We attempt to explain the 1979 Sears holiday catalog to a Millennial
Want to blow the minds of Millennials or Gen-Z? Show them a trash compactor. No, really. Their jaws will drop.
At least, that was our experience. We sat down with one of our twenty-something coworkers and a copy of the 1979 Sears Wish Book catalog. We expected to have to explain pop culture phenomena like disco balls and Mork. Surprisingly, Millennials seem well versed in "Nanu Nanu" and boogie fever. It was the humble trash compactor that demanded an in-depth explanation.
Of course, the entire concept of a "Sears catalog" was foreign to this young professional. First, we had to handle the 672-page elephant in the room.
Millennial: "Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a catalog that’s more than 50 pages. Fifty is even pushing it."
Decades: Yep, it's as thick as a phone book… wait, I don't know if you'll even get that reference. This sucker is nearly 700 pages, with everything from power tools to toys to socks. It's essentially the entire store in paper form.
Millennial: "When did this come out?"
Decades: Well, there were two a year, the Spring/Summer catalog and the Holiday Wish Book. I don't recall the exact time of arrival, but I do remember the overwhelming excitement I would have when the latest Wish Book turned up in the mailbox — not too long after school started in the fall. I would rush to the kitchen table, flip to the toy pages, and start circling what I wanted.
We then proceeded to peruse the catalog page by page, stopping to explain whenever an item baffled our younger colleague. Some of the conversations surprised and delighted us. Let's dive in.
[Note: The Millennial's comments appear in quotes. Our comments are in bold.]
Page 14: Shaun Cassidy clothing
Does the name Shaun Cassidy sound familiar?
"No. Is that a TV show reference or a movie reference?"
Somewhat TV, but it's more of a pop music reference. Does David Cassidy sound familiar?
He was the heartthrob on The Partridge Family. Shaun was his younger half-brother. Do you know "Da Doo Ron Ron"?
[Sings "Da Doo Ron Ron"] A huge 1963 hit by a girl-group called The Crystals? Phil Spector? Wall of sound? Nothing? Anyway, Shaun Cassidy covered it and it was a No. 1 hit in 1977.
"Makes me think of Justin Bieber."
Totally. He was the Bieber of the late 1970s. You could even get a pair of jeans with his autographed stitched on the butt.
"That’s what I’ve always wanted — my teen idol’s autograph on my butt. I'm trying to think of whose signature I’d want on my butt if I were still 16. I’d probably get Joe Jonas."
Page 19: The Houston Oilers
"The Houston WHAT? The OILERS?"
This is still an NFL franchise. Do you know who the Oilers became?
"Are they still in Houston? Are they in California?"
They are in Tennessee…
They still wear that baby blue… the Titans.
"Oh! I should have known that."
Page 90: Corduroy
Corduroy was everywhere back then. Have you ever worn corduroy?
"I don’t believe so. If I have, not since I was six or something. Just on formal occasions."
Speaking of formal, you could buy an entire corduroy suit.
"I know what corduroy is, but that has more to do with Corduroy the bear. When I read the book as a kid, I was like, 'Mom, what is corduroy?' Hmm… is corduroy warm?"
You bet it is.
"It just seems like a lot of material."
Page 153: Phoebe Cates
Do you recognize this model?
Do you know who Phoebe Cates is?
Have you seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High?
"No, I’ve never even heard of it."
[Explains the origins of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, from the Cameron Crowe writings to the screen.] Do you know who Sean Penn is?
"I know who Sean Penn is."
He played the stoner character. Phoebe Cates famously comes out of a swimming pool in slow motion wearing a bikini.
"If that came out today, would that be PG-13 or R?"
Oh, this was an R for sure. PG-13 did not exist until Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a couple of years later.
Page 169: Pocket Watches
"Even I can’t picture someone from the 1970s pulling out a pocket watch. Unless they’re like, 80."
To be fair, it does label them "Nostalgic."
Page 185: Musk
Musk was the unofficial odor of the Seventies. Do you know the smell of musk?
"Is it different than cologne?"
Well, it's an ingredient in cologne. It's from the glands of muskrats or something… [Googles] On, right, it is a secretion from the musk deer.
"I kind of like musk, so I don’t know what that says about me."
Page 189: Hair Dryers
Do you know what number 13 is?
"It looks like a breathing machine."
That is a hairdryer. It's like a shower cap attached to a hose.
"That seems like something someone rigged up at home!"
Page 321: Tobacco Pipes
"I have never, ever, never, never met anyone who smokes an actual pipe."
My dad smoked a pipe. There was a chain of stores in malls called The Tinder Box. I have intense sense-memories of going there with him, opening glass jars of tobacco and huffing the sweet loose tobacco.
Page 365: Popcorn Poppers
Have you ever had a popcorn popper?
