Toy Catalogs

It’s hard to believe that after years of being bombarded with what must amount to tonnage of mail order catalogs, that the sight of a toy catalog can still raise a prickle of hope and anticipation in someone as jaded as an old catalog hand like me. Of all the catalogs I receive, the toy catalogs receive the heaviest scrutiny. And I don’t just mean for content, but also for style, ease of use, paper quality, and photography.

When I went on Ebay to find a copy of the first FAO Schwarz catalog I ever sent for, I was amazed at how many people collect catalogs – especially toy catalogs. There are businesses that just sell reproductions of old ‘wish books’ for fools like me who are looking for lost memories (actually I was informed by one of these booksellers that the most frequent buyers are museum collection departments or other people doing research, and not nostalgia junkies.)

In the name of research, I performed a mini survey of my own on the current selection of catalogs that have arrived through the mail. I’m only including the ones that are specifically aimed at kids (or their parents) and not ones like Archie McPhee (my favorite) or the very rarefied Dollmasters catalog that caters to collectors. In catalog design-land, the most important real estate besides the front cover is the back cover and the first two inside pages. I could go on at length about center spreads, mail order inserts, etc., but this would become tedious. Here are a few choice observations:

Young Explorers – Creative Educational Products (what a title…makes your blood get hot, no?)
Page Count: 56
Cover Image: Two kids (boy and girl), both Caucasian, surrounded by spot images of toys. The boy is playing with a metal detector; girl is playing with a remote control build-it-yourself robot. Caption says, ‘Just What We Wanted!’ Really?
Inside cover: Highest priced toy - $99.95 for a talking globe; lowest priced toy (batteries not included) - $12.95 for a Money Maze bank
Back cover: Highest priced toy - $89.95 for a wooden castle and knights; lowest priced toy (batteries not included) - $29.95 for Sugar Snaps – some kind of new paper doll. There is also an inset with a picture of a little girl (Caucasian)

Highlights Holiday Toy Catalog– (I still read Highlights when I am in the doctor’s office…used to love the hidden pictures)
Page Count: 66
Cover Image: One kid (girl of possible ethnic extraction, but sort of Caucasian) playing with a potter’s wheel. (BTW we had one of these wheels but it didn’t work worth beans. Our child ended up taking lessons with a real potter on a real wheel. I guess it worked as inspiration)
Inside cover: Highest priced toy - $159.95 for a wooden building/racing set called Quadrilla; lowest priced toy - $14.98 for an Amazing Money Jar (another bank! Interesting messaging here)
Back cover: Highest priced toy - $99.98 for a 3-in-1 Target Soccer Goal; lowest priced toy - $19.95 for Hidden Pictures Book Set (ooooh). Two kids appear in the Soccer Goal shots – a girl and boy, African American.

Back to Basics Toys (I’ve been receiving this one for many years. Like the idea, but have never been wowed by their catalog)
Page Count: 76
Cover Image: 5 (!) kids in various play modes (lying in leaves, hugging a stuffed giraffe, playing musical instruments, building, and riding in a fire truck) 3 are boys (Caucasian) and two are girls (1 Caucasian, 1 African American)
Inside cover: Highest priced toy - $319.99 for a Coke (product placement!) Roadster Pedal Car; lowest priced toy - $119.99 for Play Cube (a multi-feature toddler toy)
Back cover: Highest priced toy - $299.99 for a life size battery operated roadster (yeah, that’s basic…); lowest priced toy - $199.99 for a multi-game table One Caucasian boy pictured shooting hoops on the game table.

Hearth Song (This used to be the one catalog I actually purchased from every year. They always had a good selection of exclusive crafty kits and folk toys from other countries. They used to be operated out of Northern California and had that sort of politically correct sensibility, but I think they were sold some time ago, and their catalog has become less interesting somehow – like it lost its soul. Still, I like the fact that they often use book illustrations for their covers.)
Page Count: 92
Cover Image: Illustration from a book called My Penguin Osbert, by Elizabeth Cody Himmel; illustrated by H.B. Lewis. One boy (?) bundled up and one penguin (multicultural?)
Inside cover: Highest priced toy - $555.55 for an Imagine My Place doll house; lowest priced toy - $59.95 for the 12”x 12” Bungalow in the same doll house series.
Back cover: Highest priced toy - $159.95 for a Junior Electric Guitar: lowest priced toy - $5.95 for a stretchy spiky glove. Three Caucasian boys on the back cover. – Childhood Dreams Delivered (I thought they went out of business?)
Page Count: 124
Cover Image: Three kids lying under the Christmas tree – two girls cuddling a stuffed bear and a doll; one boy cuddling a huge plastic fire engine. All Caucasian.
Inside cover: Highest priced toy - $299.99 for an Victorian doll house and accessories; lowest priced toy - $49.99 for Gut Wrenchers, a remote control car.
Back cover: Highest priced toy - $39.99 for a Speed Stack set (and I don’t get this toy at all…training for working in a supermarket?): lowest priced toy - $4.99 for a Puppy Gift Card Holder. One Caucasian boy (stacking) on the back cover.

Overall comments:

Copy: As a museum professional, I certainly applaud the attempt to provide lots of information, but most of these catalogs have so much copy that they can’t make a decent page layout or size images properly. Add more pages or cut copy.

Models: Well, you get the drift from my descriptions above. Interestingly, Target’s holiday toy catalog always features multi-cultures on the front cover. They know who’s buying toys. They also seem to hire real models and photographers who can actually convince you that the kids are enjoying the toys. Of course there are those toys that even a professional can’t possibly fake enthusiasm for, like the child’s hand bell set.

Content: There is a lot of overlap of products, which is understandable. After all, the selection is dictated by what is available on the market. The internet has made it so pricing doesn’t fluctuate wildly – being able to instantly comparison shop has made retailers more creative about attracting customers. I wonder if kids still dog-ear catalogs for Christmas, and if they do, what toys really attract them? My sense is that parents must look at catalogs more than kids.

Two of my favorite toy catalogs are Archie McPhee and American Girl. Actually the latter used to be more sumptuous before Mattel bought the doll division. Their oversize catalogs were a graphic designer’s (ahem) dream, according to our graphics guy. The Archie McPhee catalog is full of tacky and affordable amusements that you could buy from other stores, but seem better from the source. I am dog-earing pages as I type.