The outward appearance of shopfronts and business’s displays – with the expansive and uninterrupted glass fronts in the form that we know them today – were shaped above all by the development of the corresponding types of glass. A substantial step had already been made at the end of the 17th century, when the Frenchman Bernard Perrot invented the glass-casting process. This process was further developed in the course of the Industrial Revolution. The manufacture of large, uniform and relatively thin glass plates first became possible at the beginning of the 20th century. From the 1960s onwards, this process was then replaced through the manufacture of so-called float glass, which was developed in England and is now utilised everywhere in connection with the familiar expansive glass fronts.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, window fronts divided up by lead – and later wood – muntins dominated the appearance of upscale commercial streets and the cosmopolitan shopping arcades of major cities. Ordinary businesses meeting everyday needs, as well as businesses in outlying districts and suburbs, presented their goods on the pavement in front of their establishment and on the opened wooden shutters of the entrance and the shop windows. It was thus necessary to walk into a business in order to form an opinion about the variety of goods being sold; however, within the shops’ interiors, the goods were also often organised more in the manner of a storeroom than in terms of an appropriate presentation for customers.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, ‘displaying’ something in the window or, alternatively, viewing it through this ‘display’ was usually a privilege reserved for the more elegant businesses and shopping arcades in the city centre. The establishment of the conscious presentation of goods in other locations and areas in businesses accompanied the continuing developments in the production of expansive glass fronts.
This new form of presenting goods – which also encompassed everyday and utilitarian objects, such as food, tableware, detergents, soaps, household furnishings and many other things – affected more than just the outward appearance of businesses. It also caused changes in their interiors: the disorienting storeroom became a sales establishment that sought to present its extensive range of goods just as appealingly in its sales room as in its display.
The awareness of the necessity of a appealing storefront and sales-room architecture continued to develop throughout many areas of the businesses. In this context, display window, shop sign and the doors of the entrance were subjected to a constantly continuing development: from small and vitrine-like windows to expansive displays, from painted sign to neon writing, from narrow entrance doors to accessible and generously proportioned entrance areas. This was always closely linked to a corresponding product presentation, which sought to win over its target groups through the appealing design of goods and packaging and through striking advertising.
Johannes Spalt. Portale & Geschäfte: Historische Wiener Geschäftsauslagen. Vienna, Cologne and Weimar 1999.
Susanne Breus. Window Shopping: Eine Fotogeschichte des Schaufensters. Vienna 2010.
Man in front of the display window of the company V. Mayer’s Söhne, k. u. k. Hofjuweliere (specialising in medals and decorations), Stock-im-Eisen-Platz, Vienna. Photo: Emil Mayer (between 1905 and 1914). Public domain.