In Search of Vintage Christmas Window Displays


A long time in the past in lots of Canadian cities, Christmas noticed malls change clothes and housewares of their show home windows with implausible vacation worlds populated by electromechanical figures animated by a sequence of hidden wires, chains, pulleys and motors.

In my childhood, I noticed them after I was taken throughout the river from Windsor, Ontario, to the enormous Hudson’s division retailer in downtown Detroit the place windows filled with animatronic figures, organized in sequence to inform a narrative, stretched on for a metropolis block. Extra of them carried out twelve flooring up in a seasonally expanded toy division.

However such shows had been additionally as soon as frequent in bigger Canadian cities, significantly these with a department of Eaton’s, the nation’s once-dominant retailer.

The demise of Eaton’s, Woodward’s and different malls — and the sector’s common shift away from toys — has regularly doomed the shows. So far as I can decide, the final stronghold was the Hudson’s Bay Firm retailer on Queen Avenue in Toronto, previously Simpson’s flagship retailer. However it’s lacking this 12 months as a result of the development of a brand new subway line in entrance of the shop’s show home windows has meant that it’s quickly absent, a spokeswoman for the corporate mentioned.

That doesn’t, nonetheless, imply that the home windows have totally vanished in Canada.

Canada Place, a Vancouver occasion venue, fills six home windows with Christmas shows that when lit up the windows of Woodward’s. In Saskatoon, the Western Development Museum units up a show that beforehand made the rounds at Eaton’s shops on the prairies. The Manitoba Children’s Museum in Winnipeg hosts 15 shows with fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme themes that had been created by Eaton’s in that metropolis.

For the previous few years, the Nova Scotia Museum of Pure Historical past has supplied refuge for a “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” show that beforehand appeared within the home windows of the now-demolished Mills Brothers division retailer. This 12 months, nonetheless, it’s resting in storage.

If I’ve missed another division retailer shows which have discovered new houses, please let me know.

Earlier this week, I noticed Montreal’s providing. In 2018, Holt Renfrew donated to the The McCord Stewart Museum the two Christmas displays that had appeared within the home windows of Ogilvy’s, the Montreal division retailer it now owns, for 70 years.

Eaton’s designed and constructed its mechanized wonders in home. However in 1947, Ogilvy’s turned to Steiff, the German maker of plush toys that’s credited with creating the modern teddy bear, for its shows. (The teddy identify happened after Theodore Roosevelt, then the president, spared the lifetime of a bear cub on a looking journey, a extremely publicized occasion that occurred across the identical time that Steiff’s first cargo to the USA arrived.)

Steiff started making window shows that it bought or rented to shops in 1911. And for Ogilvy’s it created two. One, which the museum shows indoors, is an “enchanted village.” The opposite is in a small constructing, basically a single department-store present window, that’s positioned outdoors the museum throughout the vacation season. It depicts a extremely stylized mill in a forest. Each shows are full of about 100 stuffed animals and gnomes, a number of carrying kilts in Scottish tartans. Chickens lay eggs, frogs ice fish, a bunny drives a tractor backwards and forwards and a mischief-making monkey spanks one other determine with a carpet beater — an motion that almost definitely wouldn’t be included in a up to date show.

“Children are very excited, which is sweet as a result of children now, they’re on their little iPods, iPhones, you identify it on a regular basis,” Guislaine Lemay, the museum’s curator of fabric tradition, instructed me. “However I believe it’s as a result of teddy bears and stuffed animals are all the time one thing that, for some cause, simply will get you. It’s a little bit of a wonderland for teenagers and, I believe, for adults however in one other approach.”

The creatures and their settings, regardless of their age, had been effectively maintained by Ogilvy’s and required little work to arrange for show once more. After conservators did a lightweight cleansing, Olivier Leblanc-Roy, who assembles the displays, instructed me that he solely needed to change a small variety of electrical motors and drive belts. Lightbulbs had been swapped out for LEDs.

It takes Mr. Leblanc-Roy about two days to assemble all of the items of the indoor exhibit after which one other week of tweaking to get every part working correctly. The shows got here with a number of spare animals that might be swapped in if one thing went mistaken. However Mr. Leblanc-Roy mentioned the show was usually dependable apart from the hens’ picket eggs, which generally tend to jam within the chute they run down.

“I keep in mind bringing my children to Ogilvy to see it and now I’ve a grandchild, so I’m trying ahead to her seeing it,” Ms. Lemay mentioned. “It is going to all the time be a thrill to see it, it’s a deal with.”


This part was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a reporter and researcher with the Canada bureau.

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  • Movie Rescue Worldwide, a photograph store in Saskatchewan, focuses on growing outdated and broken movie rolls. The method is delicate — generally there’s just one likelihood to get it proper — and it performed a key position in unlocking secrets and techniques of the final moments earlier than a deadly expedition by two mountaineers in Argentina.


A local of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Instances for 20 years.


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