With Christmas just around the corner, what better time than now to remember the Wish Book. What child didn’t love that book come Christmas. A child’s favorite pages ended up torn and dog-eared, with special toys circled. Dreaming of things Santa might bring, the Wish Book represented many a child’s hope for a big Christmas. Adults saw great temptations and things needed to make life more practical. The Wish Book had it all.
It had flimsy paper, was thick as a big city phone book, and served as a mirror of the times. Of course, I’m writing about the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Has anyone seen one lately?
No way, unless you stumbled upon one in an attic. The company stopped producing the catalogue in 1993 in response to retailing trends. It marked the end of an era.
Georgia writer Harry Crews remembers the catalogue and in a way the catalogue made him who he is. “In the minds of most people, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue is a kind of low joke associated with outhouses. God knows the catalogue sometimes ended up in the outhouse, but more often it did not. All the farmers, black and white, kept dried corncobs beside their double-seated thrones, and the cobs served the purpose for which they were put there with all possible efficiency and comfort.
“The Sears, Roebuck catalogue was much better used as a Wish Book, which it was called by the people out in the country, who would never be able to order anything out of it, but could at their leisure spend hours dreaming over.”
Crews heaps praise on the catalog. “The federal government ought to strike a medal for the Sears, Roebuck Company for sending all those catalogues to farming families, for bringing all that color and all that mystery and all that beauty into the lives of country people.”
I agree. Strike a medal. I remember it myself, which dates me I suppose. I remember seeing it in my grandfather’s two-seater, the pages torn away in ragged layers. And I remember dreaming over shiny shotguns with mahogany-like stocks when visions of hunting occupied my small boy’s mind. And any man who’s not a liar will tell you he leafed through the women’s lingerie section. Thumbing through its pages was nothing less than an adventure in pure imagination and a journey through America. But it wasn’t all joy.
The Sears, Roebuck catalogue also brought a reality check into some homes. Crews said he first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect.
“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn’t have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, they had all their arms and legs and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful. Their legs were straight and their heads were never bald and on their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much in the faces of people around me.”
No doubt, a family eking out a hardscrabble living found the catalogue a tormenting presence, a reminder of its standing in life, a reminder that there are “haves” and “have-nots” in this world. Crews, who grew up wretchedly poor in Bacon County, Georgia, wasn’t fooled by the beautiful models, perfect hair, pressed clothes, and the things companies do to make their products appear perfect and desirable.
“Young as I was, though” wrote Crews, “I had known for a long time that it was all a lie. I knew that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world … And it was out of this knowledge that I first began to make up stories about the people I found in the catalogue.”
Crews, using his rich imagination, figured all the beautiful catalogue people were related, not necessarily by blood, but they knew one another, and because they knew one another there had to be hard feelings, trouble between them off and on, violence, and hate between them as well as love. And though he couldn’t know it at the time, the stories he spun about the models in the catalogue jumpstarted a unique writing career.
While rich kids poured over the Wish Book knowing their wishes would come true, the catalogue offered Crews a creative escape from abject poverty. For others, its bright pages provided Christmas wrapping paper during tough times, a way to start a fire, and then there were those outhouses.
That was then. Today, Sears produces a scaled-down catalog, the Wish Book (actual name), but it’s just 187 pages, a fraction of its glory days self.
Remember the “big book” with fondness? Then thank Richard W. Sears for founding the R.W. Sears Watch Company in 1886. A year later, Alvah C. Roebuck came on board to repair watches. Sears sold his business in 1889 and a year later he and Roebuck founded a mail-order operation: Sears, Roebuck and Company, and that led to the first Wish Book in 1893.
It enjoyed a run of 100 years, a century of Americana, memories, and dreams. And for one Bacon County boy, its flawless people spurred his imagination to understand that somehow, even if you were a picture-perfect model, life nonetheless was hard, real, and filled with suffering.