If you think the Sears Wish Book was a part of your childhood, you are wrong. Since its first publication in 1934 until its death in the 1990s, it was a beloved part of America’s childhood.
Every generation of the last century—the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, Gens X and Y, and Millennials—browsed the full-color, glossy pages of the Wish Book catalog, which were typically available in the chill of November. We choose from the pages’ detailed displays with the gravity of toy connoisseurs (which we were). Cost was the least of our concerns, and the greatest of our parents.
Although this awe hadn’t changed since the catalog’s inception, the name and design of the Sears Wish Book certainly have. It’s no surprise this icon of the holiday season came from Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck, & Company, which had became one of America’s largest retailers in the early 20th century because of the mail-order business. Before the this retail revolution, rural customers had to pay high prices for the thin product selections at nearby general stores.
Once America’s system of railroads allowed for speedy and reliable parcel delivery, consumers could have the prices and variety of a department store in their own home. In an era of Jim Crow, it also allowed marginalized families to purchase needed goods without relying on segregated stores. This forever altered America and the catalog quickly earned the nickname The Consumers’ Bible.
Sears published its first ‘Wish Book’ in 1934, but dryly titled it ‘Sears: Toys and Other Gifts’, with no illustrations or graphics on its front cover. The interior, however, sported the painstakingly-detailed drawings America had come to love. According to official Sears lore, the Sears Christmas Book was nicknamed the “Book of Wishes” by the American public, and the company officially named it the ‘Wish Book’ in 1968.
Contrary to our nostalgic memories, the Wish Book actually had more content for adult shoppers than children, with roughly two-thirds dedicated to decor, clothing, and adult gifts. For most of its existence, roughly a third of the catalog featured toys and children’s gifts…but that’s all any of us bothered to remember.
Public demand for the Christmas catalog delighted Sears, who invested in larger, more ornate contents. By the 1940s, it contained full-color pages, at no small cost to Sears, and its selection of toys expanded greatly, as did its size. While the first Sears Christmas catalog was approximately 100 pages, it grew larger with each decade, hitting 500 pages in the 1950s and a monumental 600 pages by the late 1960s.
Although Sears often charged a small fee for the catalogs, the marginal cost covered only a portion of the production, printing, and delivery expenditures. The company didn’t make money from the catalog; it made money from the business the catalog drew in.
By the 1980s, it had transformed from a retail ruse to a fixture in American culture. Children loved the Wish Book because their parents and their grandparents loved it. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, what started as a marketing tool morphed into American mythos. The company all but acknowledged this achievement in 1982, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the catalog (their math is a little loose) by fixing a Currier & Ives print firmly on the cover.
Today, department stores and malls across the nation are dying an agonizingly slow death, while online shopping sources—mostly Amazon—flourish. This trend has nothing to do with the fate of the Sears Wish Book. The Wish Book, and Sears itself, essentially became a victim of its own success.
Sears, Roebuck & Company revolutionized the American consumer experience with the mail order catalog, a wealth of brands, and an in-house credit card. Instead of staying at the forefront of shopping trends, Sears decided to rest on its laurels, as though it was too big to fail.
Most of us remember how expensive long distance calls once were, yet Sears didn’t have a toll free number until the early 1990s. Customers couldn’t pay for items with competing credit cards but could only use the Sears credit card for decades. Sears had essentially invented the philosophy behind modern customer service as well, but the company began stressing sales over satisfaction. Complaints rose and revenue fell.
It wasn’t the Internet that ended the Wish Book. The Christmas catalog’s demise was a simple cost-cutting measure by the company in order to retain capital. Sears had and has a tradition of self-cannibalizing its assets to raise revenue, and the Wish Book was one of the first to go. Today, Sears is rapidly becoming a nostalgic but distant memory of the American public. Stores close hundreds at a time, its best brands have been sold or cast off (including Craftsman and Whirlpool), and even its website seems antiquated and clunky, like something from 2005 rather than the main outlet for a billion-dollar business. *In fact, I wanted to link to their history on the store’s official webpage, until I saw it had not been updated since 2012. Folks, that’s just embarrassing.
Several attempts were made to bring the catalog back in a compact form, even as recently as 2017, but these seem desperate attempts to save an already dying business. The reality is this: as great as the Wish Book was, its time has passed, and with it, a great American holiday tradition.
Want to Know More?
This touching 1993 article from Andrea Heiman of the Los Angeles Times “Mourning the Passing of the ‘Wish Book’ Era” illustrates its emotional, educational and cultural importance on rural America.
How badly do you miss toy catalogs? If their absence brings you to tears, here’s an early Christmas present: 122 ASSORTED CHRISTMAS CATALOGS and SCANNED COPIES OF SEARS WISH BOOKS FROM THE 1940s TO THE 1980s.
What? You want more?! Check out THE CATALOGS! page at wishbookweb.com, which has scans of…well, almost everything.