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December 9, 2013 / philosophermouseofthehedge

Doin’ Christmas: it’s so past.

Christmas as a career choice (and not talking Santa, tree farmers, or TV specials)?

It could happen.

It did.

Dinosaur Christmas inflatable yard decoration

No way Christmas could be draggin’

Before the 24 hour shopping.

Before the Black Friday madness.

When Christmas shopping wasn’t a competitive sport, but store decorating was.

Then on the morning after Thanksgiving, department store doors would be fly open to reveal a winter wonderland to rival any stage production of the Nutcracker or Scrooge.

We Display Artists hid in the background to gauge the shoppers’ awe and delight.

Worth the all nighter and countless cups of coffee full of floating glitter?

Always exhausted. Always a bit worried.

Management would tour the others stores.

Measuring their trees, their snowflakes, their garlands – their crowds – against ours.

Jobs were on the line.

vintage 1914 magazine Christmas cover

Christmas style was once noted.
(1914.cover.LA Gazette du Bon Ton/Gose.1876-1915/US life/

Grand Theater of the olde retail world.

Shoppers may not still have been wearing white gloves and fancy hats, but they hurried each season to the “best” stores to see which had created the most unique shopping experience.

The department stores’ fantasy lands would be the hot topic of conversation.

Would Neiman Marcus stay with the “old money” traditional themes?

Would Sakowitz be decked in European elaborate or with artistic, perhaps abstract? Jewels or angels or Mondrian?

What color themes would Foley’s and Joske’s choose? (That turquoise with natural dried touches was elegant. And remember the ocean theme with starfish, shells and gold? Not to mention that shocking hot pink and silver year.)

The rivalry was fierce.

Security intense.

Even Pentagon would be jealous of the rumor silence. No chatter. None.

No loose lips and leaking plans.

(1956 Vogue cover/Anne Hill dress/US PD:pub. date/

Horrors! Lord and Taylor and Saks are both coming to town? Oh, the pressure.
(1956 Vogue cover/Anne Hill dress/US PD:pub. date/

Display Department days were challenging and never dull.

Heavy wooden ladders twice your size lugged under one arm. (Aluminum ones jumped. Unstable)

Hurriedly moving fully decorated 6-8 foot Christmas trees from hiding place in stairwells to another place out of sight when the Fire Marshall unexpectedly appeared during August through November.)

Slowly sneaking Thanksgiving off the platforms, ledges, nooks and crannies – bit by bit – without the department managers complaining. (They never had to come in and work all night to strip off the autumn leaves, peasant feathers, and pumpkins  before applying the Christmas magic.)

Department managers: They hated the Display Crew.

They needed us.

They made demands.

They feared us.

And we knew.

Still the calls occasionally came.

“Oh, you got some poor girl to crawl up there on the ledge? Sold the scarf and blouse on the mannikin? Well, next week you are scheduled for a design change-out. Until then? Guess you’d better crawl back up there with replacements. Yeah, those arms are a problem and do fall off. Watch the hands, too. Bye.”

Management backed us.

We were paid well to create the magic.

And they didn’t want it messed with.

Image was critical.

A store had to retain big brand clothing lines. (Lose one? Don’t ask.)

Gold Toe Socks. Mundane, but a big seller.

The National Sales Manager arrived to tour annually.

He was difficult.

Been warned he wanted “dynamite” sock display right up front.


But a little magic and he was moved to tears. Tears, I tell you. Seriously.

By stacked plexiglass cubes and river rock – and socks. Lots of socks. All styles.

He grabbed the phone. Ran back and forth. Demanded photos be made.

They were.

Display artists across the country got headaches from those photos for years.

(1956 Taffy's Original Designs. Cover Harper's Bazaar cover/Anne Hill dress/US

Oh so festive! Makes me feel like spinning and spending. Love to take some of the magic home.
(1956 Taffy’s Original Designs. Cover Harper’s Bazaar cover/Anne Hill dress/US

On occasions, Celebrities were amusing.

Wall displays in housewares featured what the buyers wanted to promote.

Well done, these were little works of art – like collages with found objects

Firmly hot glued and nailed in place so nothing would fall.

