Collecting Christmas Catalogues

Collecting Christmas Catalogues

Each August a postcard arrives in my mailbox announcing that the Sears Christmas Wish Book is ready to be picked up at my local outlet. I reside in Canada, and the Sears Company still issues those wonderful paper catalogues. In the United States, The Sears & Roebuck Company had been issuing catalogues since 1888 when the company was known as the R.W. Sears Watch Company. In 1933, at the height of the Depression, Sears & Roebuck produced their first Christmas catalogue. Over the years the Christmas catalogue has been filled with toys, clothes, candy, fruit cakes, Christmas decorations and lights. Does anyone ever eat a fruitcake?

One could never be ready to visit Santa Claus until the Christmas list had been completed by reading the newest Christmas catalogue.

Above: The 2012 Sears Catalogue features 60 years of catalogues. Inside are pictures of the several early years of the catalogue along with information on what event happened that year. Of course Canada is unique since the Sears catalogue in the US has been gone for many years.

In 1968 the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalogue received the official title of "Wish Book". In Canada it continues to be issued on a yearly basis under that title. My 8 year old grandson resides in Los Angeles and on each visit in August he sits for hours with poppo (as I am called) and pours through the "Wish Book". Of course he begins his Christmas list to Santa Claus. He left his list and I have ordered three items from the Wish Book for Christmas that were on his list. This year the kind lady in our local rural outlet store gave him his own copy to take home to Los Angeles and show his friends.

Sears & Roebuck was not the only company to discover that a Christmas catalogue could bring many shoppers into the stores, but also give rural customers the capability to order through the mail.

Other major and not so major department stores have added Christmas catalogues to be issued each year. Even small retailers in rural Canada and America issued and continue to issue special Christmas catalogue. Because of its local and limited nature, this material is the most collectible and sought after.

In many rural communities the hardware or tire store became the major holiday shopping center. These stores issued a "special Christmas catalogue", just like Sears & Roebuck, Eaton’s, Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, Macy’s, FAO Schwarz, Montgomery Ward, and Neiman Marcus.

These hardware and tire store catalogues are a snapshot into rural North America. Catalogues are stored in various museum archives now, for each offers a perfect view of what the country was like in a certain year. What toys, appliances, candy, Christmas lights were in vogue and the hot item. In addition, a historical record of stores like Eaton’s no longer in existence.

In the 1930’s, when Buck Rogers was hot, the Macy’s Department Store featured his many toys in advertising and if you were lucky enough to visit Santa Claus in the New York City store, there was a rocket ride to get to the North Pole.

In 1956, Brown Brothers Supply Company of Maplesville, Alabama issued a 32 page "Christmas Time Toys" catalogue. The header on one page stated; "Toys For The Little Man." It was filled with page after page of trucks, fire engines made by Hubley, Wyanotte, Structo, Tonka, a Dragnet Talking Police Car, Erector and chemistry sets.

Above: A 1956 Hardware Store toy catalogue. In small rural communities the hardware store at Christmas time became toy central. Many of the recent finds of stock of old toys have been found in old rural hardware stores in Canada and the United States.

On pages 8 and 9 were the items that parents loved to keep the kids happy and busy for most of the day - playsets. There was the Farm Set and the Early American Frontier Set. Each sold for $3.98. It usually took hours to set up the playset. It contained about 100 pieces. Other playsets were manufactured of the new Disneyland, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Fort Apache and for the future astronaut, Tom Corbett Space Academy and Space Patrol.

The other headline stated; "Toys For The Little Woman." These pages were filled with a "Big Deluxe Electric Range Set", Percolator Set, and several pages of "beautiful real to life dolls". There was the "Babee Bee In A Carrying Case, Mardi Gras Doll, Bright Star Bride Doll." For the dolls there were carriages, strollers, cribs and washing machines and irons for the future homemaker. One year even a pink electric set manufactured by the Lionel Train Company.

Television shows that were popular were featured in toys at Christmas time. The games produced by Milton Bradley were Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with King the Wonder Dog, Annie Oakley, Rin-Tin-Tin, Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, and Captain Kangaroo.

The Brown Brothers Supply Company "Christmas Time Toys" even gave a snapshot of rural Alabama in 1956 - the phone number was 2961 and "Use Our Layaway", was available.

To make the catalogue an important part of the store advertising campaign, many items were manufactured for stores and were sold exclusively through their catalogues. Many playsets made by the famous Marx Toy Company of New York City were made and sold exclusively through various store Christmas catalogues. An Allstate Service Station set and a special farm set only appeared in the Sear& Roebuck catalogue. In Canada the famous, now gone Eaton’s Department Store contracted for a special Fort York playset from Marx. It only appeared in their Christmas catalogue in 1956 and 57. The box art featured the Americans attacking Fort York which was defended by British soldiers. One could tell the difference as the American made of blue plastic and the British bright red.

Christmas catalogues were not exclusively about toys, for other items for mom and dad were featured in many of them. The 1960 "Gifts For The Whole Family From Woolworth’s" catalogue featured outdoor lights, table lamps, English bone china cups, and saucers, cigarette lighters (98 cents) and flashlights. It was the period when kids wanted to spend their small savings on a special gift for mom and dad. The 5&10 fitted into that price range. There were sets of that wonderful lavender soap wrapped in paper that every female teacher must have received in large amounts as Christmas gifts from their students a bargain at $1.00 to $1.49 There were wall plaques, and even a budgie and cage gift set for $8.99 complete.

