February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The greening of catalog culture

By |2018-12-07T14:35:45+01:00November 29th, 2018|"Notebook"|
Sears was like flying economy in your purchases.

s if the early snow and cold snap and leftover turkey sandwiches weren’t enough, now it’s the Christmas catalogs clogging my mailbox, announcing more holidays just around the corner.

As a child, catalogs were one of the season’s many treats. But the glossy paper delights had a bittersweet, guilty tone not shared by ordinary seasonal delights such as eggnog or carols. My frugal parents disdained the commercial exploitation of holidays and were proudly immune to the seductions of advertising. Yet catalogs were a rare ticket out of my family’s New England virtue. Flipping through their Christmas gift pages allowed me to express unrequited love for the Barbie I’d never own or to imagine myself at a party wearing something other than a hand-me-down dress. In the privacy of my room, no one would judge or belittle my childish desires.

Unlike the feast my mailbox offers today, the old catalogs that made my heart flutter in the 1960s and 1970s were few and simple.

There was the Sears Christmas catalog, which bulged with the kind of toys my parents disapproved of. There was L.L. Bean, an East Coast oddity in the Midwest, where anyone wearing one of their Norwegian sweaters was very likely someone you already knew. The Lillian Vernon and Miles Kimball catalogs merchandised Yankee ingenuity, with hundreds of “better mousetraps” for solving problems from nasal hair to doing crossword puzzles in the bathroom. Everything at Vernon and Kimball could be “personalized” with your name, in case during a party someone was tempted to abscond with the plush cover for your spare toilet-paper roll.

I’m a big girl now. No one will shame me if for wanting new clothes or the toys of my choice. I can even buy them for myself if I like.

On the summit of Christmas catalogs was Neiman Marcus. If Sears, Bean and Vernon offered me an economy ticket out of my thrifty family, the Texas-sized extravagance of Neiman Marcus offered a first-class one (on now-defunct Braniff International Airways, whose planes were painted in pop-art colors and whose stewardesses wore Emilio Pucci). Neiman Marcus sold “his and hers” pairs of mink coats and private airplanes, fish tanks and pearls that cost as much as the average home. For the price of one pair of Bean boots, they could wrap your gift to look like a nutcracker or the state of Texas.

Today, as I flip through my newly arrived crop of Christmas catalogs, I realize they represent another unique piece of Americana whose absence I never noticed while living in Italy for three decades. Like many things, the evolution of the catalogs in my absence reflects how both my homeland and I have changed.

The catalogs in front of me document the new landscape of American retail. Sears is gone. Lillian Vernon struggled and was eventually killed by private equity investors. L.L. Bean was bought out, and expanded its clientele from craggy New England outdoorsmen to bland middle America. Neiman Marcus has branched out from its nest in faraway Texas and is now at a mall near you. Many brands that were once exclusive and unobtainable are mass market best-sellers in China.

Neiman-Marcus, once a Texas oasis, offered dreams of luxury. Far from killing off the Christmas catalog, the internet seems to have overseen a Christmas miracle: they’ve been given new life, multiplying vertiginously.

Neiman-Marcus, once a Texas oasis, offered dreams of luxury. Above is the cover of their 1983 “Christmas Book.”

I suppose I should also thank Google and friends for the fact that my mailbox remains stuffed, in particular for the catalogs targeted at “older” women who like home decor and natural fibers.

Catalog looks have also changed. Forty years ago, their general format was rarely varied, regardless of their intended market. There was a photo of the merchandise and text on a white background. Differentiation between brands was in production and reflected in costs. Neiman Marcus used glossy paper and high-quality printing, while Lillian Vernon came out on newsprint (you could see the dots in its low-resolution images).

These days, merchandise is featured in atmospheric settings such as Caribbean beaches, mountain homes, seaside cottages or even European street scenes (or set against backdrops in photo studios in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart).

These images are carefully groomed to reflect the fragmentation of American identity. They demonstrate how the country has turned from seeing itself as generically suburbia. Instead, the nation is a collection of tribes defined by its consumer choices. Decades ago, you shopped at Lillian Vernon, Neiman Marcus or L.L. Bean because they were regional or affordable or had what you needed. Now, you choose Sundance’s wood and leather ping-pong table, Garnet Hill’s organic sheets, or foodie home-brewing tools from The Grommet, the heir to Lillian Vernon and Miles Kimball. You do so because you see yourself as that kind of person. And if you are the kind of person that wants a plush toilet-paper cover, you are out of luck.

But as catalogs have changed, so have I.

I’m a big girl now. No one will shame me for wanting new clothes or the toys of my choice. I can even buy them for myself if I like. Fifty years ago, I could not have what Christmas catalogs offered. Now I no longer want it.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."