In a world without the internet, the Sears Wish Book was every kid’s bible. Each year brought a new edition, and each year, we’d use those immense catalogs to build our holiday wishlists. Even if a comparative few of the catalog’s 500+ pages directly applied to us, we’d lose weeks to these books, carefully penning our proposals for perfect Christmas mornings.
Parents didn’t necessarily use our lists to order directly from Sears, nor did us writing them create any real guarantee that we’d get even a tenth of the stuff we wanted. That was all immaterial, because the thrill was in the dreaming. I rarely play the Lotto, but when I do, it’s not because I think I have a real shot at winning. Those few dollars just afford me the chance to imagine a world where I could have everything I want. You’re playing for the dreams, and it wasn’t much different with the Sears Wish Book.
Of course, the appeal of looking at these old catalogs today is far different. They almost work like historical documents, cataloguing every trivial thing that people never needed, but still really, really wanted. They’ve become accidental archives of the material world, covering everything from fashion to technology.
…and toys, of course!
In December of 1989, I was ten years old. Fifth grade. Even if outside forces were starting to urge me away from toys, I was a slow learner. This catalog brings back many memories of the silly plastic things that once ruled my world. I’ve collected a dozen of them below. Hopefully they will spark some memories for you, too!
#1: The Real Ghostbusters Pretend Play Accessories!
(Price: $12.89 – $14.89)
The Real Ghostbusters toy line was still going strong by 1989. In fact, in terms of prominence in this catalog, it was second only to TMNT. (…which explains why this is just the first of three Ghostbusters mentions in this article!)
It’s hard to say what drove that line more: The standard action figures, or the larger “pretend play” items, which let kids become Ghostbusters with a volley of ghost-zapping weapons and accessories.
The more I think about it, the stronger the case for the latter seems. From top to bottom, we have the Ecto Popper, the Nutrona Blaster and the super famous Ghost Trap. Even if a kid got those three things and absolutely nothing else, it was a banner Christmas.
Crossfire was one of the best tabletop games ever. I still can’t believe that it’s out of production. While it now fetches high prices on eBay, I doubt that has anything to do with its “collectible value.” People who remember playing it just want to play it again, no matter the cost.
In Crossfire, two players shot little marbles at rolling targets in what was essentially a gun-powered version of air hockey. Finesse be damned, gameplay quickly devolved into us simply shooting those silver bullets as furiously as we could, with reckless abandon.
It was controlled chaos. I can’t remember many instances when I was more aggressive than the times I spent playing Crossfire. I’d yell, I’d scream, I’d cheer and I’d wail. I’d give my hand a cramp. To the winner went euphoria, to the loser tears and stubbed toes.
Course, I’m not sure many of us would’ve ever sought the joys of Crossfire without the encouragement of its unforgettable TV commercial, which suggested that games were to be played in some kind of Tron-meets-Hell arena.
(2019 UPDATE: Crossfire has finally returned!)
#3: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Thrower!
The Ninja Turtles’ appearance in the 1989 Wish Book is especially important to me, since that was the Christmas I got my very first TMNT figures.
I spent the rest of the fifth grade positively obsessed with them. My birthday came a few months later, and every last one of my presents was from the Playmates’ collection. The Ninja Turtles were all I cared about.
One of those birthday presents was the Pizza Thrower, featured in the above scan. It never achieved the fame of the Turtle Van or Turtle Blimp, but holy hell, that was an AMAZING vehicle.
The Pizza Thrower was a battery-operated tank that shot a stack of plastic pizzas as if they were missiles. And those pizzas REALLY fired, with velocities that rivaled baseball pitching machines.
More importantly, the pizza missiles were perfectly scaled to work as legitimate pizzas for your Ninja Turtle action figures. I can’t exaggerate how important that was! While Playmates made sure that the Turtles came with the right weapons, they forgot that our heroes spent as much time holding pizza as they did swords and nunchucks. It was just as much fun to make four-inch Ninja Turtles eat dinner as it was to make them punch bad guys.
#4: Nintendo Clothes!
(Price: $8.99 – $14.97)
Nintendo was all over the Sears Wish Book, but not just on the gaming pages. No other brand was as prolific in the children’s clothing section, and if you think about it, that makes perfect sense. In 1989, anything involving Nintendo was instantly cool. Nintendo was the tie that bound us all. It was the never-fail icebreaker and our perpetual common ground.
No kid would’ve balked at Nintendo-branded clothes. These were the Armani suits of the second grade. Treat me with respect and regard, not for what I say or do, but because my chest is covered with Super Mario.
#5: The New Adventures of He-Man Two-Pack!
If you’re not the right age or a serious Masters of the Universe fan, you might not have heard of The New Adventures of He-Man, a not especially successful attempt to resurrect He-Man after his first big run.
I think time has been kind to these toys, which were quite unlike any other line both in scale and concept. They have an endearing sort of “generic” quality that’s all the more pronounced if you don’t know anything about the characters. (I’m not going to tell you anything purple-faced Flogg, because purple-faced Flogg is way cooler if you make up his backstory yourself.)
Here you got two He-Man figures for one low price. “Batched sets” were common in Wish Books, which often neglected to mention that you’d be receiving your figures in nontraditional packaging, to make the shipping easier. Sometimes, the figures just came bagged inside plain white boxes. Even if such packaging is worth dramatically more on the collectors’ market today, when we were kids, we just wanted the shit as we saw it in Kay-Bee.
(This may have been a rare set where that wasn’t the case, because there actually was an official two-pack starring these figures. Neat!)
#6: Child-Sized Chairry!
