Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Catalogues

Catalogues


                                                                                                                                                       Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                                                       November 18, 2009

“Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.”
                                                                                           Banner on Sears & Roebuck catalogue, first appearing in 1927

Sunday morning found me in bed with four blonds. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, one was my wife and the other three granddaughters, aged three (Sarah), six (Margaret) and seven, soon to be eight (Emma). We were staying in Darien with son Edward and his wife, Melissa.

About seven, the girls will knock on the wall separating their room from ours. A return knock is an invitation to join us in bed. We talk. We read. This past Sunday I read a couple of “Froggy” books, Froggy Plays in the Band and Froggy gets Dressed. And then the girls turned to the American Girl Catalogue, a hoped-for source of Christmas presents. “American Girl” has been a retail sensation. The business was founded in 1986 by Pleasant Rowland, as the Pleasant Company. She was looking for dolls for her nieces (ages eight to twelve). In 1998 the business was sold to Mattel for $700 million and the name was changed to American Girl.

As the girls perused the catalogue and chatted with their grandmother about their Christmas wishes, I lay back on the pillows, my eyes closed, their voices becoming a distant murmur; I found myself remembering the catalogues my family received when I was a child in the late 1940s.

In the years immediately following World War II, the Country remained divided between urban and rural dwellers. The suburbs would be built up very shortly, but in 1946 almost half the population lived in rural communities. Immigration and mechanization of farming had caused urban centers to grow rapidly from about 1880 to the late 1920s. The Depression and then the War slowed the rate of change, but did nothing to alter the direction of change. In the post-war years (1950-1960) millions relocated to the newly developed suburbs.

But in 1946-1950, in rural New Hampshire, life was still pretty much as it had been twenty years earlier. There were no malls, no shopping centers. Keene, with a population of 20,000, was the largest “big” town in the area, but was twenty miles away, so only visited on special occasions. A department store, Derby’s, served the needs of most of the town’s inhabitants.

Glamour came from catalogues, particularly the one from Sears & Roebuck. Mail-order had become a big industry in the last years of the Nineteenth Century and the first half of the Twentieth.

Aaron Montgomery Ward in Chicago sent out the first catalogue in 1872. Ward had arrived in Chicago from New Jersey just after the Civil War. He found a job with the dry-goods merchant Field, Palmer and Leiter, which later became Marshall Field & Co. In 1872, at the age of 28, he started a catalogue business to service his rural clientele. By 1897 he was publishing a 1000 page catalogue and employed 1000 clerks. Richard Warren Sears was a railroad agent in North Redwood, Minnesota in 1888. An unwanted shipment of watches, which he purchased and then re-sold to other agents, gave him the impetus to start a business – buying watches and selling them through mail-order catalogues. He moved to Chicago and in 1893 incorporated the business as Sears, Roebuck & Co. with Alvah C. Roebuck as his business partner.

After the War, Sears & Roebuck became predominant as a catalogue merchandiser. Montgomery Ward, in December 1944, had been seized by the Federal government for refusal to comply with labor laws, and Sewall Avery was carried from his office in his desk chair by National Guardsmen. “To hell with government,” he allegedly called out as he was toted away. While the Montgomery Ward catalogue continued to be printed and distributed in the post-war years, they lost ground to Sears & Roebuck.

So it was the Sears catalogue that we looked forward to, especially the Christmas edition, which arrived around Thanksgiving. Almost anything could be bought through the catalogue – clothes, toys, tools, stoves, groceries, even ready-to-assemble houses. An estimated 70,000 homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940, including, allegedly, the one in which Richard Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California.

But it was the Christmas catalogue that provided the opportunity to dream. The bright colors, the perfect looking, spotless children playing in ideal living rooms with toy trains seemed a world away from our home, an old farmhouse with no central heat and a wood stove in the kitchen, filled with children and animals. Whatever lust existed in our hearts was directed at the idealized lives of those depicted in those doctored photographs.

If the purpose of the Christmas catalogue was to entice children to heckle their parents, it certainly succeeded in our household. We spent hours daydreaming over erector sets, bicycles, baseball gloves and monopoly games, daring to believe that this Christmas a Lionel Model Train would magically appear under the tree. It never happened, but by Christmas afternoon we had moved on – to new presents, a new pair of skis now strapped to our feet on the new snow in the fresh, cold December air, or engrossed in a new Hardy Boys mystery, sitting next to the warming fire.

Then the bed squeaked, as the girls bounced gaily, the American Girl catalogue at their feet, and I was aroused from my dreams of an earlier, simpler time, as the pages of Sears’ Christmas catalogue dissolved. I was back in Darien, in bed with my four blonds and happy to be there.

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