RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES: The Return of the Christmas Toy Catalog– Amazon Gives Santa a Boost

This 1933 Sears Roebuck & Company Christmas Wishbook Catalog 1st Edition Reprint sold for $38.50 in 2017.

Aldus Plus Manutius, owner of The Aldine Press and wishing to familiarize the public with his books, printed the first catalog in Venice in 1498.  In 1667, William Lucas, an English gardener, published his first seed catalog.

It was an American, none other than Benjamin Franklin, who printed the first mail order catalog.  His “A Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, Consisting of Near 600 Volumes, in most Faculties and Science” was printed in 1774.

The mail order catalog arrived in the 1830s.  Once again, nursery owners were the pioneers.  Tiffany & Company issued its first Blue Book in 1845.  Pryce-Jones of Newtown and Boston was the first American firm to sell mail order goods on a large scale.

August 12 is National Mail Order Catalog Day.  It honors the publication of the first Montgomery Ward mail order catalog on August 12, 1872.  The catalog reached over three million customers by 1904.  Hammacher-Schlemmer published its first catalog in 1881.  Sears, Roebuck and Co. became a mail order catalog seller in 1894.

For more details on the history of mail order catalogs, see Joost Buijs’ “A Visual History of the Catalog.” 

Amazon.com recently announced that it is issuing a printed, 70-page “Holiday of Play” catalog. PHOTO CREDIT: Amazon

A recent announcement by Amazon.com that it is issuing a printed, 70-page “Holiday of Play” catalog triggered a wealth of holiday toy catalog memories.  It served as a reminder that even though I grew up and was a young adult before the influx of mail order catalogs became a daily occurrence, catalogs, especially Christmas catalogs, did impact my childhood and early adulthood.

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum owns an F. A. O. Schwarz 1911 Spring/Summer toy catalog.  The first Sears Christmas catalog was issued in 1933, eight years before I was born.  Growing up in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, located near Easton, Bethlehem, and Allentown, my Christmas shopping memories are primarily department store and not mail order catalog driven.

This stated, I have two Christmas catalog memories, albeit not mail order catalogs.  In the weeks following Thanksgiving, Frank Rauscher’s Hardware Store featured a display of toys. Parents and their children would visit the store and pick out the toy or toys they wanted.  Rauscher would order them from a toy wholesaler’s catalog in time for delivery before Christmas Day.

This 1962/63 S&H stamp catalog sold for $14.99 in August 2018.

My Uncle Earl Prosser owned Prosser’s Drug Store.  At the time, Prosser’s offered S & H Green Stamps as a merchandising incentive.  Each year, my parents, brother, and I would go to the S & H Redemption store located on Airport Road in Allentown.  My brother and I could pick out a toy or two at my Uncle’s discounted price.

            [Author’s Aside #1:  I have a collection of over 300 merchant stamp redemption catalogs.  All contain toys.  Because of the redemptive qualities of filled stamp books, I am certain that many toys that appeared under Christmas trees between the 1950s and 1970s came from these sources.]

Fascinated by the Christmas toy wholesale catalogs, such as Billy and Ruth, used by local merchants, small department stores, and gasoline stations, I acquired several examples for inclusion in my research library.  The collection also contains some post-1945 F. A. O. Schwarz catalogs and Toys R Us catalogs.   For a while, I saved Toys R Us and other Christmas toy newspaper inserts.  I gave up because of storage issues and the poor quality of the paper on which they were printed.  My wife Linda is on dozens, if not hundreds, of mail order catalog lists.  Occasionally, I will save a toy related catalog, for example, an American Doll catalog, but not on a regular basis.

I plan to save a copy of Amazon.com’s “Holiday of Play” catalog, assuming I can obtain one.  Taylor Telford’s “In its first print toy catalog, Amazon Bets on the classics” that appeared in the November 7, 2018 Washington Post, Telford notes that catalogs will “be mailed to millions of customers.”