The much-beloved Pee-wee’s Playhouse inspired a generation of kids to spend too much time imagining what it’d be like to live in a home like Pee-wee’s, filled with robots and dinosaurs and talking flowers. Here was our chance to find out!
Okay, so this version of Chairry wasn’t exactly life-sized, but it was big enough for kids to sit on. (It better have been, for that price!) Chairry didn’t swing her arms or verbally console us when the chips were down, but it was still a ridiculous chair with ridiculous eyes, and God oh mighty would it have made life grand.
Sears Wish Books were always stuffed with impossible items like this. Things we never saw in stores. If any of you had the kid-sized Chairry, please tell me what it was like. Tell me how much it dramatically improved life, in ways that you continue benefitting from today. I want to know what could have been.
#7: Sega Genesis w/ Altered Beast!
Ah, the Sega Genesis. I had the Super Nintendo first, which I somehow won by collecting enough points at a New Jersey casino arcade. From the 16-bit era, that was my system, and I was very happy with it.
The Sega Genesis didn’t hit my radar until my old best friend got one. As often as they could, he and his older brother bragged about how much better it was. I’d go over there and they’d be playing Sonic, and I only had the game’s music to drown out their constant digs about how my Super Nintendo could never do something “that fast.”
Naturally, the only way out of that pit was to get my own Sega Genesis. Problem was, this was the off-season, and neither Christmas nor my birthday were close enough to work. Asking for a new and expensive video game system at any time of year was risky, but I wouldn’t have dared to try without Christmas or my birthday to lean on.
But then came an opportunity. My parents were renovating the house, and part of that renovation involved expanding their bedroom closet at the expense of my own room. I stood to lose around 30% of my personal space, and I knew I could turn this to my advantage.
I somehow convinced my parents that a Sega Genesis would be a fair trade for my now-smaller bedroom. Still can’t believe I won that argument. Who cared if I only played it ten times? The important thing was that I owned it.
#8: G.I. Joe Crusader Space Shuttle!
I’ve always had a weird relationship with G.I. Joe toys. I had and loved plenty of them, but I was never completely wrapped up in the franchise. (At least, not like I was with Star Wars, MOTU or Transformers.)
…which isn’t to say that I never asked for the figures, but in terms of the larger vehicles and playsets, the only ones I had were gifts from people who didn’t know what else to get me. In retrospect, I wish I’d been more proactive about G.I. Joe. I could plainly see that the Terror Drome was a life-changer, so why didn’t I ever ask for one?!
Shown above is another of the way-cool oversized playsets, albeit not on the same level of that Terror Drome. The Crusader Space Shuttle was arguably more of a vehicle, but it fit tons of figures and easily doubled as a mobile base. While nowhere near as huge as the similarly-themed Defiant playset, the Crusader seems like one of those toys that would’ve made everything right with the world for at least two weeks.
#9: Pinball Games!
(Price: $34.97 each)
Battery-operated pinball machines were a delight that most of us knew very well. Even if you didn’t have either of these, you probably had one like them. The truth was that they rarely worked well, with warped tracks and a plastic “shell” that was just too light to handle the pinball rage of even a seven-year-old. We didn’t mind, because they were BIG and they were LOUD and they were covered with our favorite cartoon characters.
Unfortunately, the mortality rate on such pinball machines was pretty yucky. It turned out that few kids had “just the right spot” for them, so our machines would usually remain on our bedroom floors, where they invariably met death by way of accidental footsteps.
#10: “The Wave” Machine!
The Wave! I know it seems like an odd inclusion, but I actually had this thing. My sister gave it to me when I was in junior high, I guess because it looked like the perfect gift for a 7th grader who lived like a 3rd grader. She was right. I loved it.
A heavy tube of unknown liquid rested atop a plug-in device, which tipped the tube like a seesaw to create a never-ending series of waves. This was my own little self-contained ocean!
What was the appeal? Well, think of a lava lamp. Now change the lava lamp’s shape so that you’d need the entire top of a dresser to display it properly. Now give that lava lamp the power to make swishing water sounds mixed with robot noises. The Wave was like a lava lamp that constantly begged for your complete attention.
#11: The Real Ghostbusters Three-Packs!
(Price: $19.89 per set)
Real Ghostbusters toys made every Christmas sweeter, and by 1989, I’d already had a few years to learn that. I caught onto the line during its very first wave. One of my favorite Christmas memories is of opening the original Slimer figure, back when Kenner just called him “Green Ghost.”
I loved adding combo-packs like these to my wishlists, even if I can’t recall ever receiving one. I’d look at the bulk prices, do some mental math, and determine that I could score more than my fair share of toys from each individual gift-giver. In reality, people would just pluck single figures from my lists and buy them independently. That’s not how it was supposed to work! It was supposed to be about volume!
#12: Sony Stereo System!
Last we have this behemoth, admittedly out of place on a list otherwise populated by action figures and 2nd grade sweatshirts.
My family had a gaudy stereo system much like this one. Material gigantism was one of the era’s go-to status symbols.
I was under instructions to never go near the set, let alone touch it. Since I’d built quite a reputation for losing wires and breaking electronics, this wasn’t so surprising. (One of my literal earliest memories is of tanking our TV set by casually sticking a huge refrigerator magnet dead in the middle of its screen. Whoops.)
Not being allowed near the stereo only made it more fascinating. I’d always stare at it and wonder what it was really capable of. After all, my parents only ever consulted 5 or 6 of its 350 buttons and dials.
Given that we more frequently made use of a simple plug-in radio, I have no idea why they bought it. I think it was just one of those things people felt a social “responsibility” to own. Look at your own pile of electronic devices — surely there are a few that you “had to own” but have only used a couple of times. Same deal!
Thanks for reading!