Thursday, December 8, 2011

When you wish upon a...catalog

In a recent column I wrote for Western Illinois Family, a Gatehouse-owned magazine distributed in this area, I mentioned a few of the anxious pre-Christmas activities that took place around my house when I was a kid.
There was, of course, the vital letter to Santa Claus, a supremely important missive that attempted to express, in mere words, the infinite goodness that had been my personal hallmark throughout the year. Of course, I knew full well that a man who "sees you when you're sleeping" and "knows when you're awake" was probably entirely hip to that incident involving the garage window, too. But the fifth amendment was certainly intended for such situations, so I rolled blithely along the thin line between right and wrong, hoping Santa would cast a kindly blind eye at my misdeeds.
"But where did all those toys come from?" asked my spouse the other day. She knows, as all parents do, that sometimes Santa needs a little help. Back in the day, when I was a kid and dinosaurs walked the earth, there were no shopping malls or "big box" stores or big stores at all around smaller towns like Kewanee and Galva, or even in her hometown of Chicago Heights. There were plenty of wonderful retailers of all different kinds in those days, and a few larger department-type stores if you were willing to make a longer trek. But nobody had the aisles and aisles of toys and gadgets you see today.
Nobody except the Christmas catalogs, filled with page after page of all kinds of grand and glorious stuff to warm hearts of good little boys and girls, and kids like me, too.
Sears, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel all sent the free books through the mail. And while we anxiously looked at each and every one of them, it was the Sears catalog that was the one we really waited for. No big surprise there, as Sears kind of invented the whole concept of catalogs, starting in 1888, when the R.W. Sears watch company began sending out flyers by mail. By the 1890s, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog had expanded to include items like sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and even eyeglasses, including a self-test for "old sight, near sight and astigmatism."
The very first Sears Christmas catalog, came out in 1933, and included the “Miss Pigtails” doll, a battery powered toy automobile, a Mickey Mouse watch, Lionel electric trains, and--wait for it--live singing canaries. Eventually, the Christmas edition became known as the "Wish Book."
All I knew was that it--and all those heavyweight books of the time--contained everything I ever wished for, plus quite a few things I never even knew I wanted until I saw them among the hundreds of pages of toys and other good stuff each catalog featured.
My brother and I (my sister was mostly above such goings-on) would wait in high anticipation for each catalog, then pounce, pouring through each page, and even marking items and turning down pages in the hopes that our mom or dad might happen upon them.
My dad: "Why, look at this, Alice. Did you know that Johnny wanted a motorcycle, a .22 rifle and a coon skin cap for Christmas?"
My mom: "Why, no, Keith. But it's not too late if you order them today."
Hope springs eternal.
I was also fascinated by the child models shown playing with the toys in each book.
Neat and well-combed and uniformly blond, blue-eyed and aryan-looking, they were like no real kids I had ever known. I wondered where they came from. I wondered how they got so clean.
I still do.
Eventually, I grew up and kind of forgot about the thrill of Christmas catalogs a little. By the time I got married and we had kids of our own, I was more accustomed to a steady barrage of Christmas ads on the tube and almost-nightly shopping trips in the days before Christmas Eve. We still got the catalogs, but my use of them was for fast-flipping comparison shopping, not the leisurely dreamfest I had enjoyed as a kid.
Catalogs, I thought, were becoming a thing of the past.
It was not until I went into my youngest son's room to tuck him in one night that that I discovered otherwise. He was an active, restless sleeper, who often dumped his covers on the floor, so I was pulling them back into place around his sleeping form. As I tucked him in, I felt a hard lump next to his pillow. I pulled it free and carried it to the lighted hallway to see what eight-year-old Patrick was stashing.
It was a well-worn 1989 Sears Christmas catalog.
Because some things never change.

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