Christmas season spokesman on television and also acted as Santa's representative in the store.

Mr. Jingeling became the "Keeper of the Keys" as a reward for saving Christmas when Santa lost the key to his Treasure House of Toys. Jingeling saved the day by making a new key."