The holiday season is all about traditions, and one of mine is naming the best toys from old department store catalogs. Let’s head back to 1992, when the 47th and 48th hottest things going were Swans Crossing and 3 Ninjas.
Behold, JCPenney’s 1992 Christmas catalog! Over 500 pages’ worth of things you had to have, from Little Mermaid dolls to those cheap artist kits that came with the messy pastels.
I meticulously examined the entire catalog, and then almost as meticulously cut key pages out of it. What, you thought I scanned these pages without tearing them out of the catalog first? Excuse me, have you tried to scan bound pages from a 550-page catalog? They look like Edvard Munch paintings.
Below are six highlights from JCPenney’s 1992 Christmas catalog. Narrowly missing the cut are a 90210 sleeping bag and a Camaro-shaped phone.
Batcave & Ertl Die-cast Set!
($44.99 & $14.99)
Batman Returns hit theaters in June of that year, which gave its toys the advantage of recency. With TMNT waning and no other strong contenders, Batman ruled over the Christmas season with ease.
The crème de la crème was Kenner’s Batcave Command Center, which strongly resembled a modern day Cheesecake Factory. Sorry, you know it’s true. I think Bruce would’ve ordered the pretzel bite fondue.
Actually, I’m more enamored by those die-cast metal figures and vehicles, from Ertl. I used to buy those all the time, if only because they were some of the cheapest figures in toy stores — especially after the clearance sales started. Hell, sometimes I’d throw a tiny metal Batman on the counter just to break a ten.
I’ve gushed about Monster Face before, but in summary, it was a mutant toxic zombie version of Mr. Potato Head. The photo in JCPenney’s catalog was a big loser, because it excluded the two best components: Monster Face’s tuft of neon hair, and the slime that oozed from his pores.
I’m mostly featuring Monster Face for that absolutely badass catalog description. Search every other catalog in history, and you won’t find a better opening line than “start with a bare skull mounted on a neck-like shock absorber with a stylized rock base.”
I guess Monster Face just brought out the artist in everyone, whether they were playing with the toy or just trying to describe it before a 3PM deadline.
($15.00 & $20.00)
This catalog suggests that Troll dolls were huge in ‘92, which tracks with how I remember it. That year, the bright spot of my entire summer vacation was trying to win Troll dolls from crane machines in Atlantic City.
(No, really, that was the bright spot. I had no friends. My hair was shaped like an upside-down colander.)
There are a lot of Trolls in this catalog, but it’s these two that really illustrated how popular the dolls were. See, these were advertised right in the *Christmas decorations* section, alongside Jesus blow molds and hundred-dollar Santa suits.
You usually needed serious tenure to share space with the Virgin Mary and the Walnut Bowl That Also Crushes Walnuts. If your family owned either of those Troll dolls, it’s because their prime placement in catalogs like this made them seem chic.
Nintendo TV Cart!
This was almost hidden on a page of car-shaped beds, likely because it was already several years old by 1992. The TV cart is now a grail piece for hardcore Nintendo collectors, who — to paraphrase Badfinger — can’t live if livin’ is without a crude Mario painted onto particleboard.
I was a Nintendo kid and so were my closest friends, but none of us were like the kids you’d see featured in Nintendo Power. I did know someone like that, though: Tom, a classmate who I only visited once or twice a year. He had every goddamned Nintendo-branded thing on the planet, including this. Kept everything in perfect condition, too. Games still boxed, wires never frayed. Really nice guy. I hated him.
Batman & TMNT Play Tents!
A step above the bed tents that I spent my childhood lusting after, these free-standing playhouses would’ve completely changed my life.
I’ve always had a peculiar fondness for them, and I think I’ve finally figured out why. I grew up in a crowded house, where even your own bedroom did little to guarantee privacy. No, what I needed was a bedroom within a bedroom. Oh, Dad’s on the warpath because he thinks I took his masking tape? Well I doubt he’s mad enough to unzip a nylon Batmobile.
While all of you fight over Batman, I’m gonna make an offer on that Ninja Turtles pizzeria. What a concept! Imagine retiring to your pop-up pizzeria with some nuked Ellio’s. Pure bliss!
Mr. Christmas Holiday Carousel!
Oh, and speaking of Dad, he loved this thing. A battery-operated carousel that blared Christmas music while plastic horses bopped in place. I genuinely couldn’t name many things that he liked more. Cigarettes?
My father was a tough Brooklyn guy, kinda reminiscent of Tony Soprano’s dad. (Same hair, too.) Even in his later years, he wasn’t what you’d call the typical type to become fixated on a musical carousel. Yet there he was, driving nails directly into the finished kitchen wood, just so those horses could dance from a place of prominence.
For me, nothing screams “Christmas in the mid ‘90s” louder than that carousel. Whenever I look at family photos from that era, the catchy tunes start playing in my head. I loved those stupid horses, and I’m glad nobody ever noticed that I sat Snake Eyes on the beige one.
Thanks for reading. I hope this article felt like Christmas to you.