Robert Stieve

Tennis Imes sent us a letter in 1966. It came from Santa Monica, one of many letters we’d gotten in response to our thriving newborn. “Calls are coming in,” he wrote, “from friends and family thanking us for the beautiful calendars we used this year as holiday gifts. We believe that people will give this new venture a boost each year. And now a comment about your Christmas edition, which can be used as Christmas cards. After 50 years in the printing business, I feel qualified to state that no finer application of ink to paper is done by any publication.”

If you were writing a book about the history of Arizona Highways, two of the most important chapters would be about our calendars and our “Christmas edition,” a phenomenon that began in 1938, when Raymond Carlson, our visionary editor, followed his unfailing instincts and launched an annual issue devoted to the natural splendors of Arizona and the spirit of the season. Like visions of sugarplums, readers around the world were mesmerized.

“Dear Ray,” one notable letter began. “We of course keep track of you in the work you are doing, but let us say that the December issue of Arizona Highways is a pinnacle of color reproduction and format. More power to you.” The letter was signed: “Affectionately, Frank Lloyd Wright, November 22, 1958.” 

Around the same time, Betty Whittington of Baltimore shared her thoughts. “Now and then, but not too often, one runs across something out of the ordinary in unusual beauty — I have just been fortunate in seeing (and buying) the December issue of Arizona Highways. Its loveliness left me with inadequate words to express my appreciation for each and every picture in outstanding color.”

Another enthusiast was Robert A. Schmidt, the president of Olympia Brewing Co. in Washington. “Over the years,” he wrote, “I have admired your publication. In my opinion, it has been the finest example of any state publication in existence, but this year’s Christmas issue is undoubtedly the epitome of all your issues.”

He sent that letter in 1966, the same year we premiered our scenic wall calendar. Like Sprite being added to the Coca-Cola empire, our calendars have been an enduring complement to our mothership. With hindsight, the decision seems obvious, but there was uncertainty about launching a new product. Nevertheless, the house ad appeared in November 1965.

“One of the most frequent questions asked of this magazine,” the ad reads, “and one that has been asked with increased frequency during recent years, has been this: ‘Why don’t you put out a calendar?’ After considerable thought and solemn consideration, we have finally decided to produce a calendar that will answer the many requests we have received. So now, with great pleasure and with justifiable pride in parental achievement, we announce our Arizona Highways Calendar for 1966.”

Among the many selling points in the ad were: “12 selective Arizona scenes in full color”; “100 lb. Lithofect Suede White” paper; and the promise that our calendar would be “a dignified and useful decorative addition for any office.”

“If it is well received,” the ad concluded, “we hope to have a new calendar available for each and every following year.”

It was very well received. 

And so, a year later, we ran another ad: “In 1966, at the request of literally hundreds of readers, we produced our first Arizona Highways calendar. We did so hesitantly because we did not know whether it would be received, but, wham! What a reception! After four printings, we were not able to keep up with the orders. It was a sellout, to put it mildly.”

Since then, we’ve sold millions of calendars. Millions. And the number keeps climbing. Like folded trail maps and hardback books, our calendars are comfortable anachronisms in the wireless age of virtual reality. And maybe that’s the appeal. Maybe we have a sentimental need to cling to things from a simpler time: vinyl records, cast-iron frying pans, Volkswagen Beetles. And for those things we can’t easily get our hands on, we cling to the memories. Memories of family road trips in the way-back of a Ford station wagon. Of watching Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons. Of banana seats, Snoopy lunchboxes and Grateful Dead concerts.

We do that with the holidays, too. We cling to the memories of a simpler time. To the hopeful fantasies that came from flipping through the pages of the Sears Wish Book. To the youthful anticipation of sitting on Santa’s lap. To the magic and mystery of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. We even cling to the “memory” of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, even though most of us have never done that. I haven’t. But I sing The Christmas Song anyway, as if it were written about my boyhood on the frozen banks of the Wisconsin River. 

That’s where I’ll be later this month. Hoping to relive a simpler time. Wherever you may be, celebrating whatever you might celebrate — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or some quiet time on the beach in Santa Monica — I wish you all the best. Although it’s been said many times … thank you for buying our calendars, and thank you for spending another year with Arizona Highways.

— Robert Stieve, editor
Follow me on Instagram: @arizonahighways