By Doug Koztoski
Think of it as a bit of a fantasy sports team draft, but with some reality likely mixed in on your “squad,” too.
For years kids would routinely thumb through page after page of one holiday gift catalog or another with great joy, looking for the items they most wanted to give or receive.
The catalog toy sections were a consistent hit with kids, of course, and so were the pages that contained sports gear. By the time the holiday catalog had been around for a while, some of the pages had usually been highlighted by one or more of the following ways: check marks, a star, a smiley face, a circle or bending of the page corners – you know, for that certain someone to find the item that much quicker.
While various stores distributed their thick annual holiday catalog decades ago, one of the biggest ever through the years came compliments of the Sears Roebuck Co.
Sears began in the 1880s, but it was not until 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, that the retail giant introduced its first Christmas or Wish Book catalog, specifically geared for the holiday season.
A modest 88 pages encompassed the inaugural Sears holiday catalog, which included ads for the necessities like clothes, furniture and, for some, chocolate. Other ads touted the fun to be had with Mickey Mouse watches, electric trains, baby dolls and toy trucks.
The 1933 sports department in the Sears catalog, meantime, was modest, but provided some good choices, as well: a boys leather football helmet ($1.39), a regulation-size basketball ($3.57) and a Dazzy Vance baseball (59 cents). The latter came with a booklet by the “strike-out king” on the ins-and-outs of his craft, a skill easier said, or written about, than done.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty of several vintage Sears holiday catalogs, meanwhile, is as easy as finding WishBookWeb.com. Co-created by Jason Liebig in 2006, WBW is a convenient trip down memory lane for any of the numerous holiday catalogs it shows, mainly from Sears, dating primarily from the late 1930s through the late 1980s. We’ll look at some from the 1950s momentarily.
Liebig, who has devoted considerable time preserving vintage catalogs by making high-resolution scans of each page, said anyone with Internet access can look through “a great window” into, in many cases, “a simpler time.”
At their height, the highly anticipated Sears end-of-year books grew to some 800 pages, but in the U.S. they have not been printed anywhere near that size, if at all, for about a decade.
Rockin’ and rollin’ with some ’50s sports items
The 1952 Sears Christmas catalog presents some good sports choices. One of the best features a variety of pigskins being pitched. Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner who helped the Detroit Lions win the NFL crown in 1952 and 1953, is pictured hawking three different types of footballs (priced at $2.39 to $3.79), all with a Walker facsimile signature. Part of the ad reads: “They’re great footballs,” says Doak, “and I personally recommend them for all playing conditions.” The eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer appeared in Sears catalogs for several years.
From the 1956 Sears Wish Book, one of the many leather baseball gloves made by the J.C. Higgins Co. was a Bob Feller model (#1638). In ’56, the right-handed fireballer was in his last MLB season, all with Cleveland, when this glove could be had for $7.95. One of those exact Feller model gloves, granted not in new condition but in Excellent shape, recently sold on eBay for $49.
Additional baseball gloves from that 1956 book wore the names of these big leaguers: Gil Hodges (Brooklyn Dodgers), Al Kaline (in 1955 the 20-year old Detroit outfielder won the A.L. batting title) and Don Mueller (N.Y. Giants). Of all the leather on that page, the Kaline model was the most expensive at $14.98.
The 1959 Sears holiday catalog contained a wide selection of sports-related items. On page 400, for instance, a person had numerous sport games to choose from, including “Hoc-key,” “Bas-ket” and, as it states, the “Newly improved Foto-Electric Football Game.” Prices ranged from $4.27 to $5.97 on these classics.
In the past few months a 1950s “Bas-ket” game in mid-level condition sold on eBay for about $20. “Bas-ket,” as you might recall, was where the “b-ball” was normally a ping-pong ball; the “hardwood” was warped cardboard with holes in it where the ball would settle after staggering around and then get “shot” toward the basket (but often enough going totally out of the “arena”).
Five pages later in that 1959 book, the fun level increased even more and the prices were just slightly higher. For example, how about some “Push Button Baseball,” “Big League Ice Hockey” or the “Thrill-a-Minute Football Game?” The latter was one of those table-top gridiron games with a “hidden vibrating motor” that sent those ’50s “players” spinning in circles and more often than not going in directions that you did not want them to go. Good times. Really!
Another five pages after that game selection in 1959 Sears gave people a real variety pack of sports equipment with some fishing gear, a pogo stick, a fencing set, some “rugged” footballs, a “safe” and “authentic” football outfit that they claim, “he’ll want to keep this on all day long!” For baseball fans, there were a couple of pitching machines and a Stan Musial ball and bat. The Musial ball and “unbreakable polyethylene bat” sold for $1.49.
Other sports gems are contained within these and additional Sears catalogs and comparable books from other retailers of the day, and Liebig hopes to add more to WBW in the coming years.
The past still has a seat at the holiday table
Let’s face it, in the last 20 years or so technology has played a big role in contributing to the Grinch that stole Christmas catalogs and such, since so much of the advertising money from years ago has shifted to online locales, making big catalogs increasingly a thing of the past. That’s why sites such as WishBookWeb.com, in particular, can play a key role in connecting today’s kids with adults of all ages with a taste of holidays from bygone decades.
The back cover of the 1952 Sears Christmas catalog, in a way, can help facilitate that link across the generations. Borrowing a few lines from that page: “It’s so easy to Shop by Phone from Sears Catalogs! . . . in comfort – in your own home – by telephone.” With the combo of cell phones with Internet access now the norm, great memories from some long-gone holiday seasons are just a few clicks and screen swipes away. As that ’52 back page ad concludes: “Satisfaction guaranteed. Easy terms arranged.”
Doug Koztoski wishes all SCD readers a happy holiday season and welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.