And although they come from the same place, they’re never the same. One glance sends most of them to the circular file, but there are a few that earn a spot on the coffee table—at least for a few days.
I’m talking catalogs.
Specifically, the hard copy, snail mail kind. Maybe it’s because I’m from The Olden Days (as my daughter calls my generation), or maybe it’s because I know my brain processes things better when I can hold something in my hands. Whatever the reason, I actually enjoy perusing these paper catalogs way more than seeing the same stuff online.
I was surprised to learn that the first mail-order catalog in the United States was published by Tiffany’s, in 1845. But definitely the most popular and most far reaching in the latter part of that century—and for many decades to come—was the Sears and Roebuck catalog, which offered not only trousers and sewing machines and bicycles and corsets, but for a time, prefabricated houses and automobiles. Known as The Wish Book, it was once an astounding 1,500 pages; offered 100,000 products, and reached some 20 million Americans—at a time when our population was 100 million. (Learn lots more about this mailer to beat all mailers, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dyx4WzcND14.)
Given that I came into this world just a little bit later, the first catalog I pined for was the Speigel catalog (www.spiegel.com/catalog).
That’s probably because every TV game show I watched as a little girl gave out gift certificates from this Chicago-based company, which specialized in fine women’s apparel. And since I’d learned all about the wonders of Speigel from a magic box, it somehow seemed that its clothes must be the chicest and most sophisticated ever made, sprinkled with a dash of enchantment that wasn’t available anywhere else.
(Of course, this was long before I actually had the good fortune to work in television. This turned out to be as satisfying as any job I’ve ever had, but it was never magical. Indeed, when I finally got a Speigel catalog in my hands, I was stunned at how shoddy the products looked.)
As a young adult, my next love was The Vermont Country Store (www.vermontcountrystore.com).
One word describes its brand: nostalgia. Flip through its pages, then order the candy and lotions and other sundries you remembered as a child, as well as the sturdy jumpers and practical bathrobes your grandmother might have worn.
Once, I saw (and bought) coffee syrup to stir into my cold milk. It was yummy, and because this was pre-Internet, not available anywhere except New Hampshire (or so the mailer said). The Christmastime edition is always extra fun, advertising dense fruitcakes, chenille slippers and a dazzling array of holiday themed flannel sheet sets.
Then, in the years I was longing for a baby, and for a time after I brought my girl home, I couldn’t wait to get my
Lillian Vernon catalog (www.lillianvernon.com). I especially loved Lilly’s World, which still features brightly colored sleeping bags, lunch boxes and backpacks, all of which scream the need for personalized monograms. I had a Lillian school bus themed coat holder on my bedroom door (naturally, with my name on it), and when my daughter was very small, a friend ordered a set of personalized wooden blocks for her, which I think I enjoyed more than she did.
But by far, my favorite catalog is Hammacher Schlemmer (www.hammacher.com).
Maybe it’s because the name is funny, or maybe it’s because it’s mentioned in “Goodbye to All That,” arguably the most famous essay by Joan Didion. Or it might be because radio superstar Fred Allen sang “Hammacher Schlemmer, I Love You,” on Broadway in the 1929 staging ofThe Little Show (check out a recent audio clip here, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Olc_VzqXIV0).
As it turns out, the Hammacher mailer has been around for nearly 170 years, which makes it the oldest surviving catalog in America.
Once marketed to electricians, builders and mechanics—in 1916, every piece of hardware it sold was purchased by the Russian government—Hammacher now offers unexpected products for those who don’t know what to do with all of the extra money they have lying around.
So, it’s here that the yacht and polo set can find The 55 Language Translating Scanner (every item description begins with “the”); The Movable Feast Cooler Cart, and at only $40,000, The Three Dimensional Labyrinth Orb. I doubt I’ll ever order anything from this New York City company, but its imaginative—and sometimes pretty crazy—items are always fun to peruse.
I’m not looking forward to what will probably happen to all of these catalogs I so love.
Yup, I expect that sooner than later, these terrific mailers will no longer be personally delivered by my mailman.
As The Olden Days group passes on, going paperless will no doubt save a lot of trees, and will absolutely appeal to customers my daughter’s age.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t miss them… and the memories they’ve brought with them.
What’s your favorite catalog, and why? I look forward to your comments and stories!