Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mail Order Catalog Brilliance

Johnson and Smith Company, 1940's
(Please, click for big. You will not regret it)

The Morning News features an interview with Robin Cherry - author of a new book on mail order catalogs. The accompanying slide show includes some stand out pages featuring His and Hers Blimps (Neiman Marcus, naturally) and a $98 Pong set from Sears.

Sears, 1900

Over the years of garage saling, I have assembled a collection of about 15 Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs with the earliest being an impressive Sears summer book from 1932. Hoarded by set decorators and costume designers, these old catalogs have a retail eBay value that is more than you might think as they are invaluable resources for establishing a cohesive look for a specific time period. If you are set dressing a 1972 kitchen, what pancake flipper would mom hit Jimmy with? Would the appliances be harvest gold? Would the kitchen table be cracked ice Formica or white and brown with sparklies?

While it is knee slappingly funny to gawk at the shag bathroom sets of the 1970's, the richest bounty lies in the early catalogs from a time that the Sears catalog really meant something. Before the interstate highway system and the internets tube system, the Sears catalog was a profoundly important and optimistic source. It was a catalog of empowerment. One day, you are Joe Nobody, without a fiddle or an egg for breakfast. Weeks pass and it must have seemed like a miracle when that new fiddle, kerosene-fired incubator and carefully wrapped fertile eggs arrived in the mail. A community event, I suspect.

Having used inflation calculators, I have compared the 1932 prices of everything from screen door hinges to chore jackets. Selvedge denim dungarees from North Carolina mills were the equivalent of $25, while bicycles were terribly expensive. Of course, the world changed. Labor, materials and container shipping have shifted business so radically that it is a testament to Sears that the doors are still open.

Sears is struggling, no doubt about that. Squeezed to the middle, as they say. The low end has been stolen by Old Navy and WalMart. What if they repositioned themselves towards quality? Not a change across the board - they can still sell Dockers from Honduras. But what if they reintroduced the legendary Hercules brand and sold a pair of $75 selvedge denim, narrow loom dungarees that wore like iron?

How many songs were written on Sears guitars? How many babies laid in mail order cribs? How many loved ones were buried in their coffins? How many birthday parties were enjoyed and fevers endured in the Sears mail order homes? Will any company ever matter as much as Sears did?

Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping