Yesteryear catalogs entertain, excite


Today’s catalogs outnumber our yesteryear counterparts – catalogs that were delivered via rural route or box mail. Some of these included the important Montgomery Ward, Spiegel or Sears and Roebuck catalogs.

This printed material was sometimes placed in an honorary position, often next to the family Bible.

These important quarterlies were a part of America from the most rural post office route in the backwoods all the way to bustling big cities.

A sorry admission by many could be that these mail order catalogs were more attended to than the Bible.

Anticipation. As time passed and the catalog became dog eared, worn and soiled, a new season would come and another issue was certain to arrive. Upon arrival, there was always a bit of misunderstanding on who would be the first to open it.

Similar to the importance placed on the Sunday “funnies,” these catalogs were a source of constant attention; however, the funnies were forgotten by Sunday evening and the catalogs were not put down so quickly.

Children would often leaf through the catalog together, spending a lot of time looking and wishing. Many still refer to catalogs as their wish lists.

Young boys snickered upon reaching the ladies undergarments section and mothers knew by the giggling where the boys were in the catalog. They were reprimanded, however, the girls did the same thing when seeing the men’s underwear.

Men always possessed a rugged smiling nonchalance in the magazines and the women appeared graceful and serene while wearing everything from evening attire to a corset. In reality, ladies squirmed, grimaced and frowned deeply at the discomfort of staves jabbing here and there and the inability to breath or sit comfortably.

Old catalogs, new use. When a new catalog arrived, the old ones were put to other uses. Many remember stories of the “outhouse use,” however, there were also other ways to use the old catalogs.

Pages were torn out of the old catalogs and used under the bottoms of soot-covered pans, pages were used as place mats and pages were placed at table settings for scraps.

Young ladies preserved the dress and garment section by neatly cutting the figures out and using them as paper dolls.

Men and boys saved pages illustrating harnesses, tools and the horse pictures illustrating trappings.

More uses. Paper on a farm was often quite scarce, and the heavy, coated pages served as excellent wrappings to wrap tomatoes and aided in ripening the green ones safe from flies.

Plugs of all kinds and sizes were made by rolling up pages and placing them in kerosene cans where the original caps were missing.

Small, rolled up sections were used to light lamps or men’s pipes. These were ignited by the fireplace or a closed stove.

A few farmers tore pages into long, narrow strips and placed them in the nest boxes in chicken houses because some people thought it kept the chickens from pecking the eggs. A few also thought the chickens got nutrition from the strips.

Continued use. My folks raised many chickens – hundreds often – and crumbled catalog pages were mixed with the litter to hopefully absorb waste. Since I was the one who cleaned the coop in the spring, I detested the practice. The pages adhered to the floor and further work was required.

Women more than men – in those days – followed fashion ardently. They made much of the families attire by looking at the clothing in the catalogs.

Sears Roebuck was more diversified than today’s issues. Sears sold houses and even poultry and bought animal pelts.

When I was 9, I had a trap line near North Benton, usually following the creek at the east side. Sears paid the best prices compared to local pelt dealers. Of course the check was cashed and the money sent back shortly for something else in the catalog.

Spirits soaring. Like anyone else, receiving a mail order item was a delight and an enlightening event that sent spirits soaring.

Besides the Books of Knowledge in our home, Sears catalogs were also referred to for identification and stats.

The truth about catalogs is that Montgomery Ward and Spiegel were the torn up issues, and Sears was in a place of honor on the book shelves.

Since I started sketching when I was 7, the catalog section of wall paper was excellent for me. Some issues had coupons to return to Sears for wallpaper books and these were treasures for a beginning artist, along with the Books of Knowledge and endless sources of illustrations to turn to.

This is a thank you to Montgomery Ward, Spiegel and Sears for their catalogs over the years. They were a treat and source of enjoyment, plus quality material, during those years.

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