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Holiday thinking, 1960s style

SCD columnist Doug Koztoski takes a closer look at the "wish" books from Sears from the 1960s that had kids dreaming of Christmas presents.

With talk of NFL playoff action in the air and the NBA and NHL regular seasons early in their mixes, that means big holiday time is here.

That said, if you and/or someone you know is buying or receiving a gift or two this holiday season, the internet probably comprised part of the shopping process.
Years ago, however, a good chunk of holiday gift hunting took place via department store catalogs.

Soon after the catalog arrived at homes the kids usually grabbed it and quickly thumbed through many pages, past the clothes, the furniture, the gadgets and gizmos, sometimes even fruit cakes, to get to the good stuff: toys and sports.

Then, many kids distinctly marked certain items, circling something here, maybe placing a star or arrow near a product there, just in case somebody needed an easy way to find what might be on a wish list. It was an exciting yearly ritual.

While stores such as JC Penney, F.A.O. Schwarz and Montgomery Ward put out holiday catalogs over several years, perhaps the most famous for most people once came from the Sears Roebuck Company.

Sears first planted its retail seeds in the 1880s and its basic catalogs soon sprouted. It was not until 1933, with The Great Depression at one of its worst stages, that the company sent out its first Christmas or Wish Book.

The 88 pages of the inaugural Sears holiday book contained ads for its share of clothes, radios, watches, toys and a somewhat surprising choice: singing canaries.
Some of the handful of sports-related items in the ’33 catalog included a Bill Tilden endorsed tennis racket; a baseball glove with Chicago Cubs pitcher Guy Bush’s name on it; football equipment attached to a popular newspaper comic strip of the time featuring kids: “Reg’lar Fellers.”

Enter Jason Liebig, who calls himself “a catalog preservation enthusiast.” In 2006 Liebig co-created the online site and now anyone with internet access can see dozens of holiday catalogs from decades ago, with high-resolution images of each page.

Not only does Liebig describe Wish Books as “such a great window into the past,” he also likes their comprehensiveness and overall positivity. WishBookWeb (WBW) allows visitors to see primarily Sears catalogs.

Reaching strong heights in size and with its overall look in the 1960s and 1970s, Sears holiday gift guide annual page counts often ranged between 350 and some 600. Due to shifts in the business world, however, much of it internet related, larger Sears Wish Books have not been a regular event in the U.S. for over a decade.

Last year around this time SCD featured a piece on some of the sports items in 1950s holiday wish books, this year it’s the ’60s.

Peace and love and a baseball glove

Rock'em Sock'em Robots were prominent in the 1964 Sears Catalog.

Rock'em Sock'em Robots were prominent in the 1964 Sears Catalog.

The 1962 Sears holiday book is the first of the decade on WBW. There are a few baseball gloves and other pieces of sports gear to chose from, a staple of the Sears catalogs, but a couple items standout otherwise from the ’62 version: the “Arnold Palmer’s Inside Golf” game, which seems extra appropriate to mention since the golf legend passed away this year, and the Eldon brand “Bowl-A-Matic.”

The vintage Palmer game in solid shape normally sells for $25 to $40. Meanwhile, before you laugh too hard at the “Bowl-A-Matic” name and ad from the catalog, where “you control the Robot Bowler,” consider that excellent examples of this item routinely now bring $300-$400.

Speaking of robots, a 1964 Sears catalog choice not only debuted that year, but still resonates today: Rock’em Sock’em Robots. That classic, which blends the sweet science of boxing with science fiction, in its own way, has recently sold in above average to near mint condition, with the original box, for around $100-$225.

Page 421 of the 1966 Sears Christmas Catalog included a Ted Williams glove and book.

Page 421 of the 1966 Sears Christmas Catalog included a Ted Williams glove and book.

By 1966 baseball icon Ted Williams had been away from playing in the big leagues for a few seasons but had a number of years already logged with Sears. In the ‘66 holiday catalog a “Teddy Ballgame” baseball glove gets ample coverage, and it also came with a 20-page book on hitting, Williams’ specialty.

The gloves often sell for at least $25-$35; the “Batting Tips from Ted” booklets about half that. But the glove box is rare and strong examples go for around $200.

One small step

From a sports standpoint, one aspect of the 1969 Sears catalog that one easily notices is its balance of diversity of endorsers and items to choose from.

For instance, on page 400 one sees various boxing gear with ex-champ Joe Louis’ name attached to it, even though he last fought in 1951. A couple of pages later former pro football player Buddy Young helps hawk some gridiron equipment. In 1966, by the way, Young became one of the first African-Americans to get hired as an NFL executive.

A little later on in the 1969 catalog, on the same page as more Williams baseball gloves, and Williams was the Washington Senators manager at this point, there is a Harmon Killebrew Power Stride batting trainer machine. With 49 homers, Killebrew had one of his best years ever in ’69 and won the American League MVP award. No doubt several of the Twins’ slugger’s “trainers” sold that year.

In 1969 an Electric Football game featuring the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts was popular.

In 1969 an Electric Football game featuring the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts was popular.

With a football like the end of a Q-Tip and players often slowly spinning in place or veering off into unintended spots on the playing surface, Electric Football was/is both a delight and a head-scratcher for the game’s fans. Instead of Madden 2017 and great graphics on your TV, think of Maddening 1969 on a vibrating metal tabletop gridiron with tiny plastic pose-frozen players. Ah, the memories.

Anyway, in the ’69 Sears holiday catalog the Electric Football game featured the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts with a stadium emblazoned with “Super Bowl” along the side. The two teams met in the first official Super Bowl in January 1969, although eventually it was called Super Bowl III, with the Jets trumping the highly favored Colts. In decent shape, and with the original box, this particular game often trades for around $175-$200.

Seemingly endless choices

Other sports related choices show up in the various catalogs on, of course, and part of the fun is tracking down the assortment of items and ads, whatever strikes your fancy, as well as seeing what else was available years ago.
With the internet changing most business models over the past generation, including driving a tremendous amount of advertising revenue and product online, and thus sadly, for some, putting an end to most holiday gift catalogs of any size, the virtual world can also serve as a tool to find the vintage books. That is why and other online venues play an enjoyable role in connecting or reconnecting “kids” of any age to the “good ol’ days.” u

Doug Koztoski is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be reached at

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