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Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping BY Robin Cherry. Princeton Architectural Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $35.

The cover of Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping

Every time I flip through an L. L. Bean or The Company Store catalog and start to surrender to a world demanding no more of me than to juggle price, size, and color, a scene from Seinfeld comes to mind. Elaine is lying on her bed, thumbing through a Hammacher Schlemmer–y catalog, and considers purchasing “The World’s Best Pizza Cutter.” “Seventy-six bucks, how often do I make . . .” she says—and then, with revulsion, “Oh, I’ve gotta buy a book!” She doesn’t actually run off to buy one, but her reading life’s shrinkage to ad copy and product shots is made depressingly clear. (After all, Elaine’s been working for the J. Peterman catalog, where she writes eroticized blurbs for products like Bengalese Galoshes and the Urban Sombrero.)

Who hasn’t been mesmerized into imagining a whole new you through four-color, clay-coated stock? When I looked at catalogs as a teenager, every cute sweater or pair of boots made me insatiably greedy, not just for the objects themselves, I realize now, but for the power and possibility that exuded from the catalog itself. Page after page of objects, unmarred by human touch, both perfect and eternal. You can leaf through potential possessions so fast—faster than you could ever examine them at the mall, faster even than you can by clicking (and waiting and waiting) online, hoarding more products in the mind than you could use or wear in a single day, week, year—that the pseudo-satiation can leave you dizzy, even nauseous.

Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping (Princeton Architectural Press, $35), by former Time Inc. direct marketer Robin Cherry, intends to stir a little nostalgia with its reproductions from catalogs going back a century and more. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward kicked off the whole mail-order industry, which is now worth at least a hundred billion dollars annually. But the emotional pull of catalogs and cataloging goes back much further than that—in fact, it’s probably been with us ever since the frustrated human mind first hatched symbols.

The earliest forms of written language come down to us from Sumer as lists of products like livestock and grain, bracketed by their quantity and value and rendered in proto-cuneiform script in clay. The walls of ancient Egyptian tombs are carved with columns of hieroglyphic lists and detailed depictions of everything a wealthy man could possibly need during an average day in the afterlife—slaves, mules, fish, shoes, reed mats, tools for making stone vessels.

Similarly, our catalogs, especially the older ones with their many rows of vertical registers filled in with, say, girl-size ironing boards and sewing machines “For Little Housekeepers” (Sears, 1928), are meant to depict everything a child might want for an average day in her imagined adult life. And while the mummies could gaze at a veritable Sears, Roebuck catalog on their tomb walls, for much of the early twentieth century some grown-up housekeepers in America could gaze at walls covered with pages from real Sears catalogs, the cheapest wallpaper around. Designers have even appropriated old catalog pages to adorn modern wallpapers and Formica countertops.

In their heyday, the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs were literally a part of daily life: Girls cut out the models to make paper dolls, boys tied catalogs to their shins to make goalie pads for hockey, and the pages, when not on walls, doubled as toilet paper. “When Sears introduced glossy paper in the thirties,” Cherry writes, “they received numerous letters of complaint.”

These bibles of capitalism played such an important role in building the American identity that, as Cherry reminds us, FDR joked that the best way to prove America’s superiority over the Soviet Union would be to bomb the country with the things. If only we had showered radical Muslims with Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogs after September 11! Tempted by his-and-hers camels for (in inflation-adjusted dollars) $26,235 or his-and-hers dirigibles for $292,596, the mullahs would have sunk into decadence. Then we could blame our global depression on their excess instead of that of our leading financiers.

Catalog, divided into sections like “Food and Drugs,” “Fashion and Beauty,” and “Around the House (and the House!),” is an archaeological trove. From the reproductions, you can hypothesize trends (were men in high-waisted trousers in vogue in 1928 and women in long-waisted coats the thing by 1934?). From Cherry’s text, which often reads like a straightforward catalog itself, you can play trivia. Did you know, for instance, that a Montgomery Ward copywriter created the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for a 1939 Christmas promotion, or that Angelina Jolie modeled prom dresses for Ward in the ’70s, or that in the ’20s the Book-of-the-Month Club boasted that perusing its volumes would make you more “attractively interactive”? This was a bit of a jolt, interactive being a word I’d assumed had emerged from computer technology and had thrived ever since as a robotic synonym for talk or play. (“Children, time to go outside and interact!”)

Cherry points out that, despite the lower costs of digital production, print catalogs have not been rendered obsolete. While malls pretty much put the Montgomery Ward catalog out of business by 1985 and online shopping blasted a hole in the profitability of malls a little later on, it’s unlikely that electronic catalogs will completely cannibalize their paper parents. What’s to cannibalize? The companies send the same products from the same warehouses. And there is that frictionless speed, that sense of luxury that attends paging swiftly through hundreds of items instead of fighting crowds at the mall or pulling your hair out while Web pages load. As Cherry writes, “For most companies, on-line was another channel, not a replacement. People still like to lie on their sofa and shop.”

But of course, once you actually interact with your shipped-and-handled object, the enhanced life you imagined inevitably falls short. For one thing, pictures are misleading. (That’s why the punctilious Egyptians showed human figures in profile but with their shoulders and eye as if straight on, in order to convey the full isometric measure of the body—realistic depictions of the figure might hide a hand or a leg and leave you with a one-handed, one-legged slave in the afterlife.) More to the point, catalogs suggest endless power and wealth because they present products in the aggregate, but since most of us can only wear one kimono or fly one dirigible at a time, we’re bound to be disappointed.

Yet that promise of limitless satisfaction makes the world go round. Hanging that carrot in front of our nose is one of our Big Lies, sure, but it’s no worse than many other organizing principles cultures have stuck their heads into—certainly better, for instance, than throwing virgins into volcanoes to fend off eruptions. (Once in a great while, someone tries to burst our bubble from the inside with an inconvenient truth: “In 1980,” writes Cherry, “a disgruntled Ward’s employee wrote ‘f*ck’ on the picture of a bedroom wall over ‘Create your dream bedroom.’ It ran in eight million catalogs.”)

Reading the handwriting on the catalog page does not kill the whole deal, though. Yes, possessing boundless wealth is a fantasy only a few humans can really indulge, and the perfect house or briefcase or pizza cutter that catalogs proffer cannot exist in the real world. But the optimism capitalism insists on is, for better and worse, essential for our system to function at all. It’s what economist Paul Krugman has been saying lately: Thrift is good and admirable in an individual, but when everybody gets thrifty at the same time, the economy staggers and we all go down.

So surrendering to Neiman Marcus fantasies is part of the American bargain—and in that sense, John Thain with his thirty-five-thousand-dollar commode on legs is the worst sort of surrender monkey. Excess like that will always be with us. It’s only when it fails to revolt us that capitalism fails.

Leslie Savan, author of Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever (Knopf, 2005), blogs about politics and the media for The Nation.