20 Years’ Worth of Epiphanies

Ours is not to question taste.

Ours is just to cut and paste.

That bit of doggerel used to hang in the paste-up area of the first magazine I worked for, back in the late 1980s. Not too long ago I was repeating it to a younger colleague, who stared at me blankly: She’d never seen a paste-up area.

No doubt I had gaped just as blankly at my mother the first time she told me about how she used to listen to The Shadow and Baby Snooks on the radio when she was a kid: “The radio? You mean you didn’t have TV back then?”

Putting together this 20th anniversary issue of Catalog Age has been full of similar epiphanies. Catalogs didn’t always offer toll-free ordering? There was no such thing as overnight delivery?

And while scouring our archives, I came across references to scores of catalogs that no longer exist and that, in fact, I’d never even heard of: Sunnyland Gifts. Clymer’s of Bucks County. U.S. General Supply Corp. Synchronics.

At the same time, though, editing this issue has made me somewhat nostalgic. Although I wasn’t covering the catalog industry in the 1980s, I do recall how different the business world used to be. I can tell my share of stories about mechanicals getting lost on the way to the printer and leaning too close to waxers and becoming entangled in rolls of slippery facsimile machine paper.

Best of all has been discovering the wealth of catalogs that, like Catalog Age, have survived the kaleidoscope of changes during the past two decades. There’s Penney and Bean and Lillian Vernon, of course. But also smaller, less legendary titles whose age and stamina impress me nonetheless — catalogs as varied as Early Winters and Atlanta Cutlery, The Stitchery and Black Box.

This constancy is a testament to the industry, and the talents in it. And amid the continuing tumult of the direct marketing industry, the business world, and the world at large, that constancy is encouraging, reassuring, and hopeful.

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