Holiday season has rolled around one more time, but somehow it doesn’t seem like Christmas just yet. Maybe this year’s singular lack of snow, ice, and nasty weather here in northern Illinois has something to do with my feelings on the subject. Who knows?
Back when I was a fourth grade student at Oswego’s old Red Brick School, Christmas was considered by all of us youngsters a very special time of year. During the latter years of the 1950s, there weren’t as many commercials on television—we just had three channels to choose from back in the old days, so there wasn’t as much television, either. Today, commercials are aimed at the demographics advertisers figure watch whatever of the hundreds of channels are beamed into our homes. Lots of prescription drug and patent medicine ads on The Hallmark Channel and women’s products on Lifetime, for instance. And tune in Nickelodeon or one of the other kids’ commercial channels, and you’ll be inundated with commercials aimed at kids.
Back in those early TV days, an awful lot of programming aimed at kids seemed to have been funded by food companies. “Wild Bill Hickok,” for instance, was sponsored by Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, to the extent that Wild Bill (played by Guy Madison in buckskins, who bore absolutely no resemblance to the real Wild Bill) decorated the Sugar Pops box. His image lingered there like one of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts years after the show was yanked from the airwaves. Sugar Corn Pops themselves have morphed these days into just plain Corn Pops, Kellogg’s apparently hoping no one will notice they’re coated with sugar if the word isn’t mentioned in the cereal’s name.
And there was also “Captain Midnight” and his chief mechanic and comic relief Icky Mudd (with two d’s), which was sponsored by Ovaltine. I hated evil-tasting Ovaltine. But then Captain Midnight went into syndication and was mysteriously transformed into Jet Jackson, whose show was sponsored by Jets cereal. I couldn’t stand Jets cereal, and it didn’t like me, either. God knows I tried to eat enough boxes of the stuff because I really needed those box tops, only to have my body reject it like some poor fellow rejecting his transplanted heart.
So, anyway, we had a lot of cereal advertising, but very little toy advertising. Until Christmas time, that is. When Christmas rolled around, all the afternoon and noontime shows—“The Two-Ton Baker Show,” “Elmer the Elephant,” “Super Circus,” “Uncle Johnny Coons” —featured a ton of toy advertisements aimed at us Baby Boomers, as we oozed through the nation’s social fabric like a giant rodent through a python.
Our real problem, as ’50s kids, was not deciding what kind of toy we wanted most for Christmas, it was trying to get a look at the real thing. Here in Oswego, the only stores that sold toys were Carr’s Department Store and Shuler’s Drug Store. Carr’s had a tiny, not very good toy section, and Shuler’s selection of toys, which was only marginally better, was located on a couple of shelves at the back of the store. We had to deal with those conditions for most of the year. But at Christmas time, though, things changed drastically.
Al Shuler apparently loved Christmas, and, carrying on an Oswego drug store tradition that stretched back into pre-Civil War days, sponsored a huge Christmas toy sale and display in the second floor meeting hall above his store. He contracted with Mr. and Mrs. Carr, who owned the department store just down the block, to manage the sales portion of the annual event.
About Thanksgiving, the doors officially opened, and everyone was invited to climb the narrow, creaky, steep flight of stairs to what, for us, amounted to Toy Heaven.
After a hard day hitting the books (and sometimes each other) at the Red Brick School, we’d walk down to so some serious toy gazing before heading home. The school was located on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets, just two blocks from Shuler’s, and when the day’s final school bell rang, a mob of pushing and shoving munchkins would headed downtown, warmly dressed in zippered coats and five- buckle boots. To cross busy Madison Street—U.S. Route 34—to get
downtown, we’d use the pedestrian crosswalk signal lights at Jackson Street. There is no power on Earth like that felt by a fourth grader who is able to stop a whole line of autos, buses, and semi-trucks–even if it wass the elderly Mr. Donnelly who did the actual button-pushing. As traffic ground to a halt, we’d amble across the roadway with the same feeling General Patton must have felt when he wielded complete control of the Third Army in World War II.
On Main Street, we’d clamber up the steep wooden stairway into a large room which was filled with long tables laden with more toys than any of us had ever seen in one place. Lionel and American Flyer electric trains, Mattel six-guns and rifles and dolls, Marx electric trains and toys, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets, Flexible Flyer sleds, Structo trucks and fire engines (that really worked!), and game and puzzle sets by the hundreds were spread before our eyes.
We’d spend hours looking at all those toys, imagining what it would be like to own a Flexible Flyer, or a Mattel pistol that really shot plastic bullets—imagination was a big part of the whole Christmas scene, not to mention the rest of our lives as children.
Today, however, children are bombarded with ads for toys of all kinds on a daily basis all year long. The special feeling that Christmas used to generate when we hoped for that one much-desired and fantasized-about toy seems to have ended in a rush by parents for whatever seems to be on the current year’s hot list. Back then we never really knew what we’d get for Christmas—our parents usually decided that (at least in part) what we wanted for Christmas and what we needed were two entirely different things. I never noticed any feelings of guilt on the part of parents who bought their children a less expensive toy than the one hoped for.
As a Missouri newspaper editor put it in one of our exchanges down at the newspaper office some 30 years ago now, today’s parents are apparently confusing the word “disappoint” with “deprive” as they fight and trample heir way to the counter to snatch the last whatever hot-selling toy in stock.
It‘s hard to persuade children to be satisfied with less when they’re constantly bombarded with instructions to beg for more from their parents. But it’s not impossible. As our parents found out, “no” can sometimes be exactly the right word.