Gender stereotypes, toys, and the Sears Catalog

Elizabeth Sweet, writing in the New York Times, way back in 2012 on her research into the role of gender stereotypes in the marketing of toys:

During my research into the role of gender in Sears catalog toy advertisements over the 20th century, I found that in 1975, very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever. In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen.

But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.


This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: as toys have become more and more gender segregated, the social costs of boundary crossing and the peer pressure to stay within the lines are huge, for kids and parents alike.

Sweet used the advertising content of the Sears catalog, which was published from 1893 to 1993 and had gained recognition as “the consumer’s bible.” According to the official history:

In addition to recording the changing scene in America, the catalogs represent the work and efforts of thousands of Americans. […] Because the catalogs accurately reflect the styles and furnishings popular through the years, producers of Broadway shows and Hollywood movies frequently refer to them. Of particular interest to people studying the history of early fraternal organizations are the pages offering pins for such organizations as the freemasons and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. For sports or recreation historians the section on sporting goods provides a chronology for when items first appeared.

Want to see a catalog for yourself, you might find one (or microfilms of it) at a local library.

I don’t remember what I had in mind, but I went looking for catalog archives several years ago myself.