Hudson's Holidays brings retail magic to the Detroit Historical Museum

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit’s Hudson’s department store was famous for its annual holiday displays. This season, visitors will be able to get a glimpse of that past at the Detroit Historical Museum. 

Hudson’s Holidays is a new exhibit opening Thursday that will showcase holiday toys and décor from the store, as well as general information about its history and architecture.

“After so many months of this pandemic, we wanted to create a space for our visitors to feel a little bit of that magic that they might have felt growing up when they stepped inside a Hudson’s department store,” said Tracy Irwin, chief exhibitions and enrichment officer of the Detroit Historical Society. “It’s fun and magical as well as educational.”

The Detroit Historical Museum is hosting a new exhibit, Hudson's Holidays, opening Thursday.

Guest curator and Hudson’s expert Michael Hauser said the department store was known for its elaborate Christmas displays and groundbreaking traditions. The store’s Woodward Avenue façade featured windows of animated displays, live Christmas trees — including a nine-story tree of lights — and Christmas music piped onto the sidewalk. Inside, the main event was Santaland, where children were guided through a forest of trees, snow and twinkling lights to visit Santa, leaving with a commemorative holiday coloring book. 

Hudson’s was also one of the first stores in the country to offer families a choice to visit a White, Black or Hispanic Santa, with more than 250,000 children sitting on Santa’s lap every season. 

“It’s a part of Americana in terms of the way we used to celebrate tradition and the way we used to shop,” he said.

In addition to toy land displays on the main floor, visitors will find the exhibition presented in several spaces throughout the museum to allow for social distancing. Some of the items on display will be Hudson’s shopping bags throughout the years, an original Hudson’s red carpet used for store openings and a large Santa Bear exhibit showcasing the department store’s annual Christmas bear from 1986 – 2005. 

A large Santa Bear exhibit will be on display over the holidays at the Detroit Historical Museum.

“Hudson’s during the holidays was an interactive experience for the whole family,” Irwin said. “Hudson’s created spaces for children to not only visit Santa, but also feel empowered to shop for their family and friends in their own store within the store. Hudson’s took time to think through all the details to make the holiday shopping experience magical.”

Hauser said the store was a part of daily life for Detroiters year-round. It was not only a place to shop – and a place to shop for anything – it was also a civic center, with an auditorium that hosted holiday presentations, fashion shows, dog shows, flower shows and general events that would occur in places like modern day’s TCF Center, he said. 

“It was the anchor of downtown for so many years,” Hauser said. “It was the store that sold everything and would deliver anything and gave back to the community so much.”

That community involvement, he said, included establishing (Detroit’s) America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the city’s annual fireworks, as well as the Hudson-Webber Foundation that has donated millions of dollars to nonprofits, especially organizations that supported women, children and the arts. 

Other Hudson’s items on display give nod to the store’s community involvement — like remnants from former Thanksgiving Day parades — as well as artifacts that relate to other things in the museum, like a large-scale model of a Hudson automobile in the America’s Motor City exhibit. It will also feature 20 blown-up historical photographs, as well as remnants from the building itself, including a brass drinking fountain, parts of elevators, signage from different departments and J.L. Hudson’s desk, as well as a special delivery wagon created for the store’s 75th anniversary.

At its heyday, Hauser said Hudson occupied one of the busiest street corners in the United States with 100,000 people going through its doors every day. 

“When you look at it in today’s parlance, that building touched more lives than anything else in Metro Detroit, except for Metro Airport,” he said. 

Irwin said the exhibition is an opportunity for both education and reminiscing.  

“We hope our audience will find the content within each display informative and exciting,”  she said, “but we also hope that they might engage with other visitors and share stories and memories about their time at Hudson’s.”

Hudson’s Holidays

Thursday – Jan. 30 at the Detroit Historical Museum, at 5401 Woodward Ave., Detroit

The museum is offering Free Holiday Sundays from 1-5 p.m. throughout December. The museum is also open Thursdays – Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Prices are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, students, active military and first responders, $6 for children and $35 for households up to six adults and children with the same address. It is free for Detroit Historical Society members and children under 6 years.