Nova Scotia

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Why old Sears Wish Books have hidden value

Some collectors are on the hunt for old Wish Books to use as a reference guides for old toys.

'It’s just like going back in time,' says toy collector

Scott Higgins says the Wish Book is a valuable reference for toy collectors. (Robert Short/CBC)

Dog-eared pages, bright yellow highlighter marks and messages written in crayon — few catalogues got the attention and use of the Sears Wish Book. 

The publication was a dream machine for generations of Canadian children who used it to fill out their Christmas wish lists. Now, the catalogues themselves are on the wish lists of some toy collectors.  

"They're all valuable references," said Scott Higgins, an antique toy collector in Upper LaHave, N.S. "It's just like going back in time to see what was available and the price and distribution."

It can be difficult to find details about toys from the 1950s and 1960s, says Kevin Duffy. Unlike more modern toys, there isn't much information about them on the internet. (Robert Short/CBC)

Higgins said Wish Books from the 1950s and 1960s are highly sought after and can go for up to $50 each. He recently sold a collection of the catalogues from the 1990s and 2000s because he doesn't collect toys from that period. 

Higgins's 23 Wish Books were sold for $80 and he had five people express interest in buying them. 

Scott Higgins has been collecting toys since he was seven years old. (David Burke/CBC)

Kevin Duffy in Halifax bought those catalogues. He's also a toy collector and already owns many Wish Books from 1966 onward. Duffy uses the Wish Books to help him find out exactly what accessories came with toys.

Kevin Duffy says he plans to complete his collection of Wish Books by trading with other toy collectors and buying the catalogues from locals. (Robert Short/CBC)

"I enjoy reading them now almost as much as I did when I was a kid. In the fall you'd get a Wish Book and you would go through that for the two months until Christmas making up your list of what you wanted. It was fun to go through those books," he said. 

Reliving that fun today can be costly. Wish Books for sale on eBay range in price from $13 to $190.

Those prices are too steep for Duffy. 

Kevin Duffy says old Wish Books help him determine what accessories came with the antique toys he collects. (Robert Short/CBC)

"It's too much money for me. They're very interesting, they're a lot of fun, they're a lot of help with the toys, but they're not worth paying $150, $200 for a catalogue."

He plans to keep collecting the books by buying them locally or through trades with other collectors. 

Higgins said catalogues are becoming scarce because they were used and then discarded. 

One of the toys Kevin Duffy found the hardest to track down was a toy robot from the movie The Forbidden Planet. The toy was selling for upwards of $2,000 a few years ago, but Duffy managed to get his for around $500 at a flea market. (Robert Short/CBC)

No more Wish Books and no more Sears

No Canadian Wish Book was published this year, as Sears began closing its stores after declaring bankruptcy.  

Cash-strapped Sears Canada is shutting all of its stores across the country. (CBC/Patrick Morrell)

Higgins said it's a shame to see the Wish Book go, but with the rise of online shopping, he thinks Sears would have killed production of the costly catalogue in a few years anyway. 

"When I was a kid I used to wait for that thing to come out.… I would pore over that thing.

"The catalogues were also nicely laid out so they actually looked adventurous. For example, when I was a little fella and Star Wars first came out they had Star Wars toys in front of a deep blue background and it made it look like these toys were actually floating in space. It piqued the imagination. That's why I liked the Wish Book so much." 

This is the first year that Sears Canada has not put out a Wish Book since 1952. (Robert Short/CBC)

Wish Book holds special memories

The catalogue was first published in 1952. It was a decade later before Pam Mood in Yarmouth first got her hands on a Wish Book, and then she had to share it with her five siblings.

Pam Mood is the mayor of Yarmouth. (CBC)

"There would be six little hands on that Wish Book and we would lay down on the living room rug in front of the fireplace and we would sort through it."

Duffy says he started collecting toys about 25 years ago and still gets enjoyment from his collection. (Robert Short/CBC)

Mood said the children would never fight over the catalogue, for fear that Santa Claus would see their bad behaviour and not bring them any presents. 

Each of the children in Mood's house were allowed to fold down the corner of a page in the catalogue to point out exactly which toy they wanted. The kids would then pick out toys for children who were less fortunate. 

The Wish Book helps toy collectors figure out whether their toys are intact or not. (Robert Short/CBC)

"On Christmas morning you just hoped Santa knew which page you had turned over," said Mood.

'It put everyone on an even playing field' 

Mood, who grew up to be the mayor of Yarmouth, said the Wish Book was a great equalizer among kids in rural communities. 

Higgins says the way the Wish Book imaginatively displayed toys captivated him as a child. (David Burke/CBC)

"For those people that had parents who came to the city, they just got the coolest things that we didn't have access [to], except through the Wish Book. So it was a really, really big deal.… It put everyone on an even playing field." 

At its core, the Wish Book catalogue was designed to sell products and to present items in the most favourable light to entice people to shop. 

But the traditions that sprang up around the Wish Book were something more. 

"The sad thing for me is that I don't get to sit down with my grandchildren and do that — you know, sit them on my lap and go through the pages and let them experience what I did," said Mood.   



David Burke


David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.


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