By Kathryn Smith
I remember Eaton’s Windows… The windows, like the famous department store, are mere memories now, but for those of us who lived through that era, we have many fond recollections of going window gazing during the Christmas season.
It was Macy’s department store on 34th Street in New York City that, in 1874, was the first to decorate their windows with a Christmas theme. Three years prior to that, they had stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve, creating the first ever ‘midnight madness’. The season has never been the same since.
Each year millions of people visit New York City at Thanksgiving when the windows are unveiled to the delight of thousands of adults and children, eagerly waiting to see these magical windows filled with animation and imagination. The old mechanical workings were surely a marvel of ingenuity in their day, while present day windows contain a mixture of the basic inner movements, combined with computer generated electronics and lasers. The displays may get more elaborate, but the effect is still the same: filling all of us with a child-like wonder.
Soon after Macy’s started decorating their windows to attract shoppers, other stores followed suit and the windows became more elaborate every year. For weeks windows are draped or hidden from view with the exception of Lord & Taylor, which has the luxury of having hydraulic lifts under the windows, allowing window dressers to work in the basement and then lift the window displays up to the street level before the unveiling.
Of course, these beautiful window displays were not exclusive to New York. As a young man, Harry Selfridge worked for Marshall Field before starting his famous namesake store in England where he continued the tradition of Christmas window displays.
In Canada the main rivalry for extravagant windows was between Simpson’s and Eaton’s – the largest department store in Canada at that time, and while they had mostly played it safe with store merchandise, in 1945 Eaton’s must have been feeling a little gutsy and decided to play religiously themed carols over a loud speaker to accompany their displays. Encouraged by the church leaders, the windows attracted even more attention and suddenly there were nativity scenes and wise men all over the place. After the war ended, there was a surplus of motors and they were put to good use in Eaton’s 1946 Christmas windows. Aircraft technicians and WW ll veterans built an extravagant display for the Winnipeg store that was later divided between several of the Eaton’s stores and is now part of “Once Upon A Christmas” – an Eaton’s display housed in the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
In the 1960s, many were the Decembers that my sister Shirley and I went downtown with our parents to do our Christmas shopping at Eaton’s. We not only anticipated the joy of visiting Santa in the huge toy department, but also looked forward to standing outside the store, walking from one window to another, gazing in amazement at the animated displays of Santa with his elves and reindeer, toys galore for boys and girls of every age. The magic of ‘Toy Land’ came alive in those windows of wonder.
It was also Eaton’s who started the Santa Claus Parade in 1905 and by the 1950s it was the largest in North America. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (or as it came to be known as, ‘the Macy’s Day Parade’) started in 1924, and continues to this day. These two retail giants were known for their Christmas spirit and generosity.
Do you see yourself in either scene? It was my intention to evoke some nostalgic memories and rekindle thoughts of Christmases past for you, while paying tribute to two North American icons.
Kathryn Smith is an artist and writer, living in Hamilton, Ontario, and can be contacted through her website at KathrynSmith.com