Civil War Chess Sets and Encyclopedias: Childhood TV Offers

Posted by

Here at 80s Baby we love television commercials, but up to this point I’ve only covered commercials for things that you had to seek out in a store to purchase. Why not cut out the middle man? Why take a trip to the mall when you can call somebody in Omaha, Nebraska, who will mail that Diana and Charles Royal Wedding commemorative plate straight to your home for only three installments of $19.99 and $6.75 shipping and handling? Today on 80s Baby I’m taking a look at television offers.

Time Life Music

Commercials for mail order albums are probably the most prevalent and well remembered of the “stuff you could order off of television commercials” genre, the not at all clunky name I just came up with for this article. These are also probably the longest running of these television offers. They were around for my entire childhood and my mom purchased an oldies compilation for my father a few years ago, so they must still be a thing. These ran the gamut from big band music like the above, to country collections, rock music, and of course decade retrospectives. At this point the only physical album sales still taking place are television compilations and guys in Times Square pressuring you into taking their mix CDs.

Franklin Mint Civil War Chess Sets

It the early 1980s there were apparently families across the United States who had every material possession they could possibly want but something was still gnawing at them. Was their chess set good enough? After all, the pieces weren’t even pewter. If only a trusted name, say the Franklin Mint, could remedy their situation? Luckily for them, The Franklin Mint could! It came through with a fine, handcrafted Civil War chess set, or as they referred to it in the commercial, “the war between the states” because for some reason in 1984 the Franklin Mint appeared to be going out of its way to spare the Confederacy’s feelings? Yes, that is “Dixie” you’re hearing in the background.

If you had to have this in your home you really had to plan ahead, because they sent you two pieces every other month, or twelve pieces in a year. In only a little under three years you could amass the 32 pieces you needed to play a game of chess! That’s about half the length of the actual war! But it’s worth it to get General Stuart, wearing his “rakish hat with ostrich plumes” (seriously, they fetishized the hell out of the Confederate generals in this ad). To get your two pieces every other month you’re paying $17.50 a month, so $17.50 per piece. The entire set cost $560 in 1984 dollars, the equivalent of $1388 today. But damn did Robert E. Lee look good! I wonder how many households ended up with partially completed sets, with a thimble sitting in for Stonewall Jackson, a GI Joe with a missing arm representing Ulysses S. Grant. You can pick up a set on eBay for between $300-500 today.


The best known encyclopedia commercial is the Brittanica one above from 1992. The same actor appeared in an earlier 1988 commercial, which I’ve also posted. These commercials have made the rounds online for years and definitely popped up on VH1 “We Love the…” compilations. It’s such a meta commercial for the time period, with the actor speaking directly to the narrator and adopting a too cool for this persona. My favorite part of the commercial is when he’s reading through global warming and the text in the encyclopedia refers to it as “the so-called greenhouse effect.” Even the encyclopedia had an in your face 90s attitude.

Like a lot of families we had the 1980s version of the Internet, a set of encyclopedias. We didn’t have the Brittanica set. We didn’t want Encyclopedia Britannica, we wanted Encyclopedia America! With elevators instead of lifts! Ours was Collier’s, and unfortunately I couldn’t locate a commercial for it. Goodwills across the country are filled with outdated encyclopedias thanks to these commercials.

Commemorative Plates

If you had any money left after making your last payment of $17.50 to the Franklin Mint it was time to buy some commemorative plates! In the 1980s collector’s plates were issued for pretty much any cultural touchstone or dead celebrity, and as you can see above Norman Rockwell was also well represented. I especially appreciate the Rockwell set because it allows you to commemorate a period of pre-War scarcity with plates that serve no functional purpose. But they sure would look great next to your Elvis plate! Can you truly call yourself an Elvis fan if you don’t have him in plate form?

I know that these remain popular today, but I don’t think any of my relatives owned any of the non-religious variety. My grandmother definitely had some Jesus ones, but no Elvis.

Time Life Books

At this point you’ve got your Time Life album collection, you’ve got your encyclopedias, but you still have no way of learning the mysteries of the unknown. Fear not! Time Life’s got you covered again! I never entirely got why Time Life books needed to be sold via television commercials. The 1980s were the golden age of the mall bookstore. Why are you making things more difficult for us, Time Life? Stick those bad boys in Waldenbooks, otherwise I’m getting my mysteries of the universe from a less definitive source. By the time the book arrives I might already know all the mysteries of the unknown, and then what? Between the library, bookstores, and my parents buying us every other goofball toy I don’t think my parents ever saw a reason to buy any of these. Plus we hadn’t even finished reading our encyclopedias yet.

What are some television offers I missed that you loved? Did you or your parents own a Franklin Mint Civil War chess set? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter




One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s