Store Windows: An Innovative Modern Technology and a Signifier of Urbanism in Early Twentieth Century America

Yaniv Ron-El, University of Chicago

Store windows are part and parcel of the modern urban environment, standing in the center of the nexus between city, culture and consumption. Today, they are so common that it seems weird to characterize them as a technology, but the store window is a technology that originated in the nineteenth century, and arguably served as a basis to the digital windows that are so prevalent today. While the presentation of goods in the shop’s window predated the invention of the modern store window, once this technology became available, it connected in new ways “the city” with cultural signifiers of modernity, bringing about distinctive architectural and aesthetic urban features. However, while the import of the store windows technology from European capitals to American cities was swift, they did not immediately acquire the attached cultural meanings of sophisticated urbanity. That process was more gradual and complicated. Drawing on quantitative and qualitative content analysis of about couple of hundreds of images of store windows from the early decades of the Twentieth century, as represented and commentated on in trade journals for advertisers and window-dressers, I trace in this paper the process in which store windows became associated with metropolitan centers, as well as with certain types of aesthetic sensibilities and leitmotifs. My findings describe the changes in the perception and cultural signification of store windows during that time-period, but they also point out to broader trends and changes in the meaning of American urbanism in the early twentieth century.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 249. Urban