Dec 09, 2012 | 1954 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print


Because we have ordered items via mail order catalogs in the past, they come now en mass, particularly from specialty houses.  I counted twelve in one day’s mail, including Martha Stewart, what I call “flufoo coffee,” fruit baskets, travel clothes—you imagine it and there is a catalog for it.  We brought this upon ourselves of course, which makes it especially important that I deposit them in the recycle bin.        

Judy looks through most of them, and still orders from a few, but eventually all go into that conscious salving recycle receptacle that is supposed to help save a few trees somewhere, with apologies, of course, to timber growers, pulpwood cutters and haulers, and paper makers.  See—you can’t do, or not do, anything anymore without offending or hurting someone.

Anyway, this catalog business runs deeper than slick marketing.  The first catalog measured and weighed a good deal more than its modern imitators. It advertised the goods of Montgomery Ward, founded in 1881 and the first mail-order business that catered to rural customers who could not visit retail stores conveniently. 

Sears, Roebuck entered the market before the end of the century.   Considered together, the catalogs of these two mail-order houses proved as revolutionary as Tom Paine’s Common Sense or Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.  Here’s why:

In the 1880s, isolated farmers found themselves squeezed by falling prices for what they produced, rising prices for what they purchased, and, in their perception, merciless sources of credit in banks and insurance companies.   When they grew more to earn more, prices dropped and they earned less.  But the payments on land, improvements, and implements remained, and became relentless.

Those marvelous “Monkey Ward” and “Sears” catalogs offered a respite.  A good many rural youths got their elementary education in anatomy, especially female anatomy, staring at images of models dressed in underwear.  Mothers saw desirable kitchen appliances or house wares, fathers’ tools that would make their work easier—if they could afford them.   Someone must have the money to order them.  Why not me?

Why not, indeed.  So the farmers formed a People’s Party, and while it never won a presidency, most of its platform planks eventually made it into law when Republicans or Democrats, or both, adopted them.  Much of the legislative packages of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson had their origins in the Populist Party, which was inspired partially by those pesky, troublesome, mail-order catalogs.

When I was a boy, after the catalogs had been around awhile they were taken to the outhouse, and not for reading.  I tried that exactly once, and it is a variety of recycling that I do NOT recommend.

Archie P. McDonald was a professor of history and Community Liaison at Stephen F. Austin State University.  His commentaries were also featured each Friday morning on Red River Radio.

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