One of my favorite possessions is a replica Sears Roebuck catalog from exactly 100 years ago. For a great many rural Americans at the time, the Sears catalog was the only access to goods outside of their local general store and, as a result, the catalog – sometimes called ‘The Consumer’s Bible’- contains basically every commercial product under the sun and thereby provides an inventory of everything that the average American of the time could have possibly thought of to own. You can buy a violin. You can buy a gun. You can buy a cure for baldness. You can buy records with racist ‘humor’ songs on them. For several hundred dollars, you can buy an unassembled two-storey house– as in, Sears delivers all the materials and some plans, and you put the thing together.
You can also buy this baffling Harris 20th Century Railroad Attachment that promises to make ‘a regular railroad velocipede out of an ordinary bicycle’. I like how the product is meticulously described – all the features, portability, popular with men and women, handsome black enamel – except for the key detail of what you are supposed to do when a train comes barreling down on you from behind, which is left totally unexplained.
Another nice thing about the catalog in general is that it predates the era of product photography. I don’t know whether it was too expensive to shoot all the products, or if the halftone screen wasn’t far enough along to allow for mass printing of photos in 1909, but in any case, the book contains thousands upon thousands of etchings of household items. One can only imagine the army of commercial etchers who must have been scratching away morning, noon and night to produce all this imagery.