In my day, we had to walk 7 miles uphill in the snow just to get to school every July. Oh, wrong soapbox speech.
Do kids today know what catalogs are? Nowadays, catalogs are rare: you search online for anything you want. Having a thick book or magazine like item with pictures and descriptions is very rare — perhaps you might see them in office for office supplies, and perhaps you might get a Harbor Freight catalog in the mail. But even as late as the 1990s I used to get catalogs from Lands End and LL Bean and order from them; catalogs of folk CDs and needlepoint. I still get catalogs of each from Upton, and occasionally from Stash. But the days of the think “find everything” catalog are long gone. Does Sears or Montgomery Wards or JC Penny even still have their catalog departments?
Catalogs are treasured because of how they reflect, and to some sense, change, their society. Here are three recent news articles about how catalogs and magazines have influenced society:
- Shipping and Handling. Nowadays, you think nothing of ordering something from Amazon and having it shipped to your account. But that wasn’t always the case. Whereas letters would be delivered, shipping packages was resisted by the postal service — and even when it came in, domestic package delivery lagged far behind. What changed it? Rural Free Delivery (RFD) and the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs. Both companies’ catalogs, each debuting in the late 19th century, successfully capitalized on the expansion of the country’s mail and package delivery systems, in particular the novel service of postal delivery to rural addresses. When Wards started, as long as you could get to the closest rail station to pick it up, Montgomery Ward could help you save a few bucks and get a better selection than the nearby general store. But (according to the article), the biggest problem that mail-order catalogs faced at the turn of the 20th century was the fact that their intended audience—often rural, as that was 65 percent of the U.S. population at the time—didn’t have easy access to mail delivery. Outside of cities, the infrastructure just wasn’t there, and often people had to pay just to get someone to simply deliver their mail to them—let alone parcels, which the U.S. Postal Service didn’t handle at the time. The solution to this problem was something called rural free delivery, which was heavily pushed by farmers’ advocacy groups. Despite the growing desire to create mail delivery in rural areas, there was much pushback on the issue within Congress due to the high cost, and as a result, the idea only came about in baby steps before finally rolling out wide in 1902. This need to get mail to rural areas was a major driver behind infrastructure building, leading to the creation of roads, eventually allowing cars to drive on those roads to deliver mail. Things improved enough that, by 1913, the U.S. Post Office itself was delivering domestic post packages.
- Jewish Catalog. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s remember the wonderful Whole Earth Catalog out of the Whole Earth store in Berkeley (Whole Earth also gave us the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), one of the first BBS). That catalog inspired some counter culture folks in Mass. to create the First Jewish Catalog — a wonderful hand-drawn catalog of everything Jewish. I still have my copy. There were later two additional volumes with more information, but less hand drawings. In essence, the First Jewish Catalog and its companion volumes were the FAQ of their day — everything you needed to know about Judaism and practice, distilled down, with addresses and phone number. Tablet Magazine has a great article about how the catalog holds up today. It makes me want to go home and look at the three volumes that I’ve got, and remember. Here’s an excerpt of their description: “The book that does it all, offering sensible peer-to-peer advice, just enough halakhic wisdom (you’ll find no better synopsis of the kosher laws), and the best diagram for wrapping tefillin that was ever rendered by your friend in Hebrew school who was always sketching things under his desk. The best pictures look like Shel Silverstein’s (I won’t die from surprise if someone writes in to say they were Shel Silverstein’s). It tells you how to build a sukkah, how to affix a mezuzah, which blessings to say over what, and how to get by when hitchhiking around Israel (“Get a haircut; Israelis are wary of foreign ‘hippies’”). It offers instructions for sitting shiva, and it tells you where in all the major American cities you can rent Jewish movies. ” They conclude by noting: “Of course, all the information the catalog gives is now available online, in a multitude of places. To learn how to pray, you can find Reform sources, Conservative sources, a dozen flavors of Orthodox sources. You can find melodies by dozens of composers, you can put “Jewish” in the search-bar of your video streaming services, you can visit a website that tells you what drinks are kosher at Starbucks. But in diversity, we sometimes wish for unity. The Jewish Catalog is one of those books, like Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, or Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, that you could spot on the bookshelf of a certain kind of Jew and just nod, slowly, and give a look that says, “Yeah.””
- Playboy. If you were a soldier in the 1960s and 1970s, Playboy Magazine was essentially a catalog of trends back home. So claims an opinion piece in the New York Times. According to the article, Playboy’s value extended beyond the individual soldier to the military at large; the publication became a coveted and useful morale booster, at times rivaling even the longed-for letter from home. Playboy branded the war because of its unique combination of women, gadgets, and social and political commentary, making it a surprising legacy of our involvement in Vietnam. By 1967, Ward Just of The Washington Post claimed, “If World War II was a war of Stars and Stripes and Betty Grable, the war in Vietnam is Playboy magazine’s war.” Here’s where the cataloging of society comes in: The centerfold and other visual features in the magazine served another, unintentional purpose for American troops in Vietnam. Playboy’s pictures and often-ribald cartoons conveyed changing social and sexual norms back home. The introduction of women of color in 1964 with China Lee and in 1965 with Jennifer Jackson reflected shifting attitudes regarding race. Over time, the centerfolds pushed the boundaries of social norms and legal definitions as they featured more nudity, with the inclusion of pubic hair in 1969 and full-frontal nudity in 1972. The Washington Post reported that American prisoners of war were “taken aback” by the nudity in a smuggled Playboy found on their flight home in 1973. The nudity, sexuality and diversity portrayed in the pictorials represented more permissive attitudes about sex and beauty that the soldiers had missed during their years in captivity. The magazine provided regular features, editorials, columns and ads that focused on men’s lifestyle and entertainment, including high fashion, foreign travel, modern architecture, the latest technology and luxury cars. The publication set itself up as a how-to guide for those men hoping to achieve Mr. Hefner’s vision of the good life, regardless of whether they were in San Diego or Saigon. There’s a lot more in the article, but the basic notion is that the magazine shaped the soldier’s view of what was happening “back home”, the attitudes towards the war, and the general changes in society.