“Holidays on Display” at American History Museum

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Salvation Army bell ringers have taken post outside grocery stores. The tree is up in Rockefeller Center, and carols will soon take over the radio waves. Everyone is gearing up for the holidays—including the National Museum of American History.

Holidays on Display,” an exhibition examining the art, industry and history of commercial holiday display from the 1920s to the 1960s, is open on the museum’s third floor, west. Recently, Larry Bird, the show’s curator, guided visitors through the gallery, narrating the colorful history of parade floats, including examples from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade, and the theatrical settings and window displays of department stores like Macy’s, Marshall Field and Co. and John Wanamaker’s.

Did you know that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the brainchild of a catalog writer from Montgomery Ward? Robert L. May penned the story and it first appeared in a souvenir book given to kids who visited the department store during the holiday season.

Or that a marionette maker by the name of Tony Sarg introduced the massive balloons signature to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? In his research, Bird visited the studio in New Jersey where the parade’s floats are built. Apparently, the studio has a garage door the same girth as the Lincoln Tunnel—a test that the floats must pass.

Bird hopes that the exhibition will bring back memories of the heyday of holiday display.

“Shopping now is just a function, as opposed to an occasion for an outing,” says Bird. “As places cut costs, they don’t believe in that stuff. They would just look at displays as an impediment to shopping, to keep you from actually coming to do what you intended. It doesn’t add anything to their bottom line to build in displays or hire them to make them and to maintain them.”

Luckily, in a world of big box retailers, Bird still sees some of the magic of the old classic stores—in museums. “You walk around, and there’s no one heckling you to buy something. You’re there to see things. It’s a self-guided thing. You’re looking at things that pull you over and attract your attention,” he says.

"Holidays on Display" will be on display through Labor Day 2010. The companion book, "Holidays on Display," written by Bird, is available in the museum's shops.

View our photo gallery for more "Holidays on Display."

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