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Smithsonian Opens New Exhibition “Holidays on Display”

November 11, 2009
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opens “Holidays on Display” Nov. 13. The exhibition examines the art, industry and history of the commercial holiday displays that enchanted the public from the 1920s to the 1960s.

A theme throughout “Holidays on Display” is the evocation of the holiday spirit and the opportunities for self-expression such projects allowed. The exhibition focuses on the craftsmanship and creative effort involved in holiday displays and the memories they created.

“Holidays on Display” examines the subject from the viewpoints of artists, producers and the public for whom the displays were made. For many Americans, department-store displays stand out as an enjoyable memory and an integral component of civic, social life. “Holidays on Display” showcases numerous photographs, postcards and illustrations of parade floats—including examples from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade—and window displays from stores such as Marshall Field and Co. and John Wanamaker’s. Featured objects related to the early creation of these displays include prop stars, illustrated children’s storybook souvenirs, a paper novelty toy chest with miniature merchandise and an animated seal figure that balances a ball on its nose. The exhibition is made possible with support from Macy’s and will be on display through September 2010.

“Holiday celebrations with their festive parades and animated window displays have always had a place in American history,” said Brent D. Glass, museum director. “This exhibition looks closer at these commercial displays to understand the emotional responses evoked by them and why they hold such treasured memories for many people.”

The exhibition delves into two primary areas of holiday visuals—parades and department-store retail display. Historically, the parade float and retail display were made by the same companies and shared common construction materials and techniques.

The first section examines parade floats in the early 20th century, which typically spotlighted workers and manufacturing by heralding a product, whether coal or toys. By the 1920s, the themes were shifting to consumer-oriented fantasies of home and community life. Innovations such as the parade-float kit democratized access to artistic design, and new material such as floral sheeting (originally made of tissue paper and later vinyl), large helium balloons and various mechanizations elevated the parade float to today’s custom-made creations.

In the exhibit, an archway modeled on an artist’s rendering for a toy department display leads visitors to the second part of “Holidays on Display,” which explores the history of department-store theme settings. These displays were most impressive during the Christmas season, when they provided a rewarding visual that created emotional bonds between the store and shoppers. Even today, the “storybook style” of the 1920s’ holiday display, noted for its village scenes and walk-through attractions, remains popular as the visual announcement of Christmas.

A companion book, “Holidays on Display” by William L. Bird Jr., is a comprehensive overview of the art and industry of the holiday display. Published by the Smithsonian in association with Princeton Architectural Press, the book is available for sale in the museum’s shops.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. The museum shines new light on American history after having been dramatically transformed by a two-year renovation. To learn more about the museum, visit For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).