Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 1960s Christmas Toy Season

It's hard to believe how much things have changed over the last 50 years, especially in how Christmas toys are marketed.

Back then there were no huge discount stores like Walmart. The biggest toy stores were mom and pop operations in a strip center. Enclosed malls were still in the future. Toys came from downtown department stores (every city had its own department store which was close to a multi-story mall) five and dime stores, and super markets. The first sign of Christmas was the appearance of toys on top of the refrigerator units in the super market. These were the good toys, too. They were big - 2-3 feet long, often with a transparent section so that you could see the toy inside the box. This is where the Johnny Seven gun and the Tiger Tank were sold.

Not long after the toys appeared in the super markets you would start to see ads for them on tv. All TV was broadcast. Since there were only three networks and a scattering of independent stations, the amount of programming devoted to children was limited. There was a couple of hours in the morning dominated by Captain Kangaroo. A local host would show cartoons after school. Some old kid-friendly shows were syndicated between school and the news - shows like Mr. Ed or McHale's Navy. Then there was Saturday morning when 3-4 hours on all three networks was devoted to kids shows. This is when the targeted ads would run.

The other big source of toys was catalog stores, mainly Sears and Penny's. It was an event when the Sears Christmas catalog arrived. It had page after page of toys, some of them exclusive to Sears.

The department stores had their own secret weapon - Santa. Columbus's department store was Lazarus and they went all out. There was a locally-produced morning kids show called Lucy's Toyshop. This was a half hour show with Lucy and a cast of puppets. Starting December 1, Lucy and the puppets would expand the show, adding an extra half hour featuring Santa Claus himself and sponsored by Lazarus. Every year Santa got behind and needed Lucy and the puppet's help to catch up making toys. They had a toy-making machine that would plop out toys periodically. Lucy would examine the toy and make sure that the parents knew that they could buy this toy at Lazarus. The kids also knew that most "Santas" were just Santa Helpers but the real Santa was at Lazarus.

In addition to sponsoring a half-hour daily kids show, Lazarus featured an animated window and a Santa Land. These were done from scratch every year. These days Santa's main purpose is to sell pictures of the kids on Santa's lap. In those days, his job was to get the family into the toy department. To minimize the time spent waiting for Santa, Lazarus had several. I think that they had five at their peak. I remember one year getting in line and seeing all of the kids in front of us and thinking that it would take forever. The lines split up. I expected them to join together again but instead we went around a corner and there was Santa. It seemed too good to be true but I was so happy at the short line that I didn't question it very closely.

Lazarus also had a Children's Secret Gift shop. Parents would send the kids in along with some an envelope containing money and some suggestions. Gift specialists would then steer the kids to buy the proper present and wrap it for them.

Not all toys came from standard sources. Sometimes gas stations and tire stores would get in on it, selling branded toys at Christmas.

Lazarus was not the only place you could see Santa. Zanesville, where I grew up, also had Santas at the shoping center and at the County Courthouse. Santa arrived at the shopping center by helicopter the day after Thanksgiving. Both Santas had special houses set up for them. A few times the Zanesville Santa had his own afternoon show but it never had the production values that the Lazarus one had.

Downtown was always decorated for Christmas. Every lamp post had some sort of decoration and sometimes lights crisscrossed the main streets.

Even the comic page got into the act. Disney often put out a special comic strip in which some of their movie characters helped Santa in some way. This ran from December 1 to Christmas Eve.

This might make Christmas sound highly marketed and it was to an extent but within reason. No one pushed cars as Christmas presents. Toys might be pushed during kids shows but there was little licensed merchandise. These days the big push is at high-ticket items for adults and most kids toys are tie-ins with movies or other sources. The Christmas season was carefully defined as running from the day after Christmas until Christmas Eve. Everyone was closed on Sunday so the number of shopping days until Christmas was posted in the paper.

Everything changed during the 1960s. Malls covered the country. Sears and Penny's changed from catalog operations to mall anchors. The department stores anchored the other end of the malls. Big box toy stores and discount stores became the norm. Everyone opened on Sunday and Santa began arriving the weekend before Thanksgiving. Santa stopped getting his own tv show and moved to the mall. As Viet Nam escalated, war toys stopped being big sellers.

Like Halloween, Christmas went from being a children's holiday to a general holiday with most of the marketing aimed at adults.

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