Commentary: Wizardry of department store windows starts in Oz
A minor mystery of American culture has been the public's enduring fascination with department store windows, especially at holiday time. Though computer-generated images can whoosh us to exotic vistas from the comfort of our laptops, we still li...
A minor mystery of American culture has been the public's enduring fascination with department store windows, especially at holiday time. Though computer-generated images can whoosh us to exotic vistas from the comfort of our laptops, we still line up at the giant glass panes to see dolls creaking their heads as they celebrate Christmas in Edwardian England. Virtual reality has yet to kill living theater, even when the actors are figurines.
The modern store window is a marvel of applied psychology. Before its invention, retailers just piled their wares in their front windows to show what was inside, explains William Leach in his book "Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture." But in the late 19th century, as factories started flooding America with their products, the economic elite saw new urgency in creating a popular lust for things folks didn't strictly need.
The store window's job was no longer acting as a catalog of the shop's contents. It now had to do something more abstract: It had to build desire in the hearts of passersby for a "good life" that would be consummated through consuming. Designers began to place only a few items in the big windows of the new department stores and surround them with fantastical visions of a dazzling tomorrow.
And who better to provide the blueprint than L. Frank Baum, author of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"? Before the book came out in 1900, Baum designed store windows. Like the phantasmagoria he piled into the children's story, Baum filled these new show windows with revolving stars, glittering crystals and currents of colors.
Baum was the man behind the store-window curtain, creating an Ozian dream for a public not then enlisted into a consumer culture. With no little cynicism, he urged window designers to "arouse in the observer the cupidity and longing to possess the goods."
If items are properly displayed, he said, "the show window will sell them like hotcakes, even though (the goods) are old enough to have gray whiskers." And "even the male mind, naturally obtuse upon such matters, is forced to marvel at the beauty of the display." He founded the National Association of Window Trimmers to promote his brand of retailing showmanship.
Heirs to Baum's "gorgeous carnival" store windows, today's versions are a toast to manipulation. But aren't they a wonderful world? That the illusions are created with real things made with magicians' hands only adds to their emotional impact.
The humanity in the creation, as well as in the shared audience experience, has also kept live theater in business. The 18-screen cineplexes, videocassettes, DVDs and now video downloads threaten each other more than they do legitimate theater.
How interesting that one of the most passionate audiences for Broadway shows these days are the "tweens," girls roughly ages 10 through 13. These young people grew up with computers. They teethed on iPods and can download off iTunes with demonic speed.
But the tweens and their older sisters are so fanatical about live musicals that Broadway producers are seeking productions directed at them.
The girls now pack the rows for "Legally Blonde," and they paint their faces green for "Wicked," a musical based on the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz." Baum would totally get this trend.
The craftsmanship of theater still has something over the clicksmanship of computers. Fabulous store windows may be one reason why many downtowns and malls have survived the onslaught of online retailing and the drab big-box stores. Nothing lifts spirits on a dark December afternoon like the unearthly glow of a dreamy window.