The Myer Christmas windows hold a special place in the heart of most Melburnians. Many would recall with fond nostalgia gazing through the glass into the imaginary worlds of magic and movement, and the anticipation of what new wonders the Christmas windows would reveal each November. Christmas did not feel like Christmas without a trip to Bourke Street to marvel at the window displays. The much-loved tradition is now in its 63rd year.

Bourke Street Frontage The Myer Emporium Ltd - Stuart E. Wade, H2006.150/6

Bourke Street Frontage The Myer Emporium Ltd – Stuart E. Wade, H2006.150/6

The Coles Myer archive – a collection of over 30,000 items, stored across one linear kilometre of shelving – contains many items and photographs that chronicle the history of the Christmas windows. We also hold a collection of images taken by the photographer Lloyd Hull (1916-1996), who faithfully captured the windows for nearly forty years. In 2018 the Library lent some collection items to the Melbourne Museum for the exhibition: Make Believe: The Story of the Myer Christmas Windows.

The Christmas windows were the brainchild of Fred Asmussen (1913-1974). Fred began his career at the Myer emporium in 1928 as a ‘wheeler’ boy, moving products from one place to another in wicker cart. He had a great talent for visual merchandising and by 1939 he was in charge of the Bourke Street windows. Before the refurbishment of the Myer Bourke Street facade in the 1950s the windows were island windows, with arcades running between each window. Fred dressed 24-26 windows, which were sometimes changed twice a week. [1]

Freddie Asmussen, ca.1960, H39816

Freddie Asmussen, ca.1960, H39816

In 1956 Fred convinced management to allow him to create a grand Christmas display – where the use of merchandise was minimal – a bold idea when Christmas was a prime selling time for retailers. He was inspired by the Summer Olympics (known as the XVI Olympiad) which Melbourne had hosted that year, the first ever to be televised on black-and-white television in Australia. This led to his first theme: Santa and the Olympics. [2]

The response to the windows was overwhelming, and Fred was given a hefty budget and the task of creating a series of six windows for the following November. Fred – who had formerly studied ballet – chose The Nutcracker as the theme for 1957, followed by Aladdin for 1958, and Fairy Tales for 1959.

Santa and the Olympics, 1956, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468 (Box 3023)

Famous Fairytales, 1959 – ‘Cinderella’ from Coles Myer archive MS 13468 (Box 3634)

Famous Fairytales, 1959 – ‘Cinderella’ from, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468

Each year brought ever bigger crowds to the windows, delighted by the wonder that Fred’s ingenious creations inspired. Current world events often influenced the theme – in 1962 the theme was Santa goes to Space, with Santa appearing in silver space suit and perspex bubble helmet on his head. Australian writers and illustrators were celebrated – in 1976 Peg Maltby’s illustrated fairy tales were showcased, and in 1995 the theme was May Gibb’s Gumnut Babies.

Santa goes to Space, 1962, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468 (Box 3024)

"They call him Kind Midas", The Australian Women's Weekly, 17 May 1967, p.8.  

Alice in Wonderland, 1961 from: ‘They call him Kind Midas’, The Australian Women’s Weekly17 May 1967, p.8. 

Myer's Christmas windows, H88.33/122

Alice in Wonderland, 1961 from Myer’s Christmas windows, Lloyd Hull H88.33/122

The planning, design and execution would take the entire year, and required the skills of dozens of people including carpenters, engineers, artists, scenery makers, costume designers and sound technicians to name a few.

In the early days of the Christmas windows improvisation was common not only to create the sets and individual elements for the windows, but to enable movement. Chicken wire, paper mache, spun glass, clay, hidden magnets, a windscreen wiper – even a washing machine might be pulled apart to use the motor to drive the moving mechanisms. [3] Melbourne City Council gardeners were asked to keep the branches and twigs from the trees they pruned, and junior Myer staff were tasked with hauling them back to the store, sometimes on the tram. [4]

 "Spreading the festive spirit" The Australian Women's Weekly, 24 November 1976, p. 46.

"Spreading the festive spirit" The Australian Women's Weekly, 24 November 1976, p. 46.

Peg Maltby’s Fairy Tales, 1976 from: ‘Spreading the festive spirit’ The Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 November 1976, p. 46.

The Wizard of Oz, 1993, Lloyd Hull from Coles Myer archive MS 13468

Attention to detail was pain-staking. The Babes in the Wood window for the fairy tale theme in 1959 included a carpet floor of 1500 leaves which were dried, pressed, each painted gold and sprinkled with glitter. [5] Fred was uncompromising in the realisation of his artistic vision, with a former employee recalling: ‘I remember Fred coming into a window where there was a forest of real and artificial foliage mixed together. “Every leaf must face the glass,” he commanded. I can still hear him saying that.’ [6]

Fred Asmussen designed every Myer Christmas window display until his death in 1974. He was remembered as a man of incredible artistry and energy – the driving force behind what has become a cherished Melbourne Christmas institution.

