The Queen City’s Great Elf Migration

Fountain Square lit up for the holidays.

Cincinnati’s Fountain Square lit up for the holidays.

The City of Cincinnati was incorporated in 1819 with early residents settled on the lower terraces along the Ohio River–an area colloquially known as “The Basin” and where our modern downtown now sits. The city’s historic development equates with a geographic expansion into the surrounding hills. This migration of sorts resulted in Cincinnati’s 52 official neighborhoods, each with a unique story, character, and, yes, beautiful historic homes. The adjacent municipalities, such as Montgomery, Mariemont, Sharonville, and Glendale, also grew.  We know where the people went, but do you know where the elves went?

Map of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods.

Cincy’s 52 neighborhoods.

I am talking about the magical Shillito’s Elves, of course. John Shillito first opened the doors of his company store in the 1850s at 13 West Fourth Street, in a building designed by James W. McLaughlin. By 1878, his company opened another location at the corner of Seventh and Race Streets, which was the largest department store in the United States under one roof. Beginning in the 1950s, the John Shillito & Co. department store served as a home to over 130 holiday elves. Although doubtless missing the cooler climate of the North Pole, the elves stuck around Cincinnati for several decades and, each Christmas, brought much delight to both children and adults alike doing their holiday shopping at Shillito’s department store. The elves were often seen making toys and helping Santa Claus in other ways through 7 storefront scenes, more than 20 in-store merchandise windows, and 10 interior vignettes. Then, during the 1980s, the elves mysteriously vanished (perhaps coincidentally, this time period also corresponds to the time when the Shillito name was changed to Lazarus).IMG_0450


IMG_0441Did they return to the North Pole at last?

IMG_0442Actually, they did not. Just like some Cincinnatians once moved outward and upward from “The Basin”, the elves too moved on. They can be found just as busy as ever, making toys and preparing for the Big Day (a/k/a Christmas Eve) in the Village of Mariemont–their new digs are at 6940 Madisonville Road (across from the National Exemplar). CommStills1-152Mariemont, a planned community founded in 1920 and now a National Historic Landmark, is a fitting locale for these timeless creatures. The elves are indeed so pleased with their new home, they have once again opened up their Santa’s Workshop for public tours. If you have not yet visited them, please do! Still a Cincinnati holiday tradition, the elves are sure to bring out your inner child and Christmas spirit. Besides, with elves, you can never be sure when they might decide to return to their native home…


Cincinnati Historic Homes wishes you a Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!