Long Live the Oddly Charming Poetry of the Mail-Order Catalog

Image by Mike Mozart (CC BY 2.0)

In this age of near-universal despair, could America’s longest-running mail-order retailer be the sleeper hero we didn’t even know was still among us? At Chicago Magazine, Nick Greene makes a compelling case that Hammacher Schlemmer, founded in 1881, might just be the goofy, retro anti-Amazon we need.

The catalog’s most obvious hook might be the ridiculous gizmos and novelty items — motorized unicycle, anyone? — that appear on its cover. But what I found especially endearing is the level of care the catalog’s makers invest in the product descriptions.

Beyond being older, today’s prototypical Hammacher Schlemmer customer is also wealthy and educated. “They would definitely be considered top 10 percent in household income, a lot of postgrads,” Farrell says. “That’s why we feel the copy is important.” Where else can one find a backpack described as “Brobdingnagian” or a walking stick crafted from “sustainably coppiced blackthorn (Primus spinosa)”?

The text is matter-of-fact, with odd literary flourishes, and the titles are concise, yet deceptively clever. “I could go on for hours talking about titles,” says John Gagliardi, who, as Hammacher Schlemmer’s senior creative manager, oversees the catalog’s unmistakable copy. “We agonize over titles.” The company employs two full-time copywriters and a stable of contributors to write the extensive product descriptions.

The NASA Strength Sun Hat harnesses “the same technology used in space suits.” That galactic selling point doesn’t overshadow the product’s earthly benefits, like the “wide brim” and a “radiant barrier” that “imparts a UPF 50+ rating to the hat.” If a product is unisex (the sun hat is), then that will always be noted, as will whether or not it requires batteries (it does not). At 153 words, the hat’s description is about the average length for Hammacher Schlemmer. A standard catalog is 88 pages long, give or take, meaning that, at four products per page, there are roughly 53,856 words in every issue. That’s more verbose than The Great Gatsby (47,094 words).

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