By Robert A. Lanier
Once upon a time, every year, two free paperback books approximately two inches thick plopped onto the doorstep of almost every dwelling in Memphis. One was the Bell telephone directory and the other was the Sears & Roebuck catalog. I believe the last Sears catalog was delivered in the early 1970s. As Sears seems to be fading away, it seems appropriate to look back on their catalog and the treats it furnished.
The big book contained pictures (both photos and drawings) of virtually every product one would wish to buy, from clothing to motorcycles to (at one period) prefabricated houses. Almost like today’s Amazon, there were simply too many things on offer to list here. What made me think of this subject, however, was an item I purchased recently from a current bookseller’s catalog. It was an exact reproduction of the 1942 Sears “Christmas Book” catalog, which was distributed each autumn, no doubt, to give customers time to place their orders for the holidays. It was much thinner than the big annual catalog, and concentrated on items, including toys, more suitable as gifts.
I was almost four when this particular book would have come to my parents’ attention, and some of the children’s gifts in it which I recall would not have been given to me until a few years later. It did, however, contain some of the toys which I or some of my little friends received around then. The amazing thing one finds upon reading it today is the modest price of almost all the items. Of course, Sears offered very few “top of the line” products, other than tools. They concentrated on affordable but reliable wares, often resembling the expensive originals available from other merchants.
Looking through the 1942 Christmas book, I immediately saw some toys I had received around that time. Bear in mind that my father, as was usual in those days, was the sole breadwinner for the family and had a salary of perhaps $50 a week, before taxes. Applying an arbitrary inflation figure of multiplying by 17 to roughly approximate today’s dollar value, that would be the modern equivalent of about $850 a week. As we discuss the various items which I or my friends received, I will add today’s estimated value in parentheses. Also remember that we did not have China or Taiwan to make things as inexpensive as most are today, although Japan and Germany made some toys and Christmas ornaments.
The first items to consider for the holidays would be those used to decorate the Christmas tree. First to be placed thereon would be the colored light bulbs—in a series—so that if one burned out, the whole string went dark. A string of 9 would cost 79 cents ($13.43). Three hundred foil “icicles” would be 9 cents ($1.53), and 10 feet-long paper garlands and bells would be 39 cents ($6.63). Of course, there would have to be glass ball ornaments (US made) at $1.10 ($18.70) for a box of 12.
Now for the toys.
I am leaving the stuff for girls (dolls, etc.) out, as they didn’t interest me. The pièce de résistance was the “sparkling-fighting army tank” at $1.73 ($29.41). Anyone who has seen the wonderful film, “A Christmas Story”, Jean Shepherd’s masterpiece, will have seen one of these little tanks in the store window in the opening scene. It not only had rubber caterpillar treads that propelled it, but it shot sparks from its cannon. I had one! “Tinker Toys,” tiny notched wooden logs to build tiny houses, etc. were $1.05 ($17.85) for a set, and a cork-firing “shotgun” was 69 cents ($11.73), while a suction cup dart-firing pistol went for 32 cents ($5.44). It might be accompanied by a Junior Air Raid Warden kit, containing an imitation dish helmet, gas mask, arm band, tongue depressor (!), bandage and a stretcher, all for $1.10 ($ 18.70). Remember, the U.S. entered World War II in December of 1941. Therefore, a number of catalog items reflected the war spirit. There was a ceramic Hitler with pin cushion (on his derrière), a 19-inch General MacArthur doll for $1.89 ($32.13) and a rather lame looking army officer’s uniform for a small boy. It cost $3.19 ($54.23) and couldn’t equal the one I had from the Phil A. Halle store, which must have cost a fortune.
There was a 78-rpm record of the very popular patriotic song, “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” (including Bronx cheers) by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Each record was 37 cents ($6.29). I distinctly remember wanting a jeep, but as my parents apparently couldn’t swing that, I settled for an all metal “pursuit plane” (fighter) at $15.29 –now $260!). Like a toy fire engine, a child could ride in this plane and pedal it, while the propeller turned! I was disappointed to find that quickly pedaling downhill in the middle of Holmes Street would not result in liftoff, and merely gave my mother heart murmurs. How my father afforded such a toy, I’ll never know, although I had a doting grandfather who may have helped. I seem to remember a hook-and-ladder fire truck ($13.74, or $233 today), but I may have only borrowed somebody else’s. Sears offered a tricycle with ten-inch wheels in the 1942 catalog for only $4 ($68).
When I was older, I had one of the simpler Gilbert chemistry sets (27 pieces) which the catalog lists for $2.29 ($40). I only learned to make rotten egg stink bombs with it. My best friend later had some of the amazingly inexpensive items in the book. A “Flying Arrow” sled, which looked much like the famous “Flexible Flyer”, went for only $2.65 ($45), and his Lionel 38-inch, five-unit freight electric train was only $9.39 ($166.43)! I was too young to read in 1942 (other than comic books), but there were a number of 48 cent ($8.16?) books available , including Bambi, Black Beauty and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There was a doctor kit, including a stethoscope, for 52 cents ($8.84), which I seem to recall putting to use with a little neighbor girl a few years later.
The Christmas catalog contained a number of other items, such as clothing, bedspreads, pens, etc., in which I would have had no interest. I always felt sorry for little friends who received only clothing for Christmas. It was, to me, the equivalent of switches and ashes, which bad children were supposed to receive, according to legend.
It is worth mentioning here that the catalog was obviously intended primarily for white customers, who had the money to order things. Buried on page 50 among an assortment of 30 cent ($5) dolls was “Kid Chocolate,” described as “A pickaninny you’ll simply adore.” A lengthy dissertation could be written about the thousands of other items for all ages and genders which were contained in a Sears catalog, with sociological, psychological, and historical analyses. No doubt it has already been done. There is certainly plenty of raw material for the purpose.
Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981), and his most recent, Memphis in the Jazz Age (2021). Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection.