From Dayton’s to Macy’s: Documenting the End of an Era

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The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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From Dayton’s to Macy’s: Documenting the End of an Era

By: Lori Williamson | Collections Up Close | June 30, 2017

When you work at a museum, you might find yourself in a room full of lifeless animatronic body parts. It’s not a regular occurrence, but it can happen when over 50 years of holiday tradition is coming to a close. That’s how my colleagues and I found ourselves rifling through piles of characters from Macy’s (née Dayton’s) 8th Floor Auditorium shows including the Nutcracker, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, and many more. In mid-February 2017, we arrived at 700 Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis to find a final clearance sale in full swing, with parts of the grand old department store already shut down. A 115-year legacy would end in mere weeks, and Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) curators were in the building to help preserve a bit of that legacy.



Room full of animatronics at Macy’s: Feb. 10, 2017

Back in 1902, George Draper Dayton built a six-story building that served as the flagship location for the Dayton Dry Goods Company, later renamed the Dayton Company. Dayton’s grew into an upscale regional chain that acquired several other large retailers over the years and spawned Target Corporation before rebranding as Marshall Field's in 2001, followed by a sale and merger resulting in the Macy’s name change in 2006. Dayton’s was a Minnesota institution, and after the store’s impending closure was announced in January 2017, Macy’s staff recognized the significance of the move and contacted MNHS to make a donation.


Over the years MNHS has amassed a significant collection of Dayton’s-related material, from artifacts to photographs, and from manuscript material to published works about the business and its founding family. The focus for the MNHS Collection is on Dayton's as a Minnesota company, with selective documentation of the Dayton's traditions Marshall Field's and Macy's kept alive. Highlights range from an early delivery wagon to a 1998 shopping bag, and from nineteenth century family correspondence to 1940s store display photographs.


In 2001, when Dayton’s stores were first renamed during the Marshall Field’s transition, MNHS acquired signage removed from the flagship building. When the call came in 2017, curators were curious to find out what new treasures would surface. The goal of the curatorial team's visit was to augment the existing Collection, keep the focus on the Dayton’s years, and be judicious in our selections. No museum can or should preserve everything it’s offered. Storage space is precious and there is no shortage of stories in need of preservation for future generations. With that in mind, and the valuable guidance of seasoned Macy’s staff, we began our tour through the upper floors.


The food department offered menus from various restaurants within the store, a sign from the Oak Grill, chocolate boxes, and a copper kettle from the Candy Kitchen. Macy’s staff compiled a series of Dayton News newsletters, a selection of shopping bags, as well as a commemorative plate depicting 20 years of the ever-popular Santabear. The bulk of the material the staff had gathered was related to decades of 8th Floor Auditorium shows — including artist renderings, drawings, floor plans, press kits, and posters, as well as a veritable sea of animatronic figures.



Selected donated items

Curators quickly developed selection criteria to limit the number of figures under consideration. We discussed only major characters in the best possible condition that would have cross-generational appeal or some other significance. This criteria brought us to three figures: Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Professor Severus Snape. Pinocchio and Cinderella are obvious enough choices, but Snape fit into another category. The Harry Potter book series was first brought to life in three dimensions by Dayton’s staff for their 2000 holiday show under a contract with Warner Brothers. This unique local connection to an international cultural phenomenon brought Snape to the top of our list.



Selected animatronics

After curatorial deliberation and final decisions from the MNHS Acquisitions Committee, we moved the new additions from the ever-emptying Macy’s store to the Minnesota History Center, where they will be processed and preserved. Once the donation is fully cataloged, the artifacts will be available to view in the Collections Online database and the paper materials will be open to researchers through the Gale Family Library.


Many sincere thanks to all the Macy’s staff who made this acquisition possible, particularly:

  • Paul Lopacinski
  • Liam Schafer
  • Andrea Schwartz


- Sondra Reierson, Associate Curator of 3D Objects


Animatronics arrive at MN History Center: Feb. 23, 2017