With the advent of online shopping, it’s possible that we are living in the last days of the mail-order catalog. For now, though, they are still coming; I can readily imagine the coffee table at my father’s house, where at any given time there are offerings from Pottery Barn, L.L. Bean, Ikea, Vermont Country Store, and any number of other retailers. Direct-mail catalogs remain as persistently prevalent and their come-ons as ludicrous as ever, filled with second- and third-rate models posed in improbable circumstances, above or beside descriptions that defy coherency and invariably insult the attentive reader’s intelligence.
At his blog Minor Tweaks, Thomas Bartlett occasionally posts about “what he learned” from various catalogs, more or less quoting verbatim risible examples of their egregious copy:
What I learned from the Pottery Barn “Outdoor Spaces” catalog
—The Chunky Outdoor Rug is made from jute-mimicking polypropolene
—The Outdoor Flower Bowl can be used for fruit or “summer collectibles.”
—A “welcoming glow” will “gather friends.”
—Outdoor furniture gives peace of mind while “asking for nothing in return.”
But absurd as they frequently are, catalogs have a good chance of surviving longer than the magazines of which they have long seemed so derivative. Since the catalogs strive to create a place where the brands and products advertised can exist in a sumptuous and absorbing alternate reality, they have the distinct necessity of being tactile, glossy, immersive.
The diffuse focus of magazines—even “magalogs” like Lucky—leaves them vulnerable to the endless diversity of offerings online, whereas catalogs have a streamlined appeal: They draw a far more direct line between the product and the lifestyle it is supposed to give those who consume it, without pretense to objectivity or plausibility or actual service to readers. Magazines, in the end, still get read, whereas catalogs afford a far more straightforward route into daydreaming.
Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail-Order Shopping, which consists almost entirely of reproductions of old catalog pages from the past century and a quarter, is an invitation to indulge such daydreams, without offering you the option of trying to realize them through purchases. Even if you’ll never get to touch the merchandise, the book is rich in evocative nostalgia and glimpses into life as it was idealized in past eras.
You’ll see the Jurassic Pong videogame console, the permanent-press leisure wear, and the shag-carpeted bathroom of the 1970s, the elaborate hi-fi systems and trunk-size televisions of the 1960s, as well as pages of Clara Bow hats and patent-medicine advertisements dense with tiny type. It sometimes hard to read the copy, but it’s often worth the effort to read such well-turned phrases as “Neatniks make great playmates” (from a 1969 Sears catalog) or “Now! Toasters with color.” (also from a Sears catalog, circa 1939).
As with old TV commercials, we no longer need to defend ourselves against the appeals these vintage pages once may have had, or be offended by the person they seem to take us for. Instead we can merely be entertained, the way we might be by a museum exhibition, an antique car show, or anything old-timey for that matter.
After a prefatory section in which some of the more successful mail-order retailers are detailed briefly, Catalog breaks down into chapters by topic, with one section for fashion, one for toys, one for housewares, and so on. Robin Cherry provides brief, utilitarian introductions to each chapter, but mainly the vintage pages, a disproportionate number of which are drawn from Neiman Marcus catalogs, are allowed to speak for themselves. This is perhaps fortunate: Cherry is not a historian or a scholar of any sort but a freelance journalist, and this shows in the sweeping generalizations she uses to characterize various eras.
While kitsch-loving graphic designers might mine these pages for ideas, for the rest of us, it’s a coffee-table or back-of-toilet book for browsing in spare moments, in which we become tourists of the consumer past. Cherry pursues no particular theoretical angle on the material presented here, so the pages selected for reproduction seem somewhat arbitrary.
No attempt is made to offer suggestive juxtapositions; instead the pages are presented in an uninspiring chronological ordering that passes up chances for possibly provocative side-by-side comparisons. Our gaze is thereby drawn inward; we are absorbed by the pages in isolation, which perhaps is more in keeping with their original intent to sweep us up into the seductive world of goods.
What becomes obvious from browsing through Catalog is how little direct-mail appeals have changed over the years. The window dressing is superficially different, but the underlying psychology of the pitches remains the same. They typically hope to capitalize on our insecurity, as in the pages displaying antiseptics and facial creams, or our vanity, as in the ones promising luxury our neighbors will envy. And if these tactics seem too subtle, catalog retailers sometimes attempt the sensory overload approach of cramming the page full of goods.
With such a cornucopia available, it seems almost absurd not to try to claim a small part of it for ourselves. Such pages have a similar effect as 99-cent stores, where the sheer surfeit of manufactured products is dizzying, disorienting. Thoughts of mere utility are cowed by the tide of commodities; usefulness can seem beside the point in the face of such bounty.
Whether they advertise luxuries or durables or just novelty junk, catalogs seek to stun us into that state of labile submission, and lure us with the idea that they exemplify, that our belongings constitute a catalog of their own, an ideal portrait of the lives we pretend to live and the lives to which we have been led to aspire. They hope to convince us that there is no accomplishment more rewarding than cataloguing our own goods as an index to our consumer souls.