Above: 1960 Woolworth Christmas catalogue. I always loved getting one of those inexpensive red stockings filled with candy, little toys and sometimes a rare comic book.

For mom there was a "Ladies three piece dresser set", $2.97 and a "Brilliant Boxed Brooch", could be purchased for $1.00.

What would Christmas be if there was no seasonal music playing on the record player? Christmas records featuring many known and unknown artists were sold on 331/3 LPs for $1.49 to 1.98. In the obituary of singer Andy Williams it was pointed out that part of his fame came from recording that great Christmas hit - "The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year." "Many titles to choose from for both children and adults."

After World War II, plans for handmade items sold through Popular Mechanics, and other handyman magazines became popular. Through the "Gifts For Everybody" catalogue ("Be Ready for Christmas"), one could order 7 different Christmas plans for $5 with a money back guarantee. Patterns for the workshop included large outdoor displays: a Santa Claus, family of snow people, candles, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. For inside projects, there were plans to make Christmas card trees and various buildings and structures to accessorize the electric train set.

One magnificent catalogue issued by Harry’s Tire Shop and Service Station of Auburn, New York pictures a giant Christmas tree, with brother, and sister on the stairs, and mom, and dad standing by a Christmas tree with the gifts around it. Football, ice skates, teddy bear, doll, suitcase, all were pictured. This catalogue was issued during World War II, and gives a nostalgic feel to the holidays in spite of the terrible events of the period. That was one of the major purposes of Christmas catalogues, to create an image of the season. If it inspired you to shop, so much the better.

Above: World War II Christmas catalogue from a local Firestone Tire Store.

Harry’s was for the rest of the year a Firestone Tire Dealership, but in December it became Christmas shopping central. For boys, the catalogue is filled with soldiers, bombers, tanks and anti-aircraft guns. "Ride Em Toy" locomotives and trucks for $2.19. For the girls there was "A Lovely 17" tall, daintily dressed doll" and washing machines, and dust pan sets to keep the doll house clean.

Other major sections included sports equipment like golf clubs, skis, skates, and sleds. For dad there was an entire section of Firestone winter tires and skid chains ( I remember helping my father put on skid chains). For mom there were Corey Coffee makers, hampers and glasses for entertaining.

For the entire family there was a full page ad for the Sonata Phoneradio with a 10" speaker for $109.95. Table model radios started at $19.99 to $49.95. And for your listening pleasure there was "every Monday evening on the N.B.C. Network the Voice of Firestone featuring the Firestone Symphony".

The interior of the catalogue informed the customer that orders could now be made over the phone, by mail, or at the Firestone Dealer store. There were even directions on "how to order work clothing and outdoor jackets", with measuring instructions. Once again the catalogue can be dated by the phone number - 150.

The Harry’s Tire Store catalogue featured a full page of that perennial favourites, Lionel and Marx electric trains and accessories. "A Marx Reversing Mechanical Military Train" containing 23 pieces including an engine, tender, searchlight car, anti-aircraft car with gun and shells and troop car sold for $3.79.

The Lionel Special 5 unit set including 40 watt transformer sold for $11.95. Lionel was, and continues to be, a major manufacturer of trains, and has always issued Christmas train catalogues and special items for the holiday season. In 1937 the company manufactured several sets of trains that were miniatures of the modernistic trains then employed across the United States and Canada - The Hiawatha, The Flying Yankee, The City of Denver. On the back page of the catalogue was a "Electric Remote Control Aircraft" and Control Tower which sold for $15.

In the late 1940’s and 50’s, the Lionel Train catalogues usually featured father, and son bonding over a Lionel train set. On several catalogues mother and daughter appeared to round out the family. The Lionel catalogue of 1999 employed that same image of young son and father with their train set. In the background are featured the earlier catalogues to provide an even more nostalgic feeling. My new Lionel Train catalogue has in bold type - "Lionel Box Cars Now Made In America."

If one is searching for a history lesson on early electronics, the 1987 Radio Shack catalogue has it. On the "Christmas Treasures" front cover is an early cordless phone for $99.95 which is $40 off the regular price. A Tandy 1000 TX computer "with your choice of monitor plus a bonus 1 year carry-in-service warranty for only $2,299." The back page has for "$399 a dot matrix printer. This was a $100 off for a "Great Christmas Deal". Hurry catalogue sale prices only good through Christmas Eve.

The Christmas catalogue is much rarer in 2016. Many are still produced, but with the internet and printing and shipping costs, the days of the beautiful, detailed catalogues are at an end. Collectible catalogues can range from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. Of course the word of caution, is since catalogues are paper, be very careful about condition, missing pages, paper color. Store in an area not to hot or damp, best in a sealed box with a controlled environment.

Remember to always bring them out at Christmas time to get that warm glow of the holiday season.

Sidebar: A great book on the subject of Christmas items is the "It’s A Wonderful Christmas - The Best Of The Holidays 1940- 1965." Written by Susan Waggoner and published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang, (2004). The book is filled with period photos and sidebars on what Christmas song came out in each year. What items were being given to adults, types of cards, wrapping paper. There is an entire chapter on toys with the year introduced. 1952 Mr. Potato Head becomes the first toy advertised on television.

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