The history of the iconic Sears ‘Wish Book’ Christmas catalog that made dreams come true

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Christmas gifts - Sears Wish Book 1968

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The old Sears Wish Book catalog was perfectly named — it was where kids and adults alike would dream about all the things that Santa (or a special elf) might bring for Christmas. Find out its history here!

Sears unveiled some surprises in its first “Wish Book” (1968)

From the Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana) September 22, 1968

Sears’ 1968 Christmas catalog, now being distributed to the first of 12 million families across the nation, introduces eight dream gifts, shown in contrast with related “down-to-earth” merchandise.

Log Cabin playhouse in 1968 Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog

The 594-page Christmas ‘Wish Book” is divided into shops introduced by exotic gifts — a mink robe, a diamond pendant, and a handmade Christmas tree; authentic reproductions — a suit of armor, and a pony from a children’s carousel; and other nostalgic items, including a player-piano, a log cabin playhouse and a one-horse open sleigh.

ALSO SEE: Vintage playhouses & forts: Old-fashioned fun for kids

Jame W. Button, senior vice president-merchandising, noted that Sears catalogs “came to be known as ‘Wish Books’ at the turn of the century, when rural America shortened long winter evenings by wishing for things available only from the catalog.”

Player piano in 1968 Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog

Red sleigh in 1968 Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog

Sears 1968 Christmas book is the first to be labeled officially as the “Wish Book,” he said.

“The unique gifts help illustrate our two-fold ‘Wish Book’ concept — imaginative products that dreams are made of, plus a full range of merchandise selected especially for its quality and price appeal.”

To emphasize this concept, the unique items are featured on pages opposite value items selected from various merchandise categories.

AM portable Radio in the Round in Sears 1968 catalog

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Bunk beds and bedroom furniture from Sears 1960s

Facing pages in the Christmas catalog show the following contrasts:

  • A $4,500 mink robe and an $8.88 nylon tricot peignoir set, introducing the nightwear and loungewear section.
  • A $3,300 pear-shaped diamond pendant, set in platinum, and $8 knit dress, opening the women’s apparel category.
  • A $1,500 one-horse open sleigh and a $12.88 seven-foot artificial Christmas tree, beginning a section on holiday decorations.
  • A $1,600 suit of armor and $2.99 Perma-Prest dress shirts leading off the men’s wear shop in the catalog.
  • A $1,295 player-piano and a $257 15-inch portable color television, set introducing the home entertainment section.
  • A log cabin playhouse for $550 and a $12.77 road-race set, opening a 168-page toy section.
  • A $300 reproduction of a pony from a children’s carousel, introducing a children’s apparel section with face Page of Perma-Prest clothing ranging from $1.99 to $7.77.
  • A $100 decorated table tree inspired by ”Partridge in a Pear Tree,” and a $2.47 Italian wine cooler from an assortment of giftware.

ALSO SEE: Vintage FAO Schwarz toy catalogs: Favorite fun stuff for ’60s kids

Fake fireplace in 1968 Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog

History of the ‘Wish Book’ Christmas catalog

The fortunes… and misfortunes… of the United States and the changing ways of life since the 1880s are reflected in Sears “Wish Books.”

From a modest beginning in 1886, Sears grew in size and scope with a westward-expanding America. The catalog, or “Wish Book” as it was called, served isolated farm families and communities, bringing them goods unavailable in their own areas.

Sears Wish Book cover 1968

The simple copy and clearly labeled instructions, the new product values and honest dealings championed by Richard W. Sears and his “Big Books” created a revolution in the buying habits of rural America.

Today, more than 12 million families across the nation use their Sears catalogs to order in one of 2,500 retail or catalog stores, by telephone or by mail.

In addition to recording the changing scene in America, Sears catalogs represent the work and efforts of thousands of Americans.

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Sears Wish Book history

Drum set and guitars in 1968 Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog

Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the famed “Tarzan” series, at one time was a copywriter for Sears catalogs. Many movie stars and starlets at one point in their careers were models for the catalog.

Almost since they first appeared on the American scene in the late 1880s, the “Wish Books” have been considered an accurate reflection of events and the way people live.

More than 100 libraries across the nation have a complete collection of Sears catalogs recorded on microfilm. These often are used by researchers to document American living standards from the Gay ’90s to the present.

Cute playhouse for kids in 1968 Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog

Within months after the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, the catalog offered a complete “stereopticon lecture outfit” on that subject and the Cuban War.

Two years later, the catalog was out with “Magic Lantern Slides” of “our new possessions’ — listing “Honolulu, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.”

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In 1899, before the West was fully settled, the catalog said: “Cash in full must accompany all orders… from points in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming — if you live in one of the ten states and territories named.” But C.O.D. orders were accepted from the more settled Eastern states.

The Alaskan gold rush of the ’90s, so celebrated in fact and fiction, did not escape Sears catalog copywriters, who, in 1899, offered customers mining shoes called ‘The Klondike.”

Ten years later, in 1909, miners still were considered likely Sears customers, as the company issued a catalog of special houses adapted to “Mining districts, western prairies, and mountain residences.”

