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Home Opinion Appalachian Notebook: Where Christmas toys came from in the 1950s

Appalachian Notebook: Where Christmas toys came from in the 1950s

As a child, I had a theory about Santa Claus and Christmas toys that was remarkably advanced for the time, especially for someone whose forebearers celebrated with simple observances and not much in the way of gifts. Maybe they found apples, oranges and few pieces of horehound candy in stockings laid on the hearth. Such was the holiday for sharecroppers in southern Appalachia well into the 20th Century.

When my parents became part of the northward diaspora after World War II, we learned different, richer Christmas traditions. Regular factory paychecks meant money to indulge your family, so my sister and I became the beneficiaries of an active and quite generous Santa. You might say the jolly old elf tried to make up for lost time.

This holiday bounty posed a quandary for me, the eldest sibling. From where did the toys and games really come? There were three choices: The Sears & Roebuck catalog, local stores or the North Pole.

The tried-and-true Sears catalog was a familiar source of Christmas joy for rural families. Its pages were read over-and-over again, passed around from mother to father, sibling to sibling, granny to aunt, until the clothing, tool and sporting good sections were covered in scribbles, the pages dog-eared and covers falling off.

When the cotton harvest was ginned and sold, sharecropper families immediately used their part of the proceeds to pay debts, replace farm implements and re-supply for spring planting. Whatever remained was used to pay for catalog orders: new coats, boots and shoes, hats and work gloves, fabric for garments, replacement of pots and pans, animal traps, guns, ammunition and a Christmas gift for each child—usually a utilitarian item and not a toy.

By the time I came along, the “Wish Book” was thick as our family Bible, boasting color pages, with a huge toy section. It even sold even cowboy clothes and football uniforms. We circled our favorite things in crayon and showed the particular page to our parents often and with great enthusiasm.

In our small town, stand-alone toy stores didn’t exist. But the small department stores, hardware stores, drug stores, even a few grocers trotted out their holiday offerings. Behind the front plate glass windows, the employees created a winter wonderland of children’s greed, much like the scene in the film “Christmas Story” when Ralphie and his friends gaze upon the plethora of playthings at Higbee’s.

My favorite place to Santa browse was Western Auto. The selection would make your head explode:

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Electric trains, baby dolls and accessories, metal toy cars, trucks, tractors, games and sporting goods, motorized airplanes, wind-up tanks, motorcycles and rocket ships, army men, military model kits, chemistry sets, telescopes and microscopes, puzzles, red wagons, bikes, portable record players, transistor radios and BB guns.

The Christmas treasures were arrayed on the highest shelves, away from grubby little hands. We asked our dads to be hoisted on their shoulders to peer at the items that had cast particular Christmas spells on us.

Large hand-lettered signs along the crowded aisles declared: “Items not for sale. Samples provided by Santa Claus to help you decide. Send your letters to the North Pole promptly!” It was a stroke of retail marketing genius. Combining the revered traditions of Santa and letters from kids with the disclaimer that the store’s role was simply networking the toymaker with the recipients was perfect.

I think this was what led to my theory that all these things worked hand-in-glove. Catalogs and stores represented Santa products. The big guy and his elves filled the orders that savvy kids sent via scrawled letters—or, if brave enough, they sat on the lap of one of his many faux independent contractors and told them, face-to-face.

This unique system of manufacture and delivery made perfect sense to me. It was an example of what made America great, in my opinion. I even convinced my friends and southern cousins that Christmas magic, advertising and mail-order marketing worked together for the good of all children.

Of course, back then we didn’t have Black Friday sales, Amazon, gross commercialization or big box stores. People didn’t stampede midnight sales, trample fellow shoppers or fight them. There is no Christmas in that behavior, and the real Santa—the 1950s version—wouldn’t approve. That famous Santa was simply the guy who ensured happiness for millions of children, not an icon of greed.

Today, the white-bearded, tubby gentleman in a red suit is an economic symbol and prime spokesman for consumerism. When the holiday is over, Wall Street and the pessimistic media will put him aside for another nine months and declare whether or not it was a successful retail season. If it was not, they’ll prophesize doom and gloom for the coming year.

Little or no mention will be made about whether churches were fuller, charitable contributions increased, shootings and other forms of violence diminished, poor families fed and clothed or if Christmas celebrants understood the reason for the season.  

Then, we will move on to embrace the next holiday icon that makes cash registers beep and credit card scanners buzz. Cupid, the baby-faced winged archer, and his Valentine’s Day merchandise will be on display before the unwanted Christmas gifts have been returned or exchanged. Such is the heartbeat of modern consumerism.

I liked it simpler when parents, stores, catalogs and Mr. Claus himself worked together to preserve a fantasy grounded in peace on earth, good will toward men.

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Steve Oden
Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachian Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald bi-weekly.
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