Obviously, merchandise would suffer damage.

It made no difference. People want what they cannot have. 

Call from Bath Department:

Famous Personista insists on that towel in order to complete a set.

And she’s standing under the one on the wall ledge.

Insisting: “No, you are not out of stock. It’s right up there.”

Department manager tries to re-direct.

Famous Couple’s Manager pleads.

Famous Husband starts snorting “You should be honored we are shopping here.”

Store Manager offers to search other locations.

More melodrama. Much wild gesturing.

Call to Display Office.

“Yes, I know. But she’s determined to have it.”

And there she was: tiny little blond stomping her feet.

Fuming. Pouting impatiently.

She was important. Could tell by her red face.

Famous Husband and Manager cooing to soothe her.

(1916.Fashion plate.Brissaud/US PD:pub date/

Oh, yes. She thought she was this….but in a miniskirt with lots of makeup.
(1916.Fashion plate.Brissaud/US PD:pub date/

Crawled up the ladder across the ledge.

Carefully pry it loose with screw driver. Catching nails and staples.

And there. Graciously hand it over.

There it is.

She snatched it roughly. Started to say something with a sneer.

Suddenly realized the towel has a corner whacked off, holes, clumps of glue, and a few staples hanging.

(Here let me get those. Don’t want you to get stabbed by accident.)

May I get you anything else?

Unable to call retreat, she says “No, this is fine.”

We all smile. Thank them.

Manager pays as pair scurries off.

Perhaps she loves to sew as relaxation and will stitch them up between concerts?

(Harper's Poster 1896.E.Penfield 1866-1925/Brooklyn Museum/US PD: reprod of art/

She rushed off. Her little dog, too
(1896.Harper’s. E.Penfield,1866-1925/Brooklyn Museum/US PD: reprod of art/

Display artists did work a bit of magic – especially at Christmas time.

It was a competition among rivals.

It was to build reputations.

It was to attract shoppers.

It was cheap entertainment.

It was dreams reflected in the eyes of little ones.

(1947 Christmas.Natalie Wood publicity still/US PD:no CR/

Believe. It only takes a little effort to convince them.
(1947 Natalie Wood publicity still/US PD:no CR/

Certainly beats the current nightmare jumble of clothes on crowded store rounders with 50-70% off sale signs sitting haphazardly on top.

Not to mention that shopping now is often a contact sporting event.

And that’s after the obstacle course of the parking lot.

Just walking on past that.

Phil, the Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge

(And attempting to read all your posts and make comments on the run…darn those little screens and buttons. Please have patience! Thanks)

Related posts:

Inflatable Christmas dinosaur or dragon yard decoration

Talk about relics of Christmas past! Sometimes feel like a dino – but a happy one like this!
(Seen when visiting friends “in town”. The giggles made the traffic tolerable)


  1. roughseasinthemed / Dec 9 2013 4:07 pm

    The less fuss for Christmas for us the better. Hey, Little One would be into everything like no time.

    Play with Molly at raiding Christmas goodies? (sleeping now)

    Here Christmas is about making sure we have any construction materials needed because from 20 Dec the trade shuts down for two weeks.

    A far cry from frocks, presents, and decorations.

    I do like those elegant dresses, and I haven’t remotely ad – dressed your post. But that’s life and Christmas. And I must go to the shops that I meant to go to hours ago!!!!! But not for Xmas goodies.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 9 2013 11:51 pm

      Trying to keep things simple this year. The more stores scream “Holiday! Buy”, the more I back away.
      A great deal will be slowing down/shutting here shortly. Mexico has almost a month of holidays/festivals/celebrations – when the southern border was open, people migrated back home for the holidays early in Dec. Restaurants/Big mechanical shops/construction/landscape projects knew they would be short handed. Even thought the border is difficult now, traditions are hard to break, so Lady of Guadalupe, Posada celebrations…I forget them all – and of course tamale making (a family event – takes a day) will become focus by many workers locally.So husband is trying to get projects completed at the shop quickly – customers overseas and elsewhere don’t understand.
      Aren’t those fashion plates, cool. There so much available to explore on line. Quite an education…if only there was time. Groceries are needed before more bad wether sets in…we could really use a bit of sun. Molly, thought has an all weather coats and she’s always ready to go. Thanks for wandering down this path


