Decades ago in many Canadian cities, Christmas saw department stores replace clothing and household goods in their windows with fantastical Christmas worlds populated by electromechanical figures animated by an array of wires, chains, pulleys and hidden motors.
In my childhood, I saw them when I was taken across the river from Windsor, Ontario, to the giant Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit, where windows filled with animatronic figures, arranged in sequence to tell a story, spanning a block. Many of them performed twelve floors up in a seasonally expanded toy department.
But such displays were once common even in Canada’s largest cities, particularly those with a branch of Eaton’s, the nation’s once-dominant retailer.
The demise of Eaton’s, Woodward’s and other department stores – and the industry’s general shift away from toys – gradually doomed exhibitors. As far as I could determine, the last stronghold was the Hudson’s Bay Company store on Queen Street in Toronto, formerly Simpson’s flagship store. But it is missing this year because the construction of a new subway line in front of the store’s windows meant it is temporarily absent, a company spokeswoman said.
This does not mean, however, that windows have completely disappeared in Canada.
Canada Place, an event venue in Vancouver, fills six storefronts with Christmas displays like old times it lit up Woodward’s windows. In Saskatoon, the Museum of Western Development sets up a display that previously toured Eaton’s stores on the prairies. THE Manitoba Children’s Museum in Winnipeg hosts 15 exhibits with themes of fairy tales and nursery rhymes created by Eaton in that city.
In recent years, the Natural History Museum of Nova Scotia has provided sanctuary to a “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” display that previously appeared in the windows of the now-demolished Mills Brothers department store. This year, however, it rests in storage.
If I’ve missed any other department store displays that have found new homes, please let me know.
Earlier this week I saw the offer from Montreal. In 2018, Holt Renfrew made a donation to the McCord Stewart Museum the two Christmas events that had appeared in the windows of Ogilvy’s, the Montreal department store he now owns, for 70 years.
Eaton designed and built its mechanized wonders in-house. But in 1947, Ogilvy turned to Steiff, the German plush toy manufacturer credited with creating the modern teddy bear, for his displays. (The teddy bear’s name came about after Theodore Roosevelt, then president, spared the life of a bear cub during a hunting trip, a highly publicized event that occurred around the same time that Steiff’s first shipment arrived in the United States. United.)
Steiff began making display cases that he sold or rented to stores in 1911. And for Ogilvy he created two. One, which the museum displays inside, is an “enchanted village”. The other is located in a small building, essentially a single storefront of a department store, which is placed outside the museum during the holiday season. It depicts a highly stylized mill in a forest. Both displays are filled with about 100 stuffed animals and gnomes, many wearing Scottish tartan kilts. Chickens lay eggs, frogs fish through the ice, a rabbit drives a tractor back and forth, and a mischievous monkey spanks another figure with a carpet beater – an action that would most likely not be included in a contemporary display.
“The children are very excited, which is nice because now they are in front of their little iPods, iPhones, and so on,” Guislaine Lemay, curator of the museum of material culture, told me. “But I think it’s because teddy bears and stuffed animals are always something that, for some reason, strikes you. It’s a bit of a wonderland for children and, I think, for adults, but in a different way.”
The creatures and their settings, despite their age, had been well maintained by Ogilvy and had required little work to prepare for display again. After the restorers carried out a light cleaning, Olivier Leblanc-Roy, who assembled the exhibits, told me that he only had to replace a small number of electric motors and drive belts. The light bulbs have been replaced with LEDs.
It takes Mr. Leblanc-Roy about two days to assemble all the pieces of the interior display and then another week of modifications to get everything working properly. The displays were supplied with several spare animals that could be exchanged if something went wrong. But Mr. Leblanc-Roy said the display was generally reliable, except for the chickens’ wooden eggs, which have a tendency to jam in the chute they fall into.
“I remember taking my kids to Ogilvy to see it and now I have a grandchild so I can’t wait for her to see it,” Ms Lemay said. “It will always be a thrill to see him, he is a delight.”
This section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, a Canadian bureau journalist and researcher.
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Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen studied in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has written about Canada for the New York Times for twenty years.
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