I’m one of those nerds who will spend loads of time flipping through old publications. When I was a kid, I’d flip through the back issues of TV Guide that my grandmother was hoarding. I would go to the library and look up old issues of The New York Times on microfilm. And until they sold them off, I would spend some of my planning periods flipping through the perma-bound copies of Life magazine that my school library had in a study room. And while the articles and photographs in these magazines were always fascinating, it was the advertisements that I spent the most time poring over. I have always been fascinated by what people bought in the 20th Century and how those products were sold.
So it’s no wonder that I’ll spend hours scrolling through scans of old Sears catalogues, and because nostalgia tends to run my life at times (okay, most of the time), it’s no wonder that most of the time when I’m scrolling, I’m peeking at the phone book-sized “Wishbooks” from my childhood in the 1980s and remembering what my sister and I used to circle around the time our parents were asking us to make our Christmas lists. If you don’t believe me, check out WishbookWeb or one of Dinosaur Dracula‘s many posts (and Matt over at DD is an amazing writer who’s been finding wonderful nostalgic bits for more than 20 years, so you should read all of his posts). So the Sears books (and by extension JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and even Toys R Us) are well-worn territory in the nostalgia blogosphere, and as much as they were part of my formative years, there were others that were a regular presence in my life during the late 1980s and early 1990s that had even more of an impact.
Now, I still get a fair amount of catalogues delivered to my house, but thirty years ago we were not yet inside the dot-com bubble and were certainly not shopping online yet, so if you wanted to get something that was physically unavailable to you at a local store or the mall, you either accepted the fact that you were probably out of luck, or you filled out an order form or called a 1-800 number on the back of a catalogue. Living on Long Island afforded me many commercial options, including no fewer than four malls within a 20-mile radius, so clothes, toys, and media weren’t exactly hard to find. So what catalogues I do remember paying the most attention to were as niche as they came–and I don’t just mean Mile High Comics, which I ordered from pretty regularly.
Because we got the catalogues. We got all the catalogues. We even got a catalogue of catalogues. No, really. it was the size of the booklet you’d get from Columbia House or BMG and had listings of catalogues that you could get sent to your home. In fact, such a thing still exists in the form of Catalogs.com, where you’re just a couple of clicks away from having various catalogues sent to your house. For all I know, it’s the same company that was sending us the catalogue of catalogues thirty years ago; and yes, I’m pretty sure I circled catalogues in the catalogue of catalogues for my parents to order. I don’t know if they ever did. But I do know that a day didn’t go by when they were in the mail: Plow and Hearth, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Spiegel, Victoria’s Secret, Talbot’s, Chadwick’s of Boston, Abercrombie & Fitch … International Male? Yeah I was perplexed by that one, too, especially since if I wanted a pair of Cavariccis, I could probably find them for sale within a mile of my house; I mean, it was Long Island.
Anyway, most of these catalogues were discarded within a flip-through. Some, such as Columbia House, BMG, and Mile High Comics, became research for possible entertainment purchases. But there were others that were just interesting enough to warrant an actual read through, and we even ordered from on occasion. In fact, I still get a few of these and may have ordered something for Christmas.
Let’s take a look at four of them.(more…)