The children of today will never know the anticipation, the joy, and the unbridled avarice that arrived in the mail sometime in early November each year in the Sears Christmas Wish Book. Without sounding like one of those bitter old codgers that claim the kids of today just don’t get it, well they don’t, but it’s not their fault. Society has moved on and the era of instant, one-button purchasing has erased one of the joys of childhood that the Sears Christmas Wish Book once represented.
Its rival, the Montgomery Ward Christmas Catalog has a longer history but didn’t have the pizzazz of its rival.
For those addicted to ordering from Amazon (free two-day shipping with Prime!!) Sears and Montgomery Ward were the Amazon of their day. To be honest, it should be the other way around. Amazon is the Sears and Montgomery Ward of the present day.
The Sears Christmas Wish Book arrived for the first time in the dark days of the Great Depression in 1933.
To children living in abject poverty, and with parents worried more about where they could find the next meal for their families rather than buying the latest toy by mail order, the glossy taste of capitalistic America was a double-edged sword.
On one hand, it reminded Americans suffering from the depression that better things were still out there for those who could afford them, but on the other side of the sword, it was a glaring reminder that you weren’t part of the American dream any longer, and all those glittering things in the pages of the catalog were just cruelty incarnate.
That was when the first issues arrived in the Dirty 30s and then the years of World War II, it was different when the 50s arrived, and vastly different for the youngsters of the 1960s and 70s like my generation.
The Wish Book was pored over until the color ran on the pages, and the edges of the pages were frayed. The best stuff was on the back page and the dozen or so pages at the end of the catalog.
For a kid, it was a lot like a guy entering a large box store today. All the things a man could want are always located in the far corners of the store. You have to walk through endless aisles of women’s clothing, housewares, and cheap, ready-to-assemble furniture before you find motor oil, car batteries, or fishing lures. The Wish Book had the same methodology.
I remember my sister looking at the dresses, tiaras, and “girly” stuff up front, but as Eddie Murphy said in the comedy “Trading Places.” We wanted the GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip.
The back page had motorized, battery-powered cars, trucks, and motorcycles, all well beyond the price range my parents could afford on my dad’s Air Force sergeant’s pay. But there were a few things that caught my eye, and that they could provide at Christmas.
The best toys I had were Tinker Toys, Legos, Lincoln Logs, and my motorized Erector Set. In retrospect, they were outstanding toys for a guy who grew up building houses in the summer and building furniture, toys, and cabinets just for fun in his spare time.
These toys remain the best thing you can buy a 10-year-old boy or girl. They don’t need another digital device, an electronic game, or some other useless trendy piece of fluff. They need something that builds their skills, engages their mind, and stimulates their imagination. Toys, the right toys, do that, just think of how excited your kids or grandkids are when they open a new toy from a big box, toss the toy aside and play with the box, that’s imagination in action.
You could get those types of toys in the Wish Book, along with GI Joes that came out when I was seven years old in 1964. There was nothing “woke” about Joe, he fought the Nazis, the Imperial Japanese Army and was an “All-American Fighting Man” according to the advertising of the day. Modern Joes fight some nebulous enemy called Cobra, since children are just too sensitive to know about the fascists their great-grandfather fought.
My sister and cousins had the same thing in Barbie, and her little sister with low self-esteem Skipper. (ok, I made that up)
These “action figures” (how many childhood brother sister fights started when she called his Joe a doll?) and dolls also stimulated the imagination in a different way.
My best contraption was a Tinker Toy carousel that moved with a crank connected to wooden spokes aligned to build gears and turned with a rubber band drive connecting everything together.
I got yelled out for another more dangerous design of Legos built into a tank with rubber bands hidden inside. I left a pair of torpedo style tubes on each side that fired a six-inch Tinker Toy clear across the living room when it was launched. Yes, I shot it at my little sister.
These things were all brought to children by the magical pages of Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs.
Every town we lived in, including Riverton just a generation ago, had Sears and Monkey Wards (as my dad called Montgomery Ward) retail outlets, but none of them, not even those in Memphis, Tennessee, and Sacramento, California had the panorama of toys the catalog contained.
Sears printed their final Wish Book in 2011, another victim of Internet shopping.
Montgomery Ward had a longer run than its rival, printing their first catalog in 1872. They remain online 150 years later and in a bit of trivia are the company that paid to have one of their writers create the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1939.
Only the elders among us remember the excitement of that magical Wish Book arriving in early winter each year.
Even the oldest among us have never experienced the power of retail mail order marketing that came in that single-sheet catalog printed 150 years ago with 163 items that could be ordered via the mail and delivered right to your door.
In its heyday, you could order tractors, furnaces, and even complete homes from Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. They didn’t mail them to you, but they arrived at the nearest rail siding, and you took it from there.
In our era of conspicuous consumption, the thrill of browsing the pages of a seasonal catalog are gone, probably forever. But in its day, the Sears Christmas Wish Book was the stuff of dreams.