To anyone born before the mid-1980s, the term "Wishbook" or "Christmas catalog" probably has special meaning. Though Sears was first to market with its trademark Wishbook holiday catalog in the 1930s, by the 1960s other catalog retailers were publishing and sending out their own holiday editions.
(The 1933 Spiegel Christmas catalog. Image: WishbookWeb.com)
These Christmas holiday catalogs enticed customers with all manner of merchandise suitable for gift-giving, including a bounty of toys.
Growing up the 1970s (I'm 44), I considered the arrival of the Sears Wishbook and JCPenny Christmas catalog a special time in my household. With all the complaining today about holiday marketing moving earlier and earlier in the year, it might surprise you to learn that these holiday catalogs typically arrived in stores and mailboxes by late August.
For us kids, the catalogs' arrival tempered the return to school with the promise of the still-distant Christmas season to come. Catalog in hand, I would spend the next four months poring over our family copy, marking the items I hoped would make it under our tree.
(1975 Sears Wishbook. Image: WishbookWeb.com)
These holiday catalogs ranged from 400-500 pages, about a third of the size of the giant Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter editions. While these holiday catalogs offered a range of fashions and other merchandise, it was the toy section that shined. Almost always placed in the back half of each catalog, the toy sections were special. In the days before Toys "R" Us and Walmart superstores, these catalogs represented the largest array of toys most children had ever seen at one time and in one place.
Every generation has its favorite Christmas catalog toy memories: pedal cars, GI Joes, Barbies, Mego Superheroes, Star Wars action figures, Atari, He-Man ... the list goes on and on. What connects all of these is how many were first seen in the pages of the JC Penny Christmas catalog or the Sears Wishbook, making even the layouts of those toy pages a sometimes powerfully nostalgic tonic.
It was that quest for nostalgia that led me to create WishbookWeb.com in 2005. I'd seen a few scattered holiday catalog page scans on the Internet, but nowhere could you get the whole experience, and at the time it seemed as though the Internet and stores like Toys "R" Us and Walmart had relegated these catalogs to the past. The Sears Wishbook had ceased publication in 1993 (though it would be relaunched in 2007), so there was a void wanting to be filled.
(1976 JC Penney Christmas catalog. $29.88 is $123 today, according to futureboy.us. Image: WishbookWeb.com)
Launching WishbookWeb.com was a daunting task. Scanning a few pages was easy enough, but 500 of them? And in order to make the scans high quality, the pages would need to be removed, which meant destroying these valuable artifacts. The deconstruction and scanning turned out to be dozens of hours of tedious labor for each catalog.
In the end, the hard work paid off, and eventually the site would grow to include more than 50 complete catalogs, featuring more than 20,000 scanned pages and spanning more than seven decades. A group of catalogs that previously could only be enjoyed by one person could now be seen and enjoyed by countless visitors to the site.
Though the site was launched largely out of a desire to share nostalgia, it turned out to be a useful tool for researchers and a boon to many categories of collectors. We get emails every week filled with gratitude from people who revisited their Christmas pasts and shared the experience with family and friends.
There are also the occasional emails asking which Christmas catalog contained the mail-order monkeys. (Answer: None of the ones on the site.)
(1988 Sears Wishbook. Image: WishbookWeb.com)
The catalogs on the site have served to answer thousands of inquiries for visitors, but there are many questions that have remain unanswered, as not every year or catalog is yet represented. But my hope is that eventually WishbookWeb.com will include every Sears Wishbook and JC Penny Christmas catalog published.
It'd be a Christmas miracle to pull it off, but it is that time of year.
Jason Liebig created the website Wishbook Web, which includes high-quality scans of Christmas catalogs from 1933-1988. He's a New York-based writer, editor, producer, and actor, and was an editor for Marvel Comics’ X-Men. He's also been described as “the Indiana Jones of lost and forgotten candy.”