This story was updated and republished on December 21, 2023. It originally aired on December 6, 2021.

Tis the season to take a trip back in time for the holidays, and for Detroiters that may bring back memories of visiting Hudson’s Department Store downtown or at one of its suburban locations. The Detroit Historical Museum will display its Hudson’s Holidays exhibit throughout the museum for the third year since its inaugural opening in 2021. The exhibit is open through Jan. 2, 2024. 

“(Hudson’s) 25-story building was the world’s tallest department store until 1961,” the Detroit Historical Museum’s website reads. “Revisit traditions enjoyed by generations of Detroiters, like seeing the World’s Largest Flag, visiting Santa in Toy Town and shopping for deals in the Basement Store.” 

Nostalgic shoppers and newcomers alike will get to experience how it felt to shop at the historic Hudson’s downtown department store at the exhibit, which features iconic toys, holiday decorations and architectural pieces from the original downtown store. One Detroit’s Sarah Zientarsk talks with Detroit Historical Society’s Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer Rebecca Salminen Witt and Development Manager Delisha Upshaw, as well as Michael Hauser, the 2021 guest curator for the inaugural exhibit. 

They reminisce on their personal experiences at Hudson’s and what made the department store so memorable during the holidays. Plus, they share some of the company’s contributions to the city over the years and what visitors will be able to find on display at the exhibit, including those iconic Santa Bears. 

Full Transcript: 

Delisha Upshaw, Development Manager, Membership Annual Fund, Detroit Historical Society: When I think of the holidays, I think of Hudson’s. Growing up in Detroit, one of my first memories of the holidays was getting all dressed up and going downtown to Hudson’s to visit Santa.

Michael Hauser, Guest Curator for Hudson’s Holidays Exhibit, Detroit Historical Museum: I became enthralled with the store and the traditions the first time my folks brought me downtown to the store, and I’d never seen a store that big and I just went nuts.

Delisha Upshaw: Nobody did it quite like Hudson’s did it, from the big tree to all the beautiful things to buy. I mean, it really was a place of wonder.

Michael Hauser: The show began on the sidewalk. The minute you came inside, you were literally thrown into a different world with beautiful architecture and lighting and drapes and things like that. You forgot all your troubles.

Rebecca Salminen Witt, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer, Detroit Historical Society: We’re sitting here today in the main area of our Hudson’s holiday exhibit in the Detroit Historical Museum. The holidays are a time when you want to share stories with your family. You want your kids to experience the things that you experienced when you were a kid. And one of the things that we hear about here at the Detroit Historical Society most often is Hudson’s.

Michael Hauser: The company meant so much to so many people in this marketplace. That store, you know, during the holidays, employed 10,000 people; 100,000 people a day would visit that building to not only shop, but dine. The company through the years created so many of our iconic events. The Thanksgiving Day parade was begun by the company in 1924.

Rebecca Salminen Witt: Hudson’s was a huge department store, and it had restaurants, it had Santa, and it was kind of the special place that you went particularly at the holiday season. Here at the museum, we wanted people to have the idea and the feeling of what that might have been like years ago when-when our grand department store Hudson’s was in its heyday.

Michael Hauser: What we did is we edited down a lot of things. What would be the most relevant for the greater public?

Delisha Upshaw: There’s a surprise and a delight to take you back to that Hudson’s holiday experience, and I love that about how we’ve set it up here. It’s not just one place, but it really is a vibe, if you will.

Rebecca Salminen Witt: This exhibition was designed in much the same way that a department store was, is exactly what our exhibits team was thinking about when they put this thing together. We’ve created 11 pop ups all through the museum space. When I was first touring this as it was kind of being put up, I realized, you know, as you walk down the stairs, right at the bottom of the stairs is some signage and advertising from Hudson’s back in their basement shops, which were kind of their bargain. That’s where you got the term bargain basement, right? One of the things that I love is that we actually created a little mini pop-up exhibit inside of the elevator. And it’s really fun that we’ve been able to recreate that experience of going from floor to floor and experiencing this big department store by putting those departments in different places all throughout the museum.

Delisha Upshaw: The Santa Bears are my favorite part of this exhibition. I think the first Santa Bear came out in 1985. I remember that one. I definitely remember the 1986 bear because he had the little 1986 on the sweater. But we always got Santa Bears for Christmas. Every year, the Santa Bears were part of our Christmas tradition.

Rebecca Salminen Witt: My favorite part of the museum, you know, I kind of really love holiday sparkle, so I do love all of the Christmas lights and the sparkly stuff here in Toyland, which is where we’re sitting. I also really love the fashion. Our fashion collection here at the society is amazing

Michael Hauser: In terms of what the public will be interested in, certainly Santa Bears. It’s created a huge interest just from the social media thus far. The delivery wagon, that was created for the 75th anniversary of the company. Shopping bags, you know, that we hadn’t previously displayed through the years. Photographs that we blew up. Things that were donated from the public. The red carpet that you see here as you come into the Toyland area.

Rebecca Salminen Witt: It’s interesting when you think about kids now having the experience of, you know, shopping purely online. Like they don’t even get the big Christmas catalog, much less the experience of going to a really beautiful department store or even a mall. And so bringing an exhibit back like this one where it is all decorated and everything is sparkly and beautiful, and you get to remember that and feel really special for a minute. Gives the kids the opportunity to experience something that they’re not experiencing in real life anymore. This museum is a place where we want families to come together and come and visit us during the holidays. We brought this really nostalgic exhibition to the public for that reason.

Delisha Upshaw: It’s about life and family. And the opportunity to be together, which, you know these days is certainly not something to be taken for granted. So I really do think that it really is an inclusive exhibition. That people can come and just really, you know, remember a simpler time and be amazed by these toys.

Rebecca Salminen Witt: I think whenever you have the experience of being put back into a specific time, you have this moment where you get to imagine what it was to be there at that time, what those people’s lives were like.

Delisha Upshaw: I really hope that people come and enjoy it and feel really good when they’re here.

Michael Hauser: I hope they take away, you know, a feeling of joy.

Rebecca Salminen Witt: This exhibit is going to remind you once again what it means to share memories with your family. It’s kind of the perfect entry to that holiday season for everybody.


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