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The mail-order catalog is dead—all hail the mail-order catalog! From the original Sears books to the minimalism of early-’90s Patagonia catalogs, from the holiday bizarre-fests of Neiman Marcus to the travelogues of J. Peterman, the American catalog has a rich history, saying as much about what we want as who we are.

It also is a great place to find actors (Angelina Jolie, Gregory Peck, Andie MacDowell) before they were famous.

Author of
Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping, Robin Cherry worked in direct marketing for over 18 years at Time, Inc., Rodale, and Dow Jones. She’s written for Travel+Leisure, Culture+Travel, Salon, Lexus, Concierge, and MSN among others.




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How did the American mail-order catalog start?

The mail order catalog got its start in Chicago in 1872, when Aaron Montgomery Ward realized he could offer better prices and service to his customers if he eliminated the middle man (general stores) and sold items directly to his customers. Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck followed suit, also in Chicago, when they issued the first Sears Roebuck catalog in 1893. Thanks to its central location, Chicago was the ideal place from which to launch mail order business since it offered relatively easy access throughout the country. At one point, Chicago’s railroad tracks actually ran through Ward’s warehouse.

How did the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog come about?

Although the company mailed its first catalog in 1926, the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book really became an icon when the “His and Hers” gift section was added in 1960. Brothers Stanley and Edward Marcus were inspired to offer the newsworthy section by journalists searching for holiday features. Early on, Edward R. Murrow and his then assistant, Walter Cronkite, used to call every year to find out what each year’s gifts would be.

What are some of your favorite items they’ve sold?

My favorite “His and Hers” gifts are the windmills ($16,000 each), Chinese Junks ($11,500 each), Shar-Pei puppies ($2,000 each) and McKenzie Childs Airstream Trailers ($195,000 each). I also loved the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads hand-encrusted with Swarovski crystals by jeweler Jay Strongwater ($8,000 each) offered in 2004.

One of my favorite Neiman-Marcus stories involved the “His and Hers” mummy cases. At a cocktail party, a man in London offered a female mummy case to Stanley Marcus. Marcus said that if he could find a male case to go with it, he would offer it as a His and Hers gift. Two years later, the man found one and sent them to Marcus in the United States. When the cases arrived, a store manager found that there was still a mummy in one of them. Concerned about being fined for illegally transporting a corpse into the country, the manager was instructed to find a doctor to issue a death certificate. The mummy was declared dead and donated to a local museum. The “His and Hers” mummy cases were offered for $6,000 (for the pair) in 1971.

What for you makes a catalog truly great?

Legendary adman Leo Burnett once said, of good advertising, “Make it simple. Make it memorable. Making it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.” The same holds for great catalogs. Some of the classics were some of the early Sears catalogs which offered everything from drugs and groceries to buggies and tombstones. Designed with elaborate Victorian-style fonts embellished with curlicues and filigrees, the catalogs were so attractive that some homemakers used them to decorate their walls. Taking a different “inviting to look at” approach, Frederick’s of Hollywood hired a pre-Baywatch Pamela Anderson to model its lingerie. Mel and Patricia Ziegler’s original Banana Republic catalog was the first to use fanciful copy and travelogues to sell their safari-inspired wares. The Zieglers’ “fun to read” catalogs inspired the similarly colorful prose of J. Peterman. And when it comes to memorable, no one can touch Neiman Marcus.

Does J. Peterman exist? Does he really roam about with truffle foragers?

Yes. John Peterman started the company when he purchased a classic duster jacket in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He advertised the coat in the New Yorker magazine and sold over 2,500. The real Peterman loves to travel and has visited over 85 countries. He became good friends with the actor John Hurley who played the character J. Peterman on Seinfeld and when Peterman re-launched his company in 2005 (after emerging from bankruptcy), Hurley was given a seat on the board.

What are some of your favorite catalogs at the present?

Neiman Marcus is still a classic and always a welcome arrival. (Where else can you get “His and Hers” life-size Lego sculptures and a Dallas Cowboys Texas Stadium End Zone for your backyard—two of its 2008 offerings?) The Trixie+Peanut catalog has some fabulous (and fabulously-ridiculous) pet toys and costumes. (In the book, I showed an Afro Doggy Wig as well as Star of David and Dreidel dog toys—Chewish Toys!) And Zingerman’s Mail Order, run by the team that runs Ann Arbor’s classic deli, offers culinary treats from artisanal producers from around the world, and the illustrations are almost as delicious as the food. Lastly, since I’m in the process of buying a house, I’m also enjoying home accessory catalogs like Artful Design, Ballard Design and Wisteria.

Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded The Morning News. He is the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down and You Lost Me There. His next novel is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His Kindle e-book for The Morning News Editions, about visiting different American towns called Paris, was selected as a notable essay for Best American Essays 2013. More information can be found at his website. More by Rosecrans Baldwin