The industrial revolution brought an explosion of new products in mass quantities to market. The ability of mass media – in the form of print, radio or telegram – to get the word out about such products influenced buyers around the world.
The advent of catalog shopping, which utilized all those emerging trends and technologies, brought the marketplace to the consumer, just as the Internet does today.
It comes as no surprise that the pioneer of catalog merchants was likely Benjamin Franklin, who like Amazon today, first sold books by mail back in 1744.
But it wasn’t until the post-Civil War era when Aaron Montgomery Ward cut out the middle-man pricing by taking manufacturer discounts straight to the mail order consumer. While his focus was on anything sold in his stores, it was more of the enterprising spirit of Richard Warren Sears and his partner Alvah C. Roebuck, who added Christmas specific items in the form of decorations, lights and trees to their catalogs at the turn of the century.
The very first Sears Wish Book, known as the Sears Christmas Book catalog, came out in 1933. Featured items in this first catalog included the “Miss Pigtails” doll, an electric (battery powered) toy automobile, a Mickey Mouse watch, fruitcakes, Lionel electric trains, a five pound box of chocolates, and live singing canaries.
In 1933, Sears was already a familiar part of America’s Christmas tradition. The 1896 Sears general catalog included wax candles for Christmas trees. The 1898 Sears catalog added Christmas cards, and the first Christmas tree ornaments appeared in 1900. Sears began selling Christmas stockings and artificial Christmas trees in 1910. Electric Christmas tree lights made their debut in the catalog two years later.
The 1933 Christmas Book catalog started a tradition that made the Sears Wish Book an American icon. The Sears catalog and the name Wish Book were closely linked over the years. Prior to 1933, Sears customers often affectionately referred to the large, semi-annual, general catalogs Sears issued as the “Wish Book” or “Book of Wishes.” After 1933, the Wish Book name became synonymous with the annual Christmas Book catalog. In 1968, Sears made it official by renaming the Christmas Book catalog The Wish Book.
The 1933 Christmas Book catalog cover illustrated some of the featured items in the catalog. The next year Sears started a tradition by putting colorful, warm Christmas scenes on the cover. From then on, the Wish Book catalog covers regularly featured children, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees. In 1982, a Currier and Ives print graced the cover of the Wish Book.
Many people nostalgically think of the Wish Book as filled with nothing but toys. In fact, over the years, more pages were devoted to gifts for adults. The 87-page 1933 Christmas Book catalog featured 25 pages of toys and 62 pages of gifts for adults. In 1968, the Wish Book totaled 605 pages, with 225 pages devoted to toys and 380 pages to gifts for adults.
A discussion of Christmas catalogs would be incomplete without an exploration of Neiman Marcus, famous now for not only operating snooty department stores but also for publishing an annual catalog of the outrageous in Christmas gift giving.
Neiman Marcus launched their catalog as far back as 1926 but it wasn’t until a radio interview with radio legend Edward R. Murrow asking Stanley Marcus if the store would be offering anything unusual that might interest his radio listeners; Marcus invented on the spot an offering of a live Black Angus bull accompanied by a sterling silver barbecue cart, subsequently altering the catalog to include his new idea, priced at nearly $2000.
From that point forward Neiman Marcus has gained notoriety and plenty of media attention every year with their offerings of the impossible and the absurd.
In 1970 they offered something for optimists and pessimists. For optimists there was the reasonably priced and readily available $10 oak tree. For pessimists there was the one-of-a-kind Noah’s ark, complete with matched pairs of all animals, for a mere $588,000.
In 2005 they offered a private concert with Elton John for $1.5 million. In 1964, one could find in the catalogue his and hers hot air balloons, priced just under $7000 for the pair. And at Christmas 1975, celebrating in advance the American Bicentennial, one could get letters autographed by George and Martha Washington for about $8500 – a price that today seems scandalously cheap.
If there is one thing that these Neiman Marcus fantasy catalog accomplishes for adults it is part of the magic of Christmas for kids dating back decades. Sears trademarked the term “wish book” back in the 1930s because the catalog put into the pictures the wishes kids would frequently write about to Santa Claus.