Covered wagon covers, too, were found in the pages of early Sears catalogs. But so far as is known, the catalog never sold the wagons themselves, with which the West was settled.

Antique bicycle suits for men from 1898

Vintage clothing and fashion insights

The Sears catalog has long been acknowledged as a barometer of fashion.

With the popularity of bicycle riding in the 1890s, for example, women needed specially-tailored costumes to replace the trains which became entangled in the wheels.

Reflecting this necessity, Sears’s early catalogs sold ladies’ bicycle suits and skirts.

Sales of these outfits boomed, too, according to the 1898 catalog. ”On account of the increased business in our bicycle suit department,” it said, “we are in a position to show a much better line than heretofore. When making our selection we took great care that our customers should only get desirable goods.

ALSO SEE: Why people used to really love those iconic high-wheel penny-farthing bicycles

Sears bicycle suits in that year carried fancy names — including “The Scorcher,” “The Winner,” “The Champion,” and “The Flyer.”

Silk stockings first appeared in a catalog in 1912 — with the stern admonition to purchasers to ”treat them carefully.”

Sears silk stockings 1912

MORE: See Cheryl Tiegs’ clothing collection & swimwear at Sears in the ’80s

Pajamas first appeared — for men only — in 1899, found no takers, and disappeared until 1908, when they returned to stay.

Leafing through the catalogs of the Gay ’90s, the reader will find celluloid collars, mourning handkerchiefs, Prince Albert suits, goat sulkies, bosom boards (used in ironing men’s fancy shirts of that era) and a wide selection of ornate mustache cups.

Pajamas for men from 1908
Pajamas for men from 1908

Because the catalogs accurately reflect the styles and furnishings popular through the years, they are used frequently by producers of Broadway shows and Hollywood movies.

The Walt Disney studio is the proud owner of one of the most complete sets of catalogs on the West Coast, and often consults them “for correct costume of a certain year, for types of furniture used in various periods, for reference in assembling authentic period furnishings for Disneyland, and for ascertaining prices of merchandise in a certain period.

The horse and buggy age

If anyone wishes to trace the rise of the motor buggy and the decline of the horse-drawn buggy, he need look no further than the catalog.

Taking note of the “Tin Lizzie” for the first time, the 1894 catalog listed automobile caps and books.

But the horse still ruled the roads, with the catalog devoting eight full pages to buggies and listing as well such items as buggy boots, bridles, cruppers, harness, tops and whips.

Antique buggies from 1894

By 1929, the tables had turned. The buggy offering was down to half a page, and disappeared entirely thereafter. The catalog index, at the same time, listed 266 separate items under auto accessories.

World War II and after

But the catalog is more than a record of changes in American life. Even wars and depressions are reflected in its pages.

Song hits sold by the Spring catalog of 1918 included “It’s a Long Way to Berlin,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and “Good-Bye Broadway, Hello France.”

And in the Fall catalog of 1942, the catalog announced that Sears subsidiarity, Allstate Fire Insurance Company, sold “the new U.S. Government war damage insurance plan which protects homes and farms against war damage to enemy attack or resistance by U.S. Armed Forces.”

Sears War Damage Insurance Plan from 1942 WWII
Sears catalog War Damage Insurance Plan from 1942: Protects homes and farms against war damage to enemy attack or resistance by U.S. Armed Forces

In 1943, the catalog proclaimed: “Silvertone radios have gone to war. Tomorrow they will be back — better than ever.”

Sears, even through the Depression

For anyone who recalls the Great Depression of the 1930s, perhaps the single most telling proof of its effect appeared in the 1933 Sears catalog.

For 87 cents, it sold a book titled “Understanding the Stock Market.” Called “a simple, yet thorough explanation of how mysterious stock market operates,” it had been marked down from $2.50.


Sears Wish Book history: Winnie the Pooh Christmas (1973)

STILL TIME to get that Sears Wish Book order

Don’t miss out on all the fun! You still have time to get your order in for Christmas, and delight the entire gang with those Wonderful Wish Book gifts from Sears. You won’t want to miss a single fun-packed page.

So call your friendly Sears Home Shopper now, for a generous sampling of that fast, courteous service Sears is so famous for. You can even use one of Sears convenient Credit Plans. Don’t run out of time for the time that comes but once a year. Call now — and pass the happy Holiday around, please!

MORE: Look back at Candy Land, the vintage board game that made millions of kids dream of an ice cream & lollipop world

Sears Wish Book - Winnie the Pooh Christmas 1973


Sears: Order your gifts from our Christmas Wish Book (1977)

Sears, where America shops for gifts of value, has always had a very special way for America to shop for Christmas gifts.

This year, why not try out the 1977 Wish Book? You don’t have to fight the crowds.

Do your holiday shopping by paging through our Wish Book, then simply phone in your order. But hurry, Christmas is less than three weeks away! See our 1977 Christmas Catalog at the catalog counter in your nearest Sears store today.

Sears Wish Book orders 1977

NOW SEE THIS: What were the most popular toys in the early ’80s? Toys, games & fun for kids in the 1981 Sears Catalog Wishbook

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