The arrival of the Sears Christmas Wish Book began the start of the holiday season in our household. As a child, I remember spending hours looking through the pages of the catalog plotting my Christmas wish list. Having to share it with my four other siblings was another story.
I carefully poured through the catalog gently folding the corner of the catalog page to mark my spot. After going through the toy section, I would then go back to the pages I dog-eared and circle the items I hoped to get from Santa. I consciously knew I would not get everything I picked out, but it would least give Santa an idea of what I hoped to find under the tree on Chrismas morning. Of course, Barbie was always at the top of my list, Wonder Woman underoos, race car tracks, matchbox cars, easy bake oven, a banana seat bicycle with shiny streamers hanging from the handlebars or portable record player.
My favorite all-time Christmas present was my first Big Wheels with the adjustable seat, cool streamers hanging from the longhorn handlebars and had lots of pedal power for “drift-action” turns. Can you tell I grew up in the late 1970s? Let’s not forget play telephones, tinker toys, Lincoln logs, and Billy Blastoff, America’s first boy in Space!
After the holidays were over, the Sears Christmas Wish Book did not go to waste. Throughout the year, the pages were used in craft and school projects. My sister would cut out pictures of furniture from the catalog and glue them to a piece of cardboard. This served as a backdrop for Barbie’s dollhouse furniture. My mom still has a copy of the Sears Christmas Wish Book she has saved from 1992.
The Sears Christmas Wish Book became a holiday tradition for many families during the holiday season. Sears Wish Book was first printed in 1933 and published in 1934 with 87 pages of gifts for children and adults. The 1930s offered Shirley Temple dolls, pedal cars and tractor sets.
In 1933, times reflected The Great Depression as Sears sold a book titled, “Understanding the Stock Market”. The book gave a thorough explanation of how the stock market operates.
The catalog cover of the first Sears Christmas Wish Book was an illustration of items that were featured in the catalog. In the second edition, Sears began displaying colorful Christmas holiday scenes on the cover that regularly featured children, Santa Clause, and Christmas trees.
It all began when Richard Sears first used a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry in 1888. Before the wish book was published, Sears offered waxed candles for Christmas trees and Christmas cards. The first Christmas tree ornaments appeared in 1900 publication and artificial Christmas trees and stockings were advertised in 1910. Electric Christmas lights made their debut in 1912 along with silk stockings with a warning label to customers to “treat them carefully”.
With the Homestead Act of 1862 and the expansion of the Wild West and building of railroads, ordering merchandise through the mail became a big success. It served isolated families and communities unavailable in their own areas. In 1896, Sears added a spring and fall catalog and made the publication bigger expanding its inventory to include such items as bicycles, books, clothing, groceries, musical instruments, and sewing machines. With the Alaskan gold rush of the 1890s, Sears offered customers mining shoes called “The Klondike”.
With horses still being the main transportation, Sears devoted eight full pages to buggies, buggy boots, bridles, cruppers, harnesses, tops and whips. By 1909, Sears issued miners special catalogs to certain mining communities and mountain residences where they could purchase covered wagons covers. The rise and fall of motor buggies and the decline of the horse-drawn buggy can accurately be reflected in the Sears catalogs. By 1929, horse-drawn buggies had all but disappeared from its publications.
In 1940, Sears offered easy payment plans and buy credit programs to customers. The 1940s brought you radios, television sets, and dishwashers. Popular toys during the decade were tractors, peg wagons, twirly blocks, marble games and “Ride ’em” Stake Truck.
The 1950s introduced the automatic electric garage door opener and Allstate Radial tires. Popular toys of the decade were cowboy and cowgirl outfits, futuristic cars and spaceships, and hobby horses.
By 1968, the phrase “Wish Book” first appeared on the Sears Christmas catalog and was a whopping 605 pages with 225 pages devoted to toys and 380 pages of gifts for adults. More than 12 million families across the nation used their Sears catalogs to order by telephone or mail. That same year, Diehard batteries were introduced and popular toys were Chatty Cathy dolls and America’s First Boy in Space – Billy Blastoff!
Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Gloria Swanson, Susan Dey, Cheryl Tiegs, and Stephanie Powers all appeared on the pages of Sears catalogs as fashion models. The catalogs also featured Roy Rodgers, Ted Williams (Major League Baseball player during the 1940s), Al Unser (race car driver), and Gene Autry (The Singing Cowboy).
Because the catalogs accurately reflected the styles and furnishings popular through the decades, producers of Broadway shows and Hollywood movies frequently refer to them as reference.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan series, was employed with Sears before he became famous.
In the 1970s, Sears offered such popular toys like the highly demanded Erector Set, tinker toys, and battery-powered walkie-talkies.
By the early 1980s, Sears was the largest U.S. retailer and the nation’s number one cataloger in both sales and volumes of catalogs produced. The 1980s brought us popular toys like the Cabbage Patch Kids, Masters of the Universe collection, and Nintendo. My Cabbage Patch Kid was named Ian Joshua along with a certification of authenticity.
The 1943 Sears News Graphic wrote that the Sears catalog, “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.” The roots of the Sears catalog are as old as the company.
Sears discontinued the distribution of the catalog in 1993. In 2017 Sears brought back the Wish Book in print and digital. Unfortunately, the retailer filed for Chapter 11 in October 2018 due to a crippling decline in sales. The previous publications are like individual time capsules that displayed the work and efforts of the American working class through the decades.
Their accurate reflections of events and the way people lived are now archived in libraries across the nation and recorded on microfilm. Over the years, the Sears Christmas Wish Book has become just as an important American icon as apple pie.
Sears has now made available a vast archival collection of more than 100 years of its historical catalogs online at the following website Sears Archives.
By Hope Thompson
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