Walking in a window wonderland: A brief history of Toronto’s department-store Christmas displays

How bejewelled French hens and melting Santa heads became part of the city’s holiday lore
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on December 18, 2018



“If you stop near the Christmas window displays of any large department store these days,” the Globe and Mail observed in 1961, “you will see a crowd of children intent on the magic world before them. Mothers hold the smallest by the hand or in their arms and passersby linger to join the throng. For the elders it is not the bright display that lightens their hearts but the tiny nose pressed against the window pane or the limpid laughter of these children all wrapped in wonder and delight.”

Introduced by Macy’s in New York City, department-store window displays have been sparking children’s imaginations and spurring parents to spend since the late 19th century. By the 1890s, they’d become an important advertising alternative for merchants in urban and rural areas alike, and trade publications were offering helpful tips to create eye-catching storefronts — typical suggestions included adding a Christmas tree surrounded by gifts, and depictions of nursery rhymes and Biblical scenes. Mechanical elements were seen as a plus, although their success depended on the store’s having an employee around who could improvise moving parts on a tight budget and ensure the display didn’t catch fire (something such trade magazines considered a real threat).

Using live people in a window display was also an option — although one not without risk. A piece in an 1897 issue of Canadian Dry Goods Review noted that, instead of using wax characters for an “old woman who lived in a shoe” scene, merchants could hire “a large boy” to play the old woman and smaller boys to play her children. The author, though, had had second thoughts by the end of the article: if the kids proved rowdy, they might engage in “horse play” and ruin the store’s reputation.

an archival newspaper ad

While retailers in Ontario’s mid-sized cities — Freiman’s in Ottawa and Kingsmill’s in London, for example —became known for their holiday decorations, by the mid-20th century, the most popular and ambitious displays in the province belonged to Eaton’s and Simpsons in downtown Toronto.

Families drove hours to see the displays; crowds gathered on the streets (until 1968, though, Eaton’s did draw the blinds on Sundays). Indeed, in 1945, city officials asked Eaton’s to limit the hours the public could view its windows — the volume of shoppers who used the crosswalk, nicknamed the “cattle crossing,” between their Queen Street flagships was slowing traffic.

Each store had a department dedicated to the Christmas display. (The Eaton’s group, besides working on the windows at the Queen Street and College Street branches, also worked on the floats for the city’s Santa Claus Parade, which the retailer ran until the early ’80s.)

While some of the Eaton’s artists freelanced from home, others worked in a cramped, badly lit studio strewn with Styrofoam and open cans of flammable material. From these conditions emerged skaters twirling on a pond, Renaissance-inspired nativity scenes, and Christmas carols come to life.

In 1959, designers Eleanor and Ted Konkle were inspired by an old book of carols when preparing a “12 Days of Christmas” display for the College Street store. They researched each item mentioned in the song (What is this “colly bird” that later became “calling bird”? It’s a blackbird — “colly” derives from “coal”). They also went on field trips to gather information. “The French hens turned up conveniently at the Royal Winter Fair,” the Globe and Mail reported, “and changed the Konkles’ picture from white to black, the colour of the real thing. But no poultry fancier ever saw as fancy a hen as the three who are bejeweled and wearing ermine neckpieces.”

Some featured items came from considerably farther afield: the 1966 College Street display, for example, featured a 34-foot-long crèche imported from Czechoslovakia that it had taken artist Adolph Jelinek 10,000 hours over 35 years to paint.

a Christmas window in Toronto

A display’s success was determined by how children reacted to it. “It was great to watch them from behind the display,” Simpsons window designer Jack Prior told the Toronto Star in 1980. “You knew you had done a good job when they had their eyes wide and their mouths open and their noses were pressed against the glass as they pointed at things.” (Such spectacles weren’t always eye-catching for the right reasons: one year, Prior’s department tested a new type of latex rubber for a Santa figure. The morning it made its debut, a customer noticed that its head was melting.)

When Eaton’s replaced its two downtown stores with its Eaton Centre location in 1977, the old window props were sold, and limited window space along Yonge Street reduced the scale of displays. Simpsons briefly abandoned its displays altogether after it was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1979, but they soon returned — if you pass by the Bay and the Saks Fifth Avenue locations at Queen and Yonge today, you’ll see that the tradition endures.

Sources: Eatonians by Patricia Phenix (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2002); the December 1897 edition of Canadian Dry Goods Review; the December 12, 1959, December 23, 1961, November 19, 1966, and November 25, 1977, editions of the Globe and Mail; December 15, 1946, edition of Maclean’s; the December 1988 edition of Toronto; and the January 1, 1972, and December 24, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters. 

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