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Getting to State Street, whether by car, El, bus, commuter train or on foot might be one of the few times each year that die-hard suburbanites or out-of-towners traipse into The City to engage in a beloved ritual. You know it will be crowded, that you will have to wait your turn to inch up to the windows, and that the line for the Walnut Room will be beastly. But somehow, you find the patience because after all, this is the holiday season, and this is one of the few experiences that you simply cannot capture online.


Winding through lines for Cozy Cloud Cottage, waiting for a moment with Santa.

Cynics may dismiss these memories as mere reflections of cold retail strategies. But for Chicagoans, the emotional connections are real, as they are for shoppers across the country who cherished the family-owned department stores that anchored their downtowns. Though conceived primarily as commercial centers, they evolved into larger institutions of American life—places where families of various castes and classes were welcome to take in the spectacle of services and goods, no admission fee required.

No time was this truer than the holiday season. By the turn of the century his successors, Marshall Field and Levi Leiter and later just the now-eponymous Field had built it into the premiere department store in the Midwest, known for impeccable customer care, generous return policies, quality merchandise, and a vast array of services from tea rooms to relaxation rooms, shoe repair to hotel bookings—all of which kept shoppers in the building and reaching for their wallets.

Christmas, however, had received only modest attention. The store eventually began advertising Christmas cards and gift merchandise, and inthey opened a seasonal toy department which later became year-round.

Field's uncle mistletoe still celebrating holidays

The first mention of holiday decorations at Marshall Field and Company came in The store had just opened in a monumental new building featuring the Walnut Room, and restaurant employees reportedly put up a small Christmas tree. Bythe tree stood 25 feet high. It took 18 decorators and three-story-high scaffolding to trim the live evergreen—to kids, it looked like it stretched all the way up to the sky. As the smell of Mrs. Each one bore the elegant calligraphy of the company name, aling that the gift inside was worth savoring. But their real power came from transcending their original commercial purpose.

Inthanks to improved glass manufacturing that could create massive transparent panels, stores across the U. His first panel featured animated carousels and gift-ready toy trains. The story panels were such a hit they were repeated the next year.

Marshall fields uncle mistletoe & aunt holly ceramic figurine music box

Soon a new holiday window trend took hold: store-specific mascots. With white wings, he flew around the world, teaching children the importance of kindness at Christmas. The first window displays of Uncle Mistletoe went up in in a series titled A Christmas Dreamwhich featured the generous old man bringing a young boy and girl to the North Pole to visit Santa. InUncle Mistletoe got some company in the form of Aunt Hollyand the pair became a merchandizing bonanza.

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Over the years, shoppers could buy dolls, books, ornaments, coloring sets, molded candles, cocktail napkins, hot p, puppets, glassware, and even used window props. I remember when the windows had a Nutcracker theme. Below the big scenes depicting the main store were tiny windows where tiny mice figurines were enacting their own delightful version of the story.

At their peak, planning and deing the annual displays began more than a year in advance, with an eager public waiting every November for the reveal of each new theme. Tens of thousands of fans made pilgrimages from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to crowd around the earnest State Street displays in childlike awe.

There was a marketing aspect to the windows, of course. Delighted viewers, suffused with the seasonal spirit, would hopefully pop inside to shop. But there was no commerce in the displays themselves.

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Like many of the holiday creations inside, people became attached to the spirit, not the sales. Marshall Field's was as much a part of Chicago's soul as the Lakefront and the Cubs. But how did these houses of retail come to inspire such fond feelings? None of these rituals was more legend than the holiday windows.

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