Consumer Dreams | Newberry

Consumer Dreams

I think I must have been home with the flu or something the day the teacher taught the difference between the word catalog and the word catalogue. I’ll use catalog here. It saves a little space, and though I might feel okay if all of cyberspace were filled up with my blogs, the people who go online just to look at cat videos would n doubt complain.

We do get catalogs from time to time at the Book Fair. Sometimes people pack up everything on that pile of things to read without realizing they are including half-finished crossword puzzles, New Yorkers they haven’t gotten around to, and that collection of undeniably great offers on copper ankle bracelets and thermal underwear they got in the mail in 1997. We do not sell issues of The New Yorker unless we feel they are of Collectible Age (before the Eisenhower administration, unless Charles Addams is present), and we sell half-finished crosswords only if they are in a book which includes at least some which haven’t even been started. But that catalog of thermal underwear….

See, the slightest of catalogs is still a picture of the world as it was when the booklet was printed. This is why, forty or fifty years ago, we had a spate of reprintings of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seeing the various kerosene lamps and button shoes and, yes, thermal underwear of two generations past was a wild trip through the Land of Nostalgia. Looking at a primitive motion picture projector for home use, or a hundred different patent medicines which would now make consumer advocates shriek with horror, or even a build-it-yourself bungalow would take you back in a way that a much slimmer volume of scholarly writing on consumer goods in 1910 could not. And the number of people, at least in my neck of the woods, who would recall what they did with old Sears and Wards catalogs! (They were fun to read while you were sitting there, I was told more than once. And the disappointment on seeing that the black and white pages were gone, and you had to choose between the color pages! These reflections affirmed my belief that I was a late twentieth century kid and had no business with outhouses except from a discreet distance.)

At the Book Fair, we do get these bygone wish books, mainly the later ones, from the 1970s, and in the replica form. These replicas, just as a matter of passing interest, went through a phase when anybody who belonged to some nostalgia book club had copies to a phase when they were exceedingly expensive (the first ones were published full size, which made them big and hard to justify on the bookshelf, so they became rare) to a phase when everyone who remembered them from the old days had passed on, making them of less interest and lower price. Such is the life of a book on the used book market.

There is a gentle line to be drawn in all this nostalgia, of course. You can NOT judge a society just by its catalogs. For some, the catalog was the means of furnishing a home or filling an office. For others, it was an unachievable dream, a fantasy. Maybe someday you could afford the two hundred bucks you needed to buy that automobile, but for now, you had to scrimp and save to get a used bicycle for a dollar. The catalog is both a guide to how people lived, and the fantasy people indulged of how they MIGHT live one day.

Which brings us to the catalogs dropped off at the Book Fair this past week. Someone dropped off a dozen or so Neiman-Marcus Christmas Books, and another gave us one catalog from late in the history of Frederick’s of Hollywood. For those who just came in from the outhouse, Neiman-Marcus included in its big, fancy December catalog at least one “fantasy purchase”: his and hers bathtubs, your own Boeing jet, a made-to-order suit of armor, or a pair of genuine centuries-old mummy cases. It was good fantasy fun, and swell publicity. Frederick’s was the home of, um, specialty underwear, his and hers but mostly hers. Meant to flatter this and expose that, it was fantasy personified, and possibly the source of even more unwanted Christmas presents than Neiman-Marcus.

These will be found (briefly, I’m sure) in the Collectibles section come July, not in History nor Sociology, nor even Science Fiction (which is where we put fantasy fiction.) For the record, we do NOT accept donations of His and hers Camels (Neiman-Marcus) nor most secondhand underdrawers (Frederick’s.) Don’t even fantasize about it.

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