Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

Sometimes the dreaming is as much fun as the realization of the dream. Many a child of the baby-boomer era has spent happy hours poring over the holiday catalogs of the big-name retailers of the past. Today these same catalogs offer hours of enjoyable research for the collector of mid-20th century dolls.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the availability of mass-produced goods combined with advances in printing technologies, travel and mail services came together to set the stage for retailers to begin offering goods to the multitudes via catalogs. Mail-order businesses had existed before this time, Aldus Manutius, a Venetian bookseller is recorded as offering mail-order sales in 1498, Benjamin Franklin sold books via catalog in 1744, but for the most part it wasn’t until the 1870s that mail-order catalogs began to flourish. 

In the USA companies such as Montgomery Ward, Macy and Wanamaker all offered their first catalogs in the 1870s. Hammacher Schlemmer followed close behind premiering their catalog in 1881 and Sears followed suit in 1886.

These catalogs brought a world of products to the doors of a rising class of consumers selling everything from clothing, to kitchen and farm tools, from patent medicines to kits for houses! Happily for us they also sold toys including dolls.

In the 1920s and 30s Ideal’s Shirley Temple dolls and Effanbee’s Patsy family of dolls were the heart’s delight of many a child going through the pages of the Sear’s “Wish Books.” Other catalogs of the time offered less expensive dolls similar to the popular dolls for families dealing with Depression-era budget constraints.

Into the 1940s retailer’s catalogs offered the popular dolls by toy companies large and small at a wide range of price points bringing joy to children of the war years both in the hours spent catalog browsing and in the dolls found under the tree on Christmas morning.

The Sears catalog of 1942 included dolls of composition and the new hard plastic materials. Shown here are Madame Alexander’s Jeannie Walker in composition (photo courtesy of Rubylane shop Kathe’s Collectibles) and an Ideal Plassie made with a hard plastic head on a cloth body with composition neck and limbs. (photo courtesy of Rubylane shop Deb’s Cedar Chest).
The Supplee-Biddle-Steltz Hardware Co. based out of Philadelphia first put together Billy and Ruth toy catalogs under the direction of their advertising manager William George Steltz in 1930 as a means of promoting sales during the Depression. By 1933 Steltz was president of the company. Billy and Ruth catalogs (named after Steltz’ children) sold a variety of moderately priced toys each holiday season right in to the 1960s. Seen here is their 1946 catalog which sold composition dolls such as Horsman’s Bright Star (photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop My Dolly Market) and Effanbee’s Sweetie Pie (photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Charlotte’s Web Vintage Dolls and Collectibles).
The May Department Stores Company was founded in 1877 in Colorado but moved its headquarters to St. Louis in 1905. Their 1956 holiday catalog featured the Vogue Doll Company’s Ginny and Ginnette dolls.

The 1957 Sears catalog included popular fashion dolls such as Miss Revlon and the vinyl version of Shirley Temple, both made by Ideal. These dolls relied on tie-ins to the cosmetic company and the upcoming Shirley Temple Storybook television show to help drive sales.
The catalogs of 1963 included dolls with a variety of mechanical mechanisms. Seen here are Ideal’s Kissy and Thumbelina dolls and Mattel’s Tiny Chatty Baby and Tiny Chatty Baby Brother.

By 1967 the doll pages of catalogs were filled with dolls reflecting the style of the era. Hasbro’s Little Miss No Name was part of a fad for sad-eyed dolls, Ideal’s Giggles was the other side of that coin with her bubbly personality and mod-colored clothing.

In 1970 Mattel’s Barbie and her growing circle of friends enjoyed space on multiple pages of catalogs by Sears, Spiegel and JC Penney.

In the mid 20th century Mattel was producing an expansive lineup of dolls. Their Barbie was the number 1 selling doll of the era. Other dolls were tie-ins to popular television shows such as Family Affair which included the Mrs. Beasley doll as a cast member. Scores of children carefully savored the catalog pages featuring this company’s dolls in anticipation of writing their letters to Santa.

Catalogs continued to provide the basis for many doll dreams right through the 1970s and 80s. In 1971 Ideal’s Crissy family of grow-hair dolls were available through the major store catalogs.

In today’s world the internet provides children (and adults!) an arena for looking for the next doll to add to a collection, while the catalogs of the past provide valuable information about the dolls of the 20th century and bring back those memories of happy childhood hours wishing for the perfect doll.

Author – Linda Edward

We would love to hear from you Write us at

Leave a Reply