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Catalog of dreams

Website offers a nostalgic journey through decades of old Sears Wishbooks

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / December 2, 2010

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In my childhood household, the day that the annual Sears Wishbook arrived in the mail was just as important as the debut of the Saturday morning cartoon lineup in September. It even rivaled the annual Muther New Year’s Eve celebration when my father would whip up his version of haute cuisine — a batch of his famous sliced kielbasa on Triscuits with melted cheddar — and I was allowed the rare treat of staying up late to watch “Fantasy Island’’ while sipping on sparkling apple cider.

The arrival of the Sears Wishbook would determine exactly what kind of Christmas I would be having. Would Santa heed my call for a new set of Legos that would allow me to build a model of my dream home, a sort of futuristic Frank Lloyd Wright number? Would he bring the Superman costume that I had my eye on for no particular reason, other than the fact that I thought a red cape would bring out the chocolate brown in my six-year-old eyes? The possibilities were endless. I’d take out the pen my mother had politely stolen from the bank and start circling my dream gifts from every page.

As a child of the 1970s and 1980s living in a particularly rural hamlet of Massachusetts, I saw the Sears catalog as an important link to the outside world. For millions of kids across America who lived outside of cities, these phone book-thick catalogs tidily summed up our consumer desires and told Santa exactly what he should be ordering for us. At one point, I assumed that the North Pole was simply where Sears kept a warehouse and Santa was a deliveryman.

“It was the Internet of its day,’’ Seattle-based retail historian and author Robert Spector told me last week. “Retail hasn’t changed all that much over the last century. It’s just the ways of delivering the merchandise has changed. When the Sears catalog arrived in the 1800s, it opened up an entire world of consumerism that most people never had on a day-to-day basis.’’

This nostalgic walk down catalog lane is fueled by the news that the website Ancestry.com is now offering the chance to view every page from nearly every Sears catalog, beginning in 1896 and running through to 1993. The catalog search isn’t free — a monthly membership to the site costs $12.95 — but after cyber flipping through catalogs on the site, I was transported back to the days of ancient video games, dolls with bladder control issues, and itchy NFL pajamas.

The idea of a website known for genealogy research offering 100 years of the Sears catalog, approximately 250,000 pages of history and merchandise, may seem like an odd collaboration. But Quinton Atkinson, director of content acquisition for Ancestry.com, explains that placing the catalog online is intended to give those doing family research some context into the way their past relatives lived.

“It’s something that’s iconic in nature,’’ he says. “People can still remember the process of going through catalogs and looking for Christmas gifts. But since these catalogs cover such a large period, you can go back and see what gifts your grandparents and great-grandparents were looking for as well. You can really get a feel for what life was like back then.’’

Spector, the retail historian who’s latest book is “The Mom & Pop Store,’’ grew up in New York and doesn’t share my affinity for the catalog. He was able to shop at Macy’s and other large department stores as a child. But Jason Liebig, a New York-based actor and writer who grew up in Nebraska, clearly shares my love of vintage catalogs. So much so that he started a website called WishbookWeb.com. His selection of catalogs is far more limited than the Ancestry.com offerings, but his site is free and offers everything from the 1940 Sears Christmas catalog to all 512 pages of the 1976 JC Penney Christmas catalog. His motivation for starting the site is the same one that makes my icicle of a heart melt when I click through the pages — nostalgia.

“Growing up in the era where these catalogs were one of the only focal points for our Christmas dreams, it makes sense that looking back on them would have so much power,’’ Liebig says. “That singular focus doesn’t exist anymore. Ask anyone over 30, and they have a common shared experience with regards to these great old catalogs.’’

According to Tom Aiello, division vice president of public relations for Sears, the largest Sears catalog printed was the 1965 Fall catalog, with a whopping 1,810 pages. Today, the Christmas catalog is a shadow of its former glorious self and used to drive shoppers online. I understand that trees and forests are grateful for this paper-saving technology. But a part of me is quite sad that future generations will never know the excitement that I once felt of holding that giant catalog, flipping through its pages, grabbing a pen, and circling all of my consumer-driven dreams for Santa.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

An image from a vintage Sears catalog. An image from a vintage Sears catalog.