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Christmas Window Shopping


It’s Christmas time in the City!

Christmas season in New York City is filled with iconic images: the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, the department store windows decked out with tinsel and lights. All of these and more warm the hearts of New Yorkers and Americans on cold December nights.

The first tree in Rockefeller Center, in 1931. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

But one tradition is a little less warm and fuzzy… braving the crowds and doing the Christmas shopping.

Puck Magazine, a satirical monthly. The caption reads "Bring the little ones' let them enjoy this Christmas Carnival to their hearts content." Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Last minute shoppers have clogged the sidewalks for over a century!

Shoppers on 6th Avenue circa 1910. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But some shoppers don’t come in the stores. They simply stare at the brightly decorated window displays set up in department stores across the city.

Children gather in front of the Macy's Christmas display window in 1909. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The department store window display is a tradition unto itself; it even has a NYC sanctioned walking tour to go along with it!

On Orchard Street, Ridley and Sons Department Store captured the imagination of kids and adults starting in 1874. E.S. Ridley wanted his display of wares to be well-illuminated, hence, like other merchant buildings in what is now TriBeCa and SoHo, his building boasted large plate-glass windows. This new feature let in  light and allowed people to look inside at the artfully arranged goods just inside the window;  the activity “window shopping” was born.

A rendering of Ridley and Sons at it's peak as the (according to Ridley himself) biggest department store in the country.

A newly-arrived Italian or East European Jew walking down Grand Street would have been amazed by the material abundance of a department store like Ridley’s. Many immigrants soon embraced the idea that to become American was not only to speak English, but to wear fashionable clothing and to furnish their front rooms with upholstered furniture and a piano bought on the installment plan. And beginning in the 1870’s, many department store owners wished to bring in the customers through their brightly lit and tempting holiday displays.

A Macy's holiday window in 1915. Image from The Bowery Boys.

For tenement dwellers like those at 97 Orchard Street, the experience of walking into a building of this scale, with light flooding through the large windows you see on the façade, or past the bright holiday utopias displayed in the windows, must have been striking in comparison to their homes and workplaces. In fact, the atmosphere was so pleasing, and so “American” in contrast to the factories, that many young women and immigrant daughters opted to take jobs as department store clerks.

A.I. Namm & Sons Department Store, Boerum Hill, ca. 1898, V1972.1.743; Photography Collection; Brooklyn Historical Society

Even in a heavily Jewish neighborhood, one that did not celebrate Christmas, Ridley’s could still market end of year holidays. They ran an advertisement in the Tageblatt, a Jewish newspaper, in December, 1897, targeting its Jewish customers, that exclaimed: “The spirit with which all Americans wait for the joyous Christmas grows ever stronger and stronger with the passage of time…..and Chanukah gifts with Christmas presents go hand in hand.”

Window shopping in New York. No date given. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This year, the window display at Macy’s is interactive, where children can manipulate snowflakes on a screen by waving their hands. Certainly a long way from 1909!

The display at Macy's Herald Square in 2013. Photo courtesy Macy's Inc.

And Bergdorf Goodman’s window is one chic winterland!

Bergdorf Goodman's 2013 holiday window display.

We hope that you’ve gotten all your shopping done; but if you haven’t, click here to visit the Tenement Museum’s online book store!

From the Tenement family to yours, Merry Christmas!

 – Posted by Lib Tietjen