National news recently carried a note that Sears, and similar mail order companies, were losing business and in danger of closing. Past generations could not have imagined a time when the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog would not be a very important part of every household.
We waited with anticipation for the arrival of each new edition. We ordered from the catalog, but being the source of stuff we needed was not its only use. It was an entertaining and educational resource.
We eagerly turned the pages to see what was new on the market, how common things had been upgraded and improved, plus unlikely inventory that had become available by mail order. From prefabricated houses to golden wedding bands, just about everything anyone could want or need was included.
Without television, we counted on the catalog to show us what was popular and in style. If we recognized a coat or hat from the pages of Sears being worn, that was a favorable endorsement.
Much could be learned by studying the pictures: tools such as a sheep shearing machine, a whitewashing machine, an automatic pump. We could hardly imagine what it would be like not to do that work by hand.
Underwear sections provided mild sex education. Toiletry products and braces for different parts of the body raised our interest.
The Christmas catalog was Christmas in itself. We would admire the wide assortment of toys and dreamed of playing with them as our own. We knew that probably we would not get any of them in our stocking, but the experience of looking at the pictures and imagining was pleasure in itself.
The thick main edition of the catalog came once or twice a year and was covered with a durable brown paper wrapper. I would carefully open its glued seam, turn the wrapper inside out and make a new cover for a badly worn school book.
Old catalogs were not discarded but kept as risers for the dining chairs so young children could reach the table. They also made good doorstops and weights to hold a stack of objects in place. Finally, they were relegated to the privy where the section of thinner, softer index pages disappeared first.
I remember in the 1940s, a smaller spring catalog pictured an assortment of items on the front cover. Among them was a white plastic vase with raised stars all over the bottom bowl and upper flared top. When my mother’s first order from that catalog came, the package contained a pair of loafers for me, a couple of other necessities and one of those vases. It was too appealing for her to resist, and she had uncharacteristically thrown frugality aside and included its catalog number on the order blank.
Over the years that vase has beautified the house with armloads of dogwood blossoms, bushels of zinnias and whatever flower or greenery was there for cutting. It is still on my cabinet shelf waiting for the lilies of the valley to open, but forever filled with memories.