Every Toy a Kid Could Want: The Wish Book

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

If you were a kid in the 1970s and 80s, you may remember the anticipation you felt when the JCPenney’s Big Book Catalog or the Sears Wish Book Catalog arrived in the mail in mid-August.

These catalogs were filled with anything a kid could want.  Hours were spent studying the pages of toys, clothes and gadgets. Page corners were turned down; items were circled in red to make sure parents or grandparents knew which items to order.


Sears started the tradition in 1933 with a Christmas Book catalog.  The covers featured Christmas scenes and the inside pages were filled with items to order for gifts.  The first catalog in 1933 was 87 pages with 25 pages devoted to toys and 62 page with gifts for adults. By 1968 the 605 page catalog was officially names “The Wish Book” and had 225 pages with toys and 380 for adults.


J.C. Penney’s first Christmas catalog came out in 1963.  The 1980 J.C. Penney Catalog had every toy a kid could ever want as the below YouTube video illustrates. (click play to view, approximately 3 minutes)

Of course, shopping in the actual store was also fun!

J.C. Penneys, 601 Main, Newton, 1957.

J.C. Penneys, 601 Main, Newton, 1957. HCHCM Photo Archives

Change came in the late 1990s with the growing popularity of on-line shopping. Although catalog sales for J.C. Penney’s peaked at 4 billion in 1999, five years later 40% of catalog users were placing orders using the internet. Penney’s discontinued the Big Book in 2009.

Sears also was affected by the growing popularity of on-line shopping. The Sears Wish Book was discontinued in 1993. Five years later Sears launched Wishbook.com to attract internet shoppers.  In 2009, Sears improved the site with an interactive, online Holiday Wish Book complete with Christmas music, real-life holiday scenes and other  features.

What was your favorite way to shop? How has it changed?


  • Halkias, Maria. “J.C. Penney is Turing Last Page on its Big Book” Dallas Morning News 18 November 2009/26 November 2010 at www.dallasnews.com.
  • “The Sears Christmas Wish Book, A Holiday Tradition” at www.searsarchives.com/catalogs/history_wishbook.
  • HCHM Photo Archives