"The only popcorn I’ve ever made is in a bag in the microwave."
These are air poppers.
"I was watching Scary Movie recently and she was making popcorn in that flat aluminum tin thing on the stove, which I had never seen before."
That’s Jiffy Pop.
Page 390: Lava Lamps
Ah, at last, the lava lamp.
"I'm pretty sure I had a miniature lava lamp when I was younger."
What do you think this lamp would cost, in today's dollars?
"Anywhere between $20 and $50."
Adjusting for inflation, it's $109.
"HAHAHAHA. Personally, I don’t know that I would ever pay more than $20 for a lava lamp! How big is this lamp?!"
About the size of a two-liter soda bottle? Smaller?
Page 403: Decorative Barometers
Have you used a barometer?
"I went to Camp Tecumseh. They bought us how to use one."
Do you know what it measures?
"The weather? I don’t know outside of that."
"Oh, that makes sense. I knew that, in the back of my head."
Half this catalog is just things your phone does now.
Page 404: Alarm Clocks
Do you have an alarm clock?
"Nope. I probably should get one if my phone dies."
Page 405: Televisions
What do you think those two big knobs do?
"One of those big dials changes the channel… the other dial does… something important… for televisioning?"
They both change the channel.
"HAHA! What? Why are there two? Are there different lists of channels?"
Basically! Have you heard of UHF and VHF?
Very High Frequency, that included channels 1–13, your big networks like ABC, CBS and NBC. The higher numbers were on Ultra High Frequency, which was typically for smaller local stations.
"Would PBS be considered national or high numbers?"
That's a good question. I think it would depend on the market?
Page 416: 8-Tracks
Do you know what an 8-Track is?
"Cassettes with eight tracks on them? Just a guess?"
Well, yes but no. Technically, it was an album split into four "programs," split into two stereo channels. All four are playing at once, on a loop, and you toggle back and forth between the programs, like TV channels. So, say you pop in the Abbey Road 8-Track. "Come Together," "Here Comes the Sun," "I Want You" and "Sun King" all go at the same time. You have a switch to jump between programs. If you want to hear, say, song two on Program 2, it gets really hard to find it. Not to mention, the song order is completely different from the vinyl album and CD. It's complicated.
"Well, now you can just listen to whatever, whenever."
Page 440: Trash Compactors
"WAIT… WHAT?! What’s a trash compactor? I would guess it compacts your trash. Correct me if I’m wrong."
Ha, yep! It would economize your trash usage. I don’t know if it’s because of the economy of the time? The fuel crisis and plastic shortages? I'm speculating here.
"This is the first time I’ve ever heard that a trash compactor was an actual appliance."
It was useful because you didn’t have to take out the trash as much. Everything else in the kitchen had been turned into a machine, so they thought, well, why not the trash can?
Page 462: Benji
Do you know the dog Benji?
"He was that popular? How come I’ve never heard of him?"
He had his own movies. A bunch of them. Like The Fast and Furious, but with a little cute dog instead of cars.
"And then he disappeared, off the radar. I guess he was dwarfed by the popular dogs of my era, like Air Bud."
I'm sure nobody is going to be happy to read that.
Page 487: Latch Hook Wall Hangings
"Is that one of those carpet things where you stick the stick in the thing?"
Exactly. Yarn artwork was a big home decor trend. Latch hook and macramé.
"I think I made one long ago; it was a panda’s face."
Page 531: Ventriloquist Dummies
"Wow, that is a lot of ventriloquist dummies."
It was a big fad for kids.
"I don’t think I recognize any of them."
Not even the ones in the middle?
"Jeff Dunham. Those are the only ventriloquist dummies I know."
Page 636: Electric Football
Take a look at this Electric Football and guess how it works.
"Is it like chess where you move the pieces around?"
No, you plug it in and the field is made out of, like, tin and the whole thing vibrates violently, shaking the little men to bump into each other. Honestly, it was pretty cruddy.
Page 652: Pong Video Game Console
Pong! My neighbor had this Pong console.
"You’re buying the thing for just the one game?"
Yes. No cartridges. It just had a switch, so you could toggle between the different "games," like hockey, which was just Pong with obstacles in the middle.
"How much did it cost?"
Less than that lava lamp.
"Are you serious? That’s insane."
Page 656: Atari 400 Home Computer
"That’s a computer?"
You hook it up to a television, yes. I had a Timex one similar to it.
"What do you do on that computer? Do you just do math? Can you type? Write a book?"
See the cassette player? It used cassette tapes as a storage device.
"Crazy. Okay, so computer games. That makes more sense."
Page 659: Speak & Spell
You’ve seen E.T. right?
Alright, we’re done here. I can’t even handle that.
"It’s on my to-do! I’m sorry! My parents are mad at me, too."