Sears Wish Books by Doug Koztoski. Images courtesy of WishbookWeb.com.
Wooden trains, “clever” stuffed animals and military-themed model airplane kits. Those are just a few toy choices one notices while thumbing through the sepia-toned and occasional color pages. The pages, in this case, come from the 1944 Sears Wish Book, one of the department store’s annual holiday catalogs, the type welcomed by scores of Americans for several decades.
Jason Liebig put the 1944 holiday guide among the favorites in his collection.
“I am fascinated by World War II-era catalogs,” he said. “The war effort, rationing, boy do these catalogs reflect a simpler time.”
A self-proclaimed “catalog preservation enthusiast,” Liebig co-created WishBookWeb.com in 2006 to give anyone with Internet access a chance to share in the fun surrounding the gift guides of yesteryear. The website includes a high-resolution page-by-page look at dozens of vintage Sears holiday catalogs, with a dusting of other stores represented, as well.
“Wish Books are such a great window into the past,” he said. “They reflect our consumer culture, they are so comprehensive and universally positive.”
Visitors flock to WishBookWeb.com the most from August through December. “Which I think is somehow appropriate,” Liebig said. “That’s when Wish Books were sent out and leafed through every year, when they were such a big part of our lives.”
Wheels set in motion
The Sears Company started in the 1880s. Catalogs advertising their wares soon followed. Yet, the first Sears and Roebuck Company book specifically geared toward holiday buying did not arrive until 1933.
That inaugural catalog, 88 pages worth, included ads for a Mickey Mouse watch, a Miss Pigtails doll and electric trains for kids. Adults, meanwhile, likely gravitated toward the clothes, jewelry and household goods. Five-pound boxes of chocolate were for everyone.
Over the years Sears holiday books grew in size to more than 800 pages, at times, often about one-third of it filled with toy ideas that kids could “ooh” and “ahh” over.
By the mid-1990s, however, Sears Wish Books started slimming down, considerably, partly due to the Internet’s blossoming and driving a big chunk of advertising online. By the early 2000s, their new gift catalogs were all but a distant memory. Wish Books in the United States have not been printed or online for a few years.
Snapshots in time
“Wish Books really caught on because we are all children at heart and those books came around during our youth and never really left us,” said Thomas W. Holland, author and co-author of several books about vintage toys shown in Sears and Montgomery Wards holiday catalogs.
The writer described the “pages” as “dream fulfillers,” for many. “I’d look at those catalog pages and see everything from toys to televisions to everything else that I hoped to have some day, that I used to dream about, and I wasn’t alone.”
Holland said a mix of toys sold well through the Wish Books. “Depending on the era, Lionel and Marx trains, and Marx play sets of the 1950s and ’60s were always huge sellers for Sears.”
Other high-demand toys, he noted, included “The Alamo” play sets (following the Davy Crockett TV craze of the 1950s), 1960s space-oriented play sets and dolls.
Mid-century toys become legends
“Once Barbie and all the accessories came along, that phenomenon was huge.” He pointed out that in the ’50s and through the mid-’60s, mini-kitchen sets sold well, too.
G.I. Joe. Hot Wheels. Star Wars items. Just like watching a Slinky walk down the steps of the Washington Monument, the list of popular toys sold through Wish Books seemingly goes on and on — forever. Tinker Toys, Monopoly, Lego …
Holland said kids of today’s generation have also been quite receptive to his books. “They’re envious,” he emphasized. “They say, geez, you used to be able to hold on to this thing, not just look at it on a screen, you used to be able to take this with you and put it on a shelf and save it for years and years.”
As things go, unfortunately, over time numerous catalogs ended up trashed or recycled. But that made remaining copies, especially in decent or better shape, even more collectible.
Strong track record
By his estimation, Miles Clark, co-owner of Hillcrest Books (oldcatalogs.com), has sold thousands of vintage Sears Wish Books.
“These days people are asking more and more for catalogs from the 1950s and ’60s, that’s a function of the customer’s age,” explained Clark. “They remember the toys and games and those sort of things from childhood and now they relive some of those fun feelings with the Wish Books.”
The dealer underscored that condition plays a big role in the prices brought for older Wish Books, with 1950s and ’60s Sears holiday guides currently selling for $35 to $150 each. Another factor also ranks highly in the demand equation.
“Depending on what’s in it, makes a difference,” he noted. Clark cited catalogs with certain types of dolls and Buddy “L” cars and trucks, for instance, as being more popular than others. “It depends on what they played with as a child.”
Catalogs from the ’50s and ’60s, Clark said, are getting harder to come by, while the earlier ones have always been tough to find.
The paper expert sees a bright future for certain holiday-themed guides.
“Any of the Wish Books, catalogs, that have a lot of toys in them, all those things we identify with our particular innocence, will always be in demand,” he said. “There’s no question about that. And, they won’t get more plentiful.”
Now and then
While technology changes helped create the discontinuation and miserly low catalog population across the United States, sites such as WishBookWeb.com now can assist “kids” of all ages to enjoy a glimpse of holiday times past.
So whether someone is physically or virtually flipping through the pages of these vintage guides, perhaps a phrase used on the 1944 Sears Wish Book back cover — describing fruit cakes, no less — best summarizes the emotion these catalogs conjure up: “Pure and delicious.”
Sears Wish Book eBay auction prices realized
- 1937 - (Very Good) Buddy “L” pedal car with free goggles and helmet, 8mm films of Charlie Chaplin and various Disney characters, $125
- 1938 - (VG), $165
- 1939 - (Good-VG) Judy Garland “Wizard of Oz” dress, Charlie McCarthy, Lone Ranger, $124
- 1946 - (VG+) Madame Alexander dolls, Flying Arrow sleds, Lionel and Marx trains, $99
- 1950 - (VG+), $128
- 1952 - (VG) Happi-time trains, Roy Rogers hat-to-spurs outfits, TV-radio-record player combo, $69
- 1957 - (VG) $64,000 Question board game, Robert the animated Robot, $78
- 1962 - (VG+) Barbie and Ken dolls, NFL electric football game, 3-D View-Master, $114
- 1966 - (Excellent) Astronaut, Batman and Superman costumes, Beatles “Flip Your Wig” game, G.I. Joe, Lego, Matchbox cars, slot cars, $64
- 1969 - (Excellent-plus, with original mailing sleeve) Mrs. Beasley doll, Creepy Crawlers, Super-8 movie cameras, $173
- 1972 - (EX+ with original mailing sleeve) Bikes with banana seats, Magic 8-ball, Mickey Mouse gumball bank, Snoopy Power toothbrush, $72
- 1980 - (Like new), $78
*All prices rounded to nearest dollar and include shipping costs, when available.
Doug Koztoski writes about antiques and sports memorabilia. He welcomes comments and questions related to this article at email@example.com.
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