Home > Columns > Partners in Crime by Janet Elizabeth Lynn & Will Zeilinger > History of Mail Order Christmas Catalogs by Will Zeilinger

Montgomery Ward was the first department store in the United States to offer a mail-order catalog in 1872.

The Sears-Roebuck general catalog of 1896 included wax candles for Christmas trees. They added Christmas cards in 1898. The first Christmas tree ornaments appeared in the Sears catalog in 1900. They began offering Christmas stockings and artificial Christmas trees in 1910. Electric Christmas tree lights made their debut in the catalog in 1912.

As the Sears-Roebuck mail-order catalog was already a regular part of America’s Christmas tradition, their Christmas catalog of 1933 started a tradition that made the “Wish Book,” as many customers affectionately called it, an American icon, The Wish Book name became synonymous with the annual Christmas Book catalog.

The first Sears-Roebuck Christmas Book catalog cover illustrated some of the featured items in the catalog, including 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.

Sears started a tradition of putting colorful, warm Christmas scenes on the cover of their Christmas catalog and regularly showed children, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees.

Many people nostalgically think of the Wish Book as filled with nothing but toys. But, over the years, more pages were devoted to gifts for adults than toys for children.

Finally, in 1968, Sears made it official by renaming the Christmas Book catalog “The Wish Book.”

Over the years, many other stores followed suit with their own Christmas mail-order catalogs, including Montgomery Ward, Spiegel, Gimbels, J.C.Penney, W.T.Grant, Bon Marche, White’s, Western Auto, and of course, Neiman Marcus.

Neiman Marcus is famous now for high-end department stores and for publishing an annual catalog of the outrageous in Christmas gift-giving.

As far back as 1926, Neiman Marcus offered Holiday gift suggestions, but they were in the form of postcards to get customers into their retail stores. They produced an actual Holiday catalog in the 1950s, and in 1959 Stanley Marcus invented the idea of including an outrageous holiday gift. The first took the form of a live Black Angus bull accompanied by a sterling silver barbecue cart. The standard catalog was changed to include the new, almost $2000 gift offering.

Neiman Marcus has since gained increased fame with some of its impossible and ostentatious gift products in the Christmas catalog. Although not specifically for children, maybe the children inside us, Neiman Marcus began offering “his and hers” gifts, like expensive cars, airplanes, and even vacations and yachts. In 1964, there were his and her hot air balloons, priced just under $7000 for both. The 1970 catalog featured reasonably a priced and readily available $10 oak tree. At the other end of the scale (at almost $600,000), there was a one-of-a-kind Noah’s ark, complete with matched pairs of animals. In 1975, one could get letters autographed by George and Martha Washington for around $8500. More recently (2005), they offered a private concert with Elton John for $1.5 million.

Author Details
Author Details
Will Zeilinger and Janet Lynn had been writing individually until they got together and wrote the Skylar Drake Mystery Series. These hard-boiled tales are based in old Hollywood of 1955. Janet has published seven mystery novels, and Will has three plus a couple of short stories. Their world travels have sparked several ideas for murder and crime stories. This creative couple is married and lives in Southern California.

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Will Zeilinger and Janet Lynn had been writing individually until they got together and wrote the Skylar Drake Mystery Series. These hard-boiled tales are based in old Hollywood of 1955. Janet has published seven mystery novels, and Will has three plus a couple of short stories. Their world travels have sparked several ideas for murder and crime stories. This creative couple is married and lives in Southern California.

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