According to Buijs’ “A Visual History of the Catalog,” the number of mail order catalogs peaked around 2007, something I find difficult to believe given the number of catalogs Linda still receives daily.  Arguing the printed catalog is not dead, Buijs cites two statistics: (1) “30% of people polled reported that a catalog recently drove them online to shop” and (2) “there has been a 23% increase in overall response, despite a 4.5% decrease in catalogs mailed.”

The new Amazon.com “Holiday of Play” catalog will not contain prices.  Instead, shoppers will either have to go online or scan a QR code that places the item directly into a shopping cart.  Also, Amazon.com is making the catalog available on Kindle and in PDF format online.

            [Author’s Aside #2:  I am not planning to share this column or information with my digitally literate grandchildren.  Their Christmas list to Mrs. Linda Rinker Claus (Grandma is an easier touch than Grandpa) grows longer every year.  I have no desire to add to the list.]

Telford’s comment that the “Holiday of Play” catalog will “showcase the breadth of the holiday toy inventory, from classics like action figures, board games, and Barbies to high-end items like Bose audio gear and PlayStations” struck home.  Classics have long-term collectability.

The November 1, 2018 edition of the “Grand Rapids Free Press” ran a Cassey Sommer’s “Wanna get an early start on those Christmas lists? 20 hot toys predicted to be must-have this holiday season.”  I loathe “Top Anything” Christmas toy lists.  They are propaganda tools and merchandising hype for the toy industry and its large manufacturers.  

To paraphrase Clara Peller’s Wendy’s advertisements: Where is the collectability?  I have a file folder of similar stories issued during previous Christmas seasons.  All have one thing in common.  Only a small fraction, less than 20 percent, of the touted toys achieve long-term collectability.   This 20 percent floods the secondary market to the point where resale value often is below the initial purchase price.

I only identified three toys from Sommers list that have a possible long-term collecting future—Harry Potter Hogwarts Great Hall, Harry Potter Wizard Training Wands, Hot Wheels Corkscrew Crash Track Set.   Even these have critical long-term collecting issues.

Long-term collecting requires constant reinforcing of the licensing franchise.  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first movie in the series, was released in 2001.  “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 2,” the last movie in the series, was released in 2011.  Do the math.  In 2019, eight years will have passed since the last movie.  Ten years is a lifetime in the 21st century.  Generations that watched these movies now view them on cable networks or Netflix.  In another five years, there will be a new generation of youngsters whose may not have any Harry Potter memories.

In the good news department and thanks to the Universal theme park in Orlando, the Harry Potter sections will keep the mystic alive for some of them.  Harry Potter wands are a big seller there. The Jakks Pacific Harry Potter Wizard Training Wands set is cheaper.  A November 9 internet search for the price of Lego’s Harry Potter Hogwarts Great Hall sets showed retail prices ranging from $57.14 at AliExpress.com to $99.99 at Target.  Amazon.com’s list price is $99.97.

I stopped writing my annual Christmas Closet toy column because I was appalled by rising toy prices.  After reviewing the cost of the Christmas toys requested by Linda’s and my grandchildren, one hundred dollars is a bargain.

This rare Hot Wheels mustang sold for $255 in August 2018.

There is no question that Hot Wheels is enjoying a Renaissance.  “How long?” is the question.  Most Hot Wheel collectors, primarily males, have middle-age spread and graying hair.  Few have Hot Wheel tracks set up in their homes.  The cars are the collectible item.

On a final note, I applaud Amazon.com for issuing a printed Christmas toy catalog.  It will make the tracking of the future secondary toy market much easier.  Hopefully, Amazon.com will continue the practice.  If it stimulates sales, perhaps Amazon.com will issue a Spring/Summer printed toy catalog.   I am keeping my fingers crossed.

POSTSCRIPT:  I wrote this column on Thursday, November 9.  Earlier in the day, I received an email from Home Depot inviting me to take advantage now of their Black Friday prices.  Go figure!

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

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