The Shillito’s Elves were the stars of the Christmas holiday window displays at The John Shillito Company (Shillito’s) department store at 7th and Race Streets in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. The store was founded by John Shillito and William McLaughlin in 1832 as “McLaughlin and Shillito.”
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, the Shillito’s department store (Cincinnati’s first department store) featured elves and other holiday scenes in their window displays that faced the sidewalks that skirted the stores. As adults huddle shoulder to shoulder to view the displays, children would press their noses against the glass to get a glimpse of the magical elves inside.
The display was extremely popular and attracted more that 100,000 visitors annually. It featured more than 130 animated elves with cloth faces and bodies who graced seven storefront scenes, more than 20 in-store merchandising widows and 10 interior vignettes.
The fanciful holiday scenes ranged from lively animatronic elves reading and organizing letters to Santa, painting or building toys or loading Santa’s sleigh.
In 1979, the store debuted a fresh exhibit of hand-made cloth mechanical elf figures built by the employees of the store. CLICK HERE to see Cincinnati Magazine ad from 1980.
But by 1983, the elves disappeared when Shillito’s was purchased by Lazarus Department Stores. When Lazarus moved from the area, they sold the Shillito’s elves to a Boy Scout Troops from Dent in the late 1990’s. They used the mechanized elf display for fund-raising, but eventually they put the elves up for sale at an auction.
At the time, only 75 elves and 12 scenes remained. Luckily, Bill Spinnenweber, a local businessman whose family owned the Mariemont Inn purchased the elves in hopes of restoring them.
Initially, Spinnenweber exhibited a few of the scenes around the Cincinnati area in the Mariemont Theater and atrium of Crossroads Church in Oakley, Ohio.
In 2012, however, the entire collection of Shillito’s elves (refurbished and restored) were placed on display on the 2nd floor of the Newport on the Levee, in Newport, Kentucky for the first time in decades.
In 2013, Spinnenweber found a permanent home for the Shillito’s Elves at 6940 Madisonville Road in Mariemont, Ohio (across from the Mariemont Inn) where new generations of Cincinnati area residents can create an annual family tradition of visiting the elves every Christmas to come.
NOTE: The landmark Shillito’s department store building has been converted into the Lofts at Shillito Place luxury apartments with 8 loft-style apartments on six floors and office space on the main floor.
c/o Santa’s Workshop
6940 Madisonville Road