  2. Ally Bean / Dec 9 2013 4:13 pm

    I remember being a little girl and going with my parents to the big city to shop for Christmas. We’d make time to walk around the outside of the dept stores so that we could see all the amazing displays. They were magical. But now the stores are more concerned with selling than entertaining, so I never go near any store in December, if I can manage it.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 9 2013 11:54 pm

      Retail has really changed. Forget the customer service, friendly staff who knew your name and listened, and shopping as a pleasant experience with beautiful things to dream about. The internet is part of the reason. And people are in such a hurry, they don’t care – just want their stuff, now. Quickly. A whole different concept and the stores are trying to survive. Sigh, big city stores during the holiday season used to be such a wonder.
      Thanks for parking here a bit


      • Ally Bean / Dec 10 2013 12:28 pm

        You said it, what used to be pleasant is now a hustle. And I don’t like it one little bit! Good topic.


  3. Carrie Rubin / Dec 9 2013 4:37 pm

    How cool that you helped arrange these displays. I grew up in small towns so never got to experience the excitement of big department store displays. Home decorations had to fill the void. But I don’t think I would have been good at setting them up. I don’t have an eye for that kind of thing. Same goes for home decorating…


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 12:23 am

      It was fun and they paid you! Things have really changed now with all the online shopping and big box stores. Maybe that style of shopping belongs to a different, more leisurely era – when fewer were concerned with labels and more concerned with quality and investment buying rather than cheap seasonal good designed to last a brief while…oh, that’s probably good for the economy while things that last aren’t?
      Small towns offered experience just as valuable – many would do better with those rather than massive malls and shopping as a hobby.Thanks for strolling over with a comment


  4. Emma / Dec 9 2013 5:02 pm

    Christmas shopping is definitely like a contact sport. I’m quite afraid of crazy shoppers. 🙂


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 12:26 am

      Attitudes and rudeness just seems to be getting worse. It has become a battle to shop.
      So more people shop online because of that – so the store have to compete/attract customers in a different way. Beauty and elegance loses.
      With the recent weather, I’m just as happy staying home anyway.Thanks for parking a bit to chat


  5. heretherebespiders / Dec 9 2013 6:05 pm

    What a fun-sounding job! Sort of. A bit too much weird pressure, but at least it was creative!


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 12:39 am

      It was like an alternative universe. We were in the stores 3-4 hours before the stores opened each morning fixing stuff. Then there were the big seasonal change outs for holidays and events.Like building stage productions constantly. A lot of really creative people…and coffee..with floating glitter. Thanks for adding a comment decoration


  6. PiedType / Dec 9 2013 6:06 pm

    Christmas was still magical back in those days (bet it was fun having a part in it). Part of it has to have been because it only lasted a few weeks. We waited all year for it, and then seemingly it came and went in a brief, glorious flash. These days we get saturated with it from Halloween to New Years. It’s not special anymore. It’s long, tedious, and exhausting. Bring back the good ol’ days!


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 12:43 am

      Somehow it was better when it was brief and only in certain locations. Anticipation isn’t a bad thing. How can a store compete with a 2 story size snowman? Some decorative materials used to be only available to trade. All different now. Something lost in the translation. Thanks for musing along


  7. SingingTuna / Dec 9 2013 6:14 pm

    OMGosh!!! MEMORIES! What a wonderful post…beautifully written!!!!
    I remember those stores, esp the Wanamakers’ in Philadelphia…what work those talented elves must’ve done!
    And I recall working in retail (“Misses”), at another local “important”department store in the very,very early 1970’s, when there was still some seasonal display effort. The customer was always right, even if it meant shinnying up the wall to retrieve that oh-so-special handbag from the rafters where Santa and Rudolph whooshed through the sky.

    It never occurred to me how this aspect of things has changed, but you’re right. We’re lacking something now.



