“Toyland, Toyland, little girl and boy land,
Once you pass its borders, you can ne’er return again.”
MacDonough & Herbert
Babes in Toyland, 1903
“Ne’er return again?” Now hold on there a minute. Back in 1903, “Toyland” may have seemed just a wistful memory—but today, thanks to vintage toy catalogs, “Toyland” is a place the nostalgic can visit again and again. “Lionel Trains”. . . “Betsy McCall”. . .“Mr. Potato Head,” “Changeable Charlie,” and “Lincoln Logs.” They’re all waiting within those catalog pages. Colorful, action-packed descriptions beckon children of all ages, (including former children), to come and partake of their joyful bounty.
Holiday toy catalogs date from the early years of the 20th century. The first edition of that large and well-remembered Christmas cornucopia, the Sears Christmas Toy Book, made its debut in 1933, although other all-toy catalogs preceded it. One of the longest-lived was the Billy and Ruth catalog series, which presented best-loved toys of the day, as hawked by “America’s Famous Toy Children,” Billy and Ruth.
Prized for their festive colors, imaginative layouts, and eye-catching graphics, vintage Billy and Ruth Catalogs are among the priciest toy catalog collectibles—from $50-75 in hard-to-find mint condition. They’re also well worth the investment, since each captures the essence of a specific childhood era.
For Billy, one of the hottest items in the 1953 catalog was Emenee’s plastic, silver-finish saxophone. Noted the catalog copy, “Billy’s really hep when he’s playing on this.” Ruth, meanwhile, “spends hours beautifying her new Harriet Hubbard Ayers doll — learning the magic of make-up with a beauty table and an 8-piece harmless cosmetic kit.”
As an added bonus, Billy and Ruth, just like Santa, never seemed to age. Their illustrations in the 1953 catalog are eerily similar to those in catalogs dating from some twenty years prior.
With the advent of television in the early 1950s, TV tie-ins became particularly popular. A marionette was nice, but a “Howdy Doody” marionette was even better. There were holster sets, and then there was the “Lone Ranger Genuine Leather Holster Set” (complete with “cutouts, jewels, gold rivets, and official ‘Lone Ranger’ insignia.”) You could dress up as a plain old cowboy or a cowgirl, or you could dress up as an “Official Wyatt Earp” or “Official Annie Oakley.” The choice was yours (and it wasn’t a difficult one.)
Then, as now, Disney was particularly adept at this sort of cross-promotion. The popularity of the Mickey Mouse Club led to the Mickey Mouse Club Magazine, which led to in-print tie-ins for holiday must-haves: “Official Mickey Mouse Shoes” (“just like the Mouseketeers wear on the Friday Talent Roundup!”); “Official Mouseketeer Hats” (“made of black felt with permanently attached molded plastic ears. Bow easily removed for boys”); and even “Official Mouseketeer Roller Skates” (“I sure hope I get mine for Christmas!”)
For those—mainly parents—who felt that every toy should serve a purpose, (besides keeping kids entertained), the Toy Guidance Council Catalog had the answer. Their toys were the same as any others, but the reason for being now came with added justification. Operating under the mantra “There’s a Right Time for the Right Toy,” the Guidance Council Catalogs offered age-based “Will Contribute To Development” charts.
A boy of 4-6, receiving Wyandotte’s “Heavy Duty Rider Fire Truck” would develop “Mentally, Socially, and Physically.” Girls 6-8, gifted with Transogram’s “Little Play Nurse Kit,” would progress “Mentally, Socially, and Vocationally.” Both boys and girls in the 8-10 age range would be firing on all four cylinders with the “Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (“see Paths of Alpha particles speeding at 10,000 miles per second!”) Immeasurable: the quota of fun provided by each and every toy listed.
Page through a vintage Christmas toy catalog, and let those joyous childhood memories rekindle. (And if that doesn’t get you in the holiday spirit, there are three Ghosts on call, eager to pay you a Christmas Eve visit!
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on mid-twentieth century design including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. He’s been good all year, so hopes he’s on Santa’s list. Please address inquiries (or holiday greetings) to: email@example.com