See a list of past themes Christmas window themes here. Also see Pat Lawson-Black’s excellent illustrated history, referenced below.


References

[1] Making magic: forty years of fun: the Myer Christmas windows / Pat Lawson-Black, p.10.

[2] Ibid., p.10.

[3] Ibid., p.6.

[4] Ibid., p.7.

[5]  Ibid., p.20.

[6] Ibid., p.10.

You may also like

This article has 12 comments

  1. Mrs Virginia Boon

    Kylie,
    I came to Melbourne in 1969 as a teenager and I was absolutely dazzled by the Myer Window creations. Freddy A. was a friend of my aunt Evie Hayes, a musical comedy star at the time. She took me to meet him.
    Never again has the standard of his beautiful, theatrical fairy tales been equalled. RIP the amazing Freddy, every single year when passing the store, I remember YOUR fabulous windows.

    • Thank you for sharing Virginia – Fred certainly was a man of exceptional talent and vision.
      Merry Christmas.
      Kylie

  2. I researched this topic some years ago and note that these windows had their roots in the USA where following the Depression and with a more Christian culture, US department stores decided not to promote goods in Christmas windows. Rather the first one to set the pace, had a snow scene with a single bell ringing out a peace on earth style message. I think this influenced Myer.

  3. Lloydd gibson was my cousin he was responsible for the creation and design of myer xmas windows from 1960s to 70s highly talented genius all credit goes to freddy none to lloyd i now worked with at myer bourke windows at that time please give him credit due for that period

  4. Christina Cheers

    Freddie Asmussen was a friend of my parents when I was a child, and Christmas Day began with drinks at the home of him and his parents. He gave me a number of items from the windows as Christmas presents, some of which I still use at Christmas. I would be happy to donate them to your collection one day should they be of interest.

  5. The photos are so beautiful! Thank you for sharing!
    https://www.celeb-networth.com/

  6. Hello, I wonder if I am the last man standing that worked, in my first job, as an “artist” under Lloyd Gibson (and therefore Fred Asmussen) in 1961.

    How well I remember, as a callow 17 year old, being interviewed by Lloyd on the 8th floor of the Bourke Street store before being introduced to the flamboyant Freddie. With my artwork tucked into my folio, Lloyd gave me the nod but had to get final approval from Fred down in his 1st floor office. Fred was not overly impressed but, nonetheless, invited me on board after offering me a wee dram (I have actually forgotten what liqueur). And so I stayed for 5 great years.

    I note cousin Robert Ariss’s comment regarding Lloyd. Lloyd was indeed the driver, the designer, the implementer, the teacher. Lloyd came up with the ideas and the meticulous drawings that had to be presented to Fred and, ultimately, the Myer Board.

    Once approved (and there were quite often significant revisions) the task of making the actual window display commenced. A process lasting 6-8 months! Interspersed of course by such significant events as the annual Arts Ball (what a hoot they were), the Moomba Parade and various other seasonal specials.

    The team was really quite small. Peter Bedwell created the costumery, Paul Hocking and Steve (forgotten his surname) the carpenters, Noel Ramsay and myself as two of the “artists” and, of course Lloyd. the other two occupants of this 8th floor hideaway were Ernie Fox (sign-writer) and Harry (I don’t think I ever knew his surname). Harry was the keeper of the keys to Freddie’s secret stash of precious things and boy, did he lord it over we poor mortals. When the pressure developed in the finishing stages Fred would send some of his window dressers to help out but really, they were more of a nuisance than anything else.

    I mentioned earlier that Lloyd was a great teacher. The things I learnt, discovered and created under his tutelage have held me in good stead for the past 60 odd years. In later years Lloyd would visit us on an annual basis to reminisce until his death.

  7. I’m hoping you can help me. I’m after a still image from one of the 1966 windows (Peter Pan). That was the year my wife was born and I’ve been desperately trying to find an image I can print and frame for her. The Myer windows is one of the few happy childhood memories she has so it would mean a lot to us if someone has one.

    • Hello Cameron, thank you for your query. I have submitted your question with our Ask a Librarian service and someone will be in touch. Kind regards, Kylie

  8. Hello
    Can I ask what happened to all the old Myer window sets?
    Are they on display anywhere?

    • Hi Deb, I will log your question with our Ask a Librarian service, and one of our librarians will get back to you. Paul.

Leave a Reply to Paul Dee Cancel

Your email address will not be published.

*

Terms & Conditions