When Sears filed for bankruptcy and announced it would begin to close stores across the country in 2018, the news spurred a bittersweet rush of reverie that included the long-running holiday season catalog, the Sears Wish Book. Beginning in the early 1930s, countless American kids generated lists for Santa from the Sears Wish Book. Some of us simply scribbled an initial next to a prized item in the pages of the catalog itself.
Gen-X vs Boomer Wish Books
A Gen-X childhood hits the sweet spot for the Wish Book. From well-built metal Tonka Trucks to 6-inch superhero action figures, and the fateful appearance of Star Wars toys and early video games, the ’70s Wish Books showcased a thrilling arc of toy evolution. But how about the Wish Book from a decade earlier?
Paging through a 1967 Wish Book leaves one feeling engrossed -and a bit grossed out. The obligatory clothes section (the Wish Book included plenty of items beyond toys) was full of far-out threads. There are ugly sweaters that weren’t meant to be ‘ugly sweaters’ and a slightly eerie trend of matching clothes for couples.
The ’60s Wish Book had some great bikes featuring ‘sissy bars’ and banana seats. Remember awesome erector sets and chemistry sets? Early Legos and Lincoln Logs? There were pages of these classic hands-on toys in this pre-electronic toy era.
Careful What You Wish For
A 21st century sensibility does lead to some wince-worthy moments when perusing the Wish Book from a half century ago. The toy guns are many, and they are cool and cleverly constructed. Oh, and there are plenty of real guns to be added to a holiday list, too.
You could also order up a sturdy gun cabinet to store all your armaments. But the pages of firearms are a sad reminder of the ongoing struggles with our modern gun culture.
Like weapons, there was no shortage of bar and drinking paraphernalia in the ’67 Wish Book. Some nifty smoking accessories, too. Christmas morning must have been like an episode of Mad Men back then.
The ’67 Wish Book includes costumes for playing Cowboys and ‘Indians.’ And unfortunately, white kids modeled both parts. This colonizing Christmas theme continues on a page featuring play sets. A ‘Jungle’ themed environment, complete with ‘natives’ and an American West fort, would offer hours of fun… and a lifetime of built-up bias.
‘Little Girls Love to Help Clean House’
#MeToo millennials would have little tolerance for the heteronormative clothes and gender-specific toy marketing. Especially how homemaking toys are shoved at little girls. Speaking of girls, why not order a bust of a ‘Girl from Bali’ or a ‘Hindu Maiden?’ They’d look great next to your new gun cabinet.
The ’70s Wish Book, by comparison, revealed some progress in the following decade. Plenty of diverse models, fewer guns. While there are no Hindu maidens for sale, there was an unsettlingly life-like Farah Fawcett make-up head for girls…or whoever.
Catalogs No Longer Have Cache
Sears tried to reboot the Wish Book as an online experience in the aughts. Nope. Just not the same as the tantalizing turn-of-the-page revealing would-be Christmas morning magic. Target’s colorful holiday catalog is a nice effort, but it didn’t cast the spell the way Sears’ seasonal catalog did for previous generations. Today, there’s ‘Cyber Monday,’ a phrase that simply doesn’t hold the stomach-fluttering delight of an expression like ‘Wish Book.’
With bankruptcy and store closings, Sears’ physical presence is fading like melting snow in spring. So now the Wish Book will ascend further into that gauzy sphere of holiday nostalgia, a liminal space decorated with delight and wistfulness that is stuck in our childhood, but rings startlingly loud right through to our dotage.
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.