San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

December 19th, 2008
Remembering the Wish Book

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I was looking through the Toys R Us catalog, their “Big Toy Book,” and I was stuck by how cool contemporary toys look.  I have always loved toys and, honestly, I just don’t trust adults who don’t like them.

Toys may seem childish, but remember that it’s not kids who are inventing, manufacturing and marketing them, and it never has been. Toys are a direct reflection of how adults see kids. Currently, it seems that adults see most kids as wanting high tech toys and lots of accessories for them, which sounds suspiciously like what adults want. First it’s a Leapfrog, then it’s a Blackberry- the evolution of desire.

Christmas catalogs used to have a huge section of dorky stuff that Toys R Us doesn’t even carry. Do you remember the page in the Sears “Wish Book” or the “Monkey Wards” catalog that had Autoharps or wood burning sets? Toys R Us doesn’t carry these clunky old things.

I never knew any kid who wanted an Autoharp, but my siblings and I often expressed a desire to get a rock tumbler, an electronic device that polished rocks featured on one of the many dorky pages of the wish book. We had this idea to polish all the gravel in the driveway. We never got one, though, probably because my mother overheard the plan. It would have been cool, though.

One of the best things about getting a Christmas catalog was just scoping out the vast arena of toys that one didn’t even know existed. We used to read the descriptions of a new toy with relish, “The Immortals of Change Battle Set? Cool! What is it?”

It’s hard to surprise kids with a new toy now. They’ve seen them all. But as I paged through the Toys R Us catalog, I was musing on how far along the catalog has come. Most all retailers have a presence on the web and very few of them still print out a catalog at all. Amazon would go broke printing one. America, though, came of acquisitional age due to the catalog.

Aaron Montgomery Ward first conceived of a dry goods mail order business in Chicago. He was a salesman who saw that rural customers wanted “city goods.” His first catalog in 1872 was a 12-inch single-sheet price list of 163 items. While the concept had its detractors and struggles, by 1883 the catalog was 240 pages long and contained some 10,000 items. It was popularly called the “wish book.” Sears would subsequently use that name for its Christmas catalogs years later.

In 1896, Richard Warren Sears gave Ward his first real competition. By 1900 Sears, Roebuck and Company outstripped Ward in sales with $10 million to Ward’s $8 million. They both established what we now call “bricks and mortar” stores and started building them throughout the country. It was a century-long tussle between these two largest retailers in America that ended, finally, in Ward’s demise in 2001.

In 1939, just as an aside, it was a Ward’s staff copywriter, Robert May, who created the character and illustrated poem, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as part of a promotional campaign.

If you lived out in the sticks, like I did, indeed, these Ward’s and Sears catalogs were the stuff that dreams were made of and pictured, batteries not included, some assembly required. When the “Wish Book,” came in the mail in November, my mother would hide it so that we all wouldn’t fight over it. We were allowed to look at it if we behaved.

Oh, the joy of turning each page, all of us huddled around that catalog checking out the toys. My sister and I always looked at everything – the pajamas, the household goods, the watches, the jewelry boxes, the bedding, the hats and the coats. My brothers went straight for the pay dirt, electric cars and dump trucks and Transformers and Hot Wheels. Even my dad would peruse the electric train sets and my mom would gaze wistfully at pretty shoes and mixing bowl sets.

Maybe some kids didn’t know who Charlie McCarthy was in the movies, but we all knew he was a ventriloquist’s dummy because he was in the catalog (he was in the 1985 catalog even though Edgar Bergen died in 1978). Just a perusal of the 1985 Wish Book includes Rainbow Bright, Cabbage Patch Kids, Ziggy dolls, Golden Girl, Princess Power, Glo-Worm, Speak and Spell, NFL Super Bowl electric football game, NBA Bas-Ket, Subbuteo table soccer, Stanley Cup Play-Off Hockey, the Makit & Bakit sun catcher maker, the Omni 200 Robot, Transformers and Sectaurs, just to name a few. The wood burning sets and rock tumblers are still in there, too.

You can actually buy these old catalogs on Ebay. They run from around $20 for the 80’s to $50 for the 50’s and 60’s. This is not a bad gift idea for those who remember the books fondly. They make great resources for toy collectors too.

Browsing the Toys R Us catalog looking for a Club Penguin game for Nintendo DS (I found it), it dawned on me that if you are a parent, you should hold on to this catalog and give it to your kid for Christmas long after he’s ceased to be a kid. In addition to charting our era’s acquisitive history, it will bring back fond memories of Christmas past.

And the Toys R Us catalog does still have its dorkier side with mild mannered chemistry sets and weak microscopes, all of which have to be a heck of a lot safer than the chemistry sets my pals got that would explode in the summertime after they discarded them in an overly hot garage. At least adults don’t want to kill kids with toys anymore.

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One thought on “Remembering the Wish Book

  1. You called out the Leapfrog Text and Learn. However, you are forgetting how much kids want to be like their parents. Kids will like their own little blackberry b/c they will get to be like mom and dad. This is a big factor to consider. However, I do agree that the “education included” aspect of those games is because that is what the parents want for their kids. However,that is now the trned. I am sure you have seen the infomercial where they are getting toddlers to read at real early ages.

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