    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 12:48 am

      Philadelphia had gorgeous stores. People actually used to go and make sketches. Not kidding about the secrets – competitors were always trying to pry information or get an early peak.
      One of the best thing to me was that one day it all just appeared – in full glory. Then overnight it was totally gone. It made the brief holiday time so amazing – for kids and adults. Lots of smiles.
      All gone with few noticing. It is a loss, but perhaps people no longer feel that. Thanks for hanging a lovely comment ornament


      • SingingTuna / Dec 10 2013 11:29 am

        You know the Phila ones? I worked for Strawbridge and Clothier.
        (LOL…my first year there I was the Easter Bunny’s photographer)

        “It made the brief holiday time so amazing” — it WAS magic. The kids now have no idea what it was like, I guess, since Christmas stuff rolls up on Halloween’s heels. They must think that there’s always some holiday or other, all year ’round. No anticipation.

        Those window displays were otherworldly. Like fine art, overlooking the sidewalk.


        • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 2:59 pm

          Oh, yes, Strawbridge! For a long time regional areas had their own “fancy” department store chain – and at Christmas they all wanted to rival Macy’s parade and decorations. That holiday excitement has been replaced – by excitement of sitting in the cold overnight in front of a store to get a “bargain” and perhaps the chance to be on TV- or better yet to film the fights between shopper. You are right, kids have been robbed of another piece of childhood.


  8. jannatwrites / Dec 9 2013 7:08 pm

    Being a display artist would be fun…dealing with demanding people who won’t take “no” for an answer is not so much fun. I think I’ll hole up here and come out on January 2nd (not the 1st…everyone is cranky with New Year’s hangovers…way to ring in a new year!)


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 12:55 am

      We came in early before the stores opened then retreated to workrooms for much of the day. Most customers were nice. Some would request an item or even the display decor once it was taken down – we always treated them with extra care for their understanding. A little irritating was when sales staff would remove something from a display and not tell us…they didn’t tell us because they knew they’d get in big trouble. I guess we all made it look so easy. It was a blast – like doing stage productions all year long.
      I’m with you about keeping out of the mob…it’s a little nuts out there now. Thanks for adding some decoration to the comment section


  9. gingerfightback / Dec 9 2013 7:19 pm

    As a kid the window displays were part of the thrill of Xmas. Dad would take my brother and me into town to gawp at the Xmas lights and stare at the department store windows all full of things we wouldn’t get…..but the excitement it all generated!


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 12:58 am

      We would always go and look – even in the most expensive stores. Everyone did – and the sales staff often handed out candy. Choirs would sing in lobbies sometimes. It was great fun…and we got to eat chili dogs for lunch at a lunch place. We rarely ate out – so the yearly trip was a wonderful adventure. Thanks for such a glittering comment


  10. aFrankAngle / Dec 9 2013 7:49 pm

    I wonder who is ruining it … the stores or the customers? Probably both. But here’s a good story for dog lovers involving stores.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 9 2013 11:58 pm

      Lifestyle changes. The internet. Big box stores. Price before enjoying the experience. When I do go out, I do pick the stores with the quiet elegance and attentive staff – worth it to me. Hope you and yours are doing well – crunch time here, but plan to amble your way shortly.
      Thanks for the doggy smile – never enough smiles.


  11. cheech513 / Dec 10 2013 12:17 am

    I am so jealous of your inflatable Dino. The most unusual I’ve seen so far this year is Square Bob Sponge Pants, but I haven’t got a good photo of him yet. Oh well 15 odd days left to stalk the Xmas inflatables. Happy Holidays, cheech


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 1:30 am

      That one was quite a charmer. (almost as good as the camo one in the post last year) That yard also had another sleigh full of characters…must put that one up. Can’t wait to see what you find. Thanks for floating by to chat.


  12. shoreacres / Dec 10 2013 12:56 am

    Even though I grew up in a smallish Iowa town, the decorated store windows were a huge draw. We’d watch the trains, and the mechanized toys. And our courthouse decorations were something. The pilots flying in to Chicago or Des Moines used to do flyovers for people to see the lights. I’m doing a post with a photo of what it used to look like (and maybe still does).

