The Magic of Marshall Field’s Holiday Windows

By Brian J. Failing on December 19, 2011


Historic Image of Marshall Field's WindowsChristmas in Chicago just wouldn’t be complete for many of us without the thrill of viewing the fantastic department store window displays on State Street.  It’s an American tradition that began here in Chicago well over a century ago and continues strong today, including on our annual Holiday Tour of Drinks, Daleys and Dead Guys.

In the 1890s, retail pioneer Marshall Field had a novel idea: he chose a theater set designer to transform his store’s display windows.  Gone were the windows that shoppers were used to, crammed with as much merchandise as could possibly fit.  The Field’s windows were mini theater sets – pared down, dramatic and thematic.  The previous chaotic arrangement became passe’, and this new style affirmed Marshall Field’s position as trend-setter of the high class. And these windows worked retail magic: dazzled passersby were drawn into the exciting experience of shopping at Marshall Field’s.

At no time was this more powerful than at Christmas. Field’s State Street holiday store windows, with their clever and Touring Chicago's Christmasbeautiful – and eventually animated – displays became a major draw for locals and tourists from all over.  A trip to Field’s at holiday time to see the windows – as well as the Great Tree in the Walnut Room – became a tradition for many generations of Chicagoans and still elicits feelings of nostalgia for many.

Original window designer, Arthur Fraser, was succeeded by John Moss, who created a special character, Uncle Mistletoe, to compete with Montgomery Ward’s Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Uncle Mistletoe had his Field’s window debut in 1948 and became a favorite for Chicago children. Other characters featured in the holiday windows over the years include Cinderella, Pinocchio, Harry Potter, The Grinch, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Snow White, and Mary Poppins.

As of 2006, Marshall Fields was no more. Macy’s officially bought them out. Its last holiday season, 2005, is captured here in a short time-lapse video: 

But Macy’s continues the holiday window tradition.  Underneath the 42 trumpets protruding over State Street are seven large windows, decorated with a new theme each year.  This year the windows tell the story of how the “Great Tree” celebrity ornaments were made. We visit Macy’s on our Inside The Loop: Explore the Unexpected indoor walking tour, and discuss Field’s innovation with window design, as well as look at some very interesting pictures from catalogs past. We love when locals come on our tours and share their own personal stories. One guest told of her fond memory of going to Marshall Field’s as a little girl to get a red velvet dress and how she felt like such a princess!

For more views of Marshall Field’s holiday past, this video – while rather slow – shows some spectacular holiday installations from years past, like “Cozy Cloud Cottage.”
— Wendy Bright, Tour Guide