In Search of Vintage Christmas Window Displays

Decades ago in many Canadian cities, Christmas saw department stores replace clothing and housewares in their display windows with fantastic holiday worlds populated by electromechanical figures animated by a series of hidden wires, chains, pulleys and motors.

In my childhood, I saw them when I was taken across the river from Windsor, Ontario, to the giant Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit where windows filled with animatronic figures, arranged in sequence to tell a story, stretched on for a city block. More of them performed twelve floors up in a seasonally expanded toy department.

But such displays were also once common in larger Canadian cities, particularly those with a branch of Eaton’s, the nation’s once-dominant retailer.

The demise of Eaton’s, Woodward’s and other department stores — and the sector’s general shift away from toys — has gradually doomed the displays. As far as I can determine, the last stronghold was the Hudson’s Bay Company store on Queen Street in Toronto, formerly Simpson’s flagship store. But it is missing this year because the construction of a new subway line in front of the store’s display windows has meant that it is temporarily absent, a spokeswoman for the company said.

That does not, however, mean that the windows have entirely vanished in Canada.

Canada Place, a Vancouver event venue, fills six windows with Christmas displays that once lit up the windows of Woodward’s. In Saskatoon, the Western Development Museum sets up a display that previously made the rounds at Eaton’s stores on the prairies. The Manitoba Children’s Museum in Winnipeg hosts 15 displays with fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme themes that were created by Eaton’s in that city.

For the past few years, the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History has provided refuge for a “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” display that previously appeared in the windows of the now-demolished Mills Brothers department store. This year, however, it is resting in storage.

If I have missed some other department store displays that have found new homes, please let me know.

Earlier this week, I saw Montreal’s offering. In 2018, Holt Renfrew donated to the The McCord Stewart Museum the two Christmas displays that had appeared in the windows of Ogilvy’s, the Montreal department store it now owns, for 70 years.

Eaton’s designed and built its mechanized wonders in house. But in 1947, Ogilvy’s turned to Steiff, the German maker of plush toys that is credited with creating the modern teddy bear, for its displays. (The teddy name came about after Theodore Roosevelt, then the president, spared the life of a bear cub on a hunting trip, a highly publicized event that occurred around the same time that Steiff’s first shipment to the United States arrived.)

Steiff began making window displays that it sold or rented to stores in 1911. And for Ogilvy’s it created two. One, which the museum displays indoors, is an “enchanted village.” The other is in a small building, essentially a single department-store show window, that is placed outside the museum during the holiday season. It depicts a highly stylized mill in a forest. Both displays are filled with about 100 stuffed animals and gnomes, several wearing kilts in Scottish tartans. Chickens lay eggs, frogs ice fish, a bunny drives a tractor back and forth and a mischief-making monkey spanks another figure with a carpet beater — an action that most likely would not be included in a contemporary display.

“Kids are very excited, which is nice because kids now, they’re on their little iPods, iPhones, you name it all the time,” Guislaine Lemay, the museum’s curator of material culture, told me. “But I think it is because teddy bears and stuffed animals are always something that, for some reason, just gets you. It’s a bit of a wonderland for kids and, I think, for adults but in another way.”

The creatures and their settings, despite their age, had been well maintained by Ogilvy’s and required little work to prepare for display again. After conservators did a light cleaning, Olivier Leblanc-Roy, who assembles the exhibits, told me that he only had to replace a small number of electric motors and drive belts. Lightbulbs were swapped out for LEDs.

It takes Mr. Leblanc-Roy about two days to assemble all the pieces of the indoor exhibit and then another week of tweaking to get everything working properly. The displays came with several spare animals that could be swapped in if something went wrong. But Mr. Leblanc-Roy said the display was generally reliable with the exception of the hens’ wooden eggs, which have a tendency to jam in the chute they run down.

“I remember bringing my kids to Ogilvy to see it and now I have a grandchild, so I’m looking forward to her seeing it,” Ms. Lemay said. “It will always be a thrill to see it, it’s a treat.”


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

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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades.


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