    I had a couple of Christmases in NYC, and just loved the windows at Saks, Lord & Taylor, etc. And now, with technology advancing, there are even greater wonders. Here’s this year’s, from Saks. Holiday Light Show


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 1:16 am

      Oh, the train displays and mechanical toys! I’d forgotten. Foley’s big downtown store always had a huge toy display (along with the pirana in a tank…such teeth…why he was in the toy department?) There were raised walkways so kids could see the all the trains running.
      Nothing was better than a small town 5 and 10 cent store at Christmas. I never made NYC at Christmas – that must be glorious. (Oh, the worries when those store moved in here!) Thanks for the link and for brightening the comment section


  13. Spinster / Dec 10 2013 2:05 am

    The old days sound much better than the madness that goes on in stores during holiday season nowadays. (And it’s literally madness – arguing & fighting & using weapons, oh my.) If things were like that, maybe I’d venture out on that dastardly day after Thanksgiving. Thanks for the nostalgia, the memories.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 10 2013 3:08 pm

      Different times. Different things were important. For a long time the “magic” was safe because only the trade had access to certain materials and products. Now anyone can walk in Walmart/go online and get something bigger and better than the neighbors.(like that giant 2 story snowman) If every house on the block is lighted and decorated with life size nodding reindeer or inflatables, kids are so impressed by store decorations.Sort of like if everyone has the designer purse or jeans, those lose their uniqueness and attractiveness.What you can’t have is always more attractive.
      Actually snow is becoming my favorite decoration – it covers everything completely..and quiet, too. Thanks for wrapping up a comment


      • Spinster / Dec 10 2013 6:09 pm

        Agreed, well said. 🙂


  14. angelswhisper2011 / Dec 10 2013 8:02 am

    If only we could turn back the time…sigh… 🙂 Pawkiss 🙂


  15. jmmcdowell / Dec 11 2013 1:06 am

    We didn’t have too many displays in our smaller town, but I remember some trips into Chicago and seeing the stores on Michigan Avenue at Christmas. They were something! Now? Yes, even the “top” stores are more concerned with sales than displays. We were in one store this weekend where shoppers had dropped so many items on the floor while hunting for others. Where was the staff to keep things looking neat and clean?

    The Internet has changed things. Unfortunately, people behave so badly these days, I prefer to shop online. Sigh.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 12 2013 12:50 am

      Now Chicago had some gorgeous store display years ago. (And the cold weather- I’ve never seen the place without ice)
      Stuff on the floors, items jumbled on the shelves. That would have never been tolerated then. Now it’s hard to find someone to take your money. A little sad. (And it does bother me a bit) Kids won’t ever have the wonder of Christmas shopping – just the frantic race to consume. Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? Thanks for neatly placing a comment on the counter


  16. EllaDee / Dec 11 2013 5:37 am

    I’m sure your job had its moments but being a window dresser always seemed like such an exotic creative desirable occupation 🙂
    I think we lost an era. Some of my favourite memories are of walking with Mum & Dad along the main street shops (all 1 and bit blocks!) window shopping before Christmas, looking at the decorations and displays. Then with Nanna & Pa, going to the normally closed off upstairs section of the ‘department store’ where there was an annual special Christmas display of toys and goodies.
    Maybe I’m to blame, I hate going to the malls and shops unless it’s early or late and there aren’t many people around. For me crowds aren’t conducive to festive.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 12 2013 1:18 am

      It was a great job – and so few people knew about the possibility.
      Some of the stores here had special areas upstairs that turned into fantasylands at Christmas with big train displays and Santa. The “path” all the way to Santa’s toyshop upstair was decorated. Stores stopped all that pretty much. Today’s kids won’t have those childhood memories. Wonder what they will look back on? Computer games on big screen joys?
      Well, have found some small cluster of shops here and there keeping up the tradition. Those I will remember to visit – all year round. Thanks for trimming the comment string


  17. The Hook / Dec 11 2013 2:58 pm

    I can recall trips to Toronto as a boy. We would spend hours checking out the window displays in the Eaton Centre windows.
    The world has changed and not necessarily for the better, my friend.
    Thank you for this trip down Memory Lane.


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