Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

This morning, I woke up thinking about catalogues, specifically those used for shopping, before the age of the Internet. When I was young, there were mail-order catalogue companies that were household names, like ‘Freeman’s’, and ‘Littlewoods’. Those things were huge, much larger that telephone directories, and very heavy for a child to lift. They used to arrive a few times a year, with the seasonal Christmas catalogue being the most anticipated, as it was packed with more toys than usual.

My Mum always had at least one of the two mentioned above, sometimes both. They literally sold anything you might want for the home, from a new bed, to a set of spoons. Clothing and shoes were featured heavily, from a wide range of suits and dresses, to underwear and hosiery. They didn’t sell foodstuffs, but the Christmas special would feature hampers stocked with luxury items, shortbread in tins, and a huge variety of sweets, sold in ‘selection boxes’.

The prices were always shown as small weekly payments, as these companies serviced the market of customers who could rarely afford to pay for something up front. They would employ collection agents, who would call at the house with a payment card, collecting the small amounts for anything from twenty-six weeks to sixty weeks, depending on the total owed. Those collectors became familiar figures around the neighbourhood, as almost everyone in our street used a catalogue for everything except food shopping.

As a child, it never occurred to me that the total cost of these goods from the catalogue companies was exorbitant. They simply operated as credit agencies, charging huge amounts for everyday items far in excess of what they would cost if bought from a shop with immediate payment. But for working class people on tight budgets, before the time of credit cards and other methods of payment, they offered the chance to own something that others took for granted, paid for in relatively tiny amounts, affordable from a weekly pay-packet. They accepted the criminal interest rates as part of life, and didn’t think too much about it.

As I said, I was unaware of this. To me, those wonderful catalogues with their appealing photos were like a Bible of consumerism. In those days, there were no supermarkets, and no dedicated superstores selling toys. To see all the items visible in that huge catalogue would involve visiting dozens of shops, all over London. But here it all was, in a huge book, which I could flick through at leisure. And flick through I did. Whenever a new one arrived, I would quickly check to see if anything new had been added, sometimes comparing it with the previous issue. The toys were generally at the back, so I would open it that way round, working my way through from the last page.

For at least a week, I would revisit my favourite pages. As my birthday approached, or Christmas was on the horizon, I would tear strips of paper, and write the item number or letter of what I liked most, slipping the paper into the relevant page. In this way, I hoped to give my parents a guide to what to buy me, without the awkwardness of actually having to ask them outright. It didn’t always work in my favour of course, but I used to greatly enjoy the process. What was sheer joy for me represented months or even years of debt for my parents, but I was oblivious.

Catalogues still exist of course. These days, many are much smaller, and only give some indication of what might be available on a website. Others arrive unsolicited in the post, and end up in the bin, unread. People still pay excessive interest rates to buy gifts for their children, though usually from shops that exist to offer the same weekly payment system, and they are few and far between. Modern day children can browse online, using laptops, phones, even Tablet computers.

But there is no longer the simple wonder of anticipating the arrival of a massive catalogue, filled with ideas and pictures that could delight you for months on end.

57 thoughts on “Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

    1. Glad to jog your memory, Eddy. No working class person in their right mind would have paid that much for a hamper in 1960. We didn’t even know what Liver Pate was back then! πŸ™‚
      Cheers, Pete.

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  1. Great post πŸ™‚ Times sure do change Pete. For example, Toys R Us closed down every one of their stores in America recently and every single year near Christmastime, they had this big catalogue of items that kids loved looking at. Nowadays, they all just buy their stuff online. Anyway, keep up the great work as always πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I only did a very small amount of catalogue buying and mainly to help out my friend who ‘ran’ a catalogue or two. I did put down money each week at a bicycle shop so that by Christmas I had paid enough for bikes for my kids. Nothing extortionate there, simply paying in advance, though of course if I had saved it in a savings account then I would have got interest, but also could have used the money for other things.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Talk about a stroll down memory lane, Pete, thanks for sharing. Some of my favorite childhood memories was during the holiday season, where my parents always seemed to make the joy of giving a top priority. A new suit was always in the cards, but there were plenty of other goodies to flash a Grand Canyon smile upon my face. Pretty clever of you to highlight your wish list without being too forward/demanding. Wish young people today would be as respectful to their parents, who–more often than not–are struggling to make ends meet amid the middle-man’s clever ploys with offering less money than they demand in return. Enjoy your day, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember browsing the Sears (Sears, Roebuck & Co.) and Montgomery Ward catalogs when I was a kid. However, I was more interested in the Eddie Bauer catalogs my dad used to receive. I’ve received a few specialty catalogs in recent years, but have only given them a cursory glance. I rarely buy anything other than food and groceries, but when I get the buying urge, I’ll either go online, pop into Walmart, or hit one of the outlet malls. Of course, if I really wanted to empty my wallet, I could shop the Strip.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a girl, we always had a Sears and a JCPenny catalogue (Great door stoppers)at home. Everything at your fingertips. No credit card, I don’t think mom paid on layaway. I think she saved and then paid by check. I remember daydreaming while I turned the pages.
    What a unique topic today.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Of the two themes-the wonder of the cornucopia in the mail and the criminal interest rates–the latter strikes home today. I use a credit card to buy a gift card to pay for lunch at a fast food restaurant. The company I buy the gift card from gives me 10 cents off a gallon of gas (or $4 at a fill-up) for every $50 worth of gift cards I purchase. I use a credit card so the company I buy the gift card from pays the credit card company a 1 to 1 percent feed for accepting the card. So, by my calculation the firm who sells me the gift card is out 5% in fees and special offers. This makes the gift card cost 90% of what lunch costs me, but the fast food restaurant accepts it at face. So, the fast food chain is inflating the prices to cover this cost. Indeed, everyone seems to pay a cost for my bonus of 10 cent off a gallon of gas at a fill-up except the credit card company who gets 1 to 2% when I use the card to pay for the rest of the gas. It would seem the wonders of high priced items continues in a different guise without the wonder of the cornucopia of those wonderful catalogs of yesteryear.
    Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your calculations are spot-on, Theo. All such costs are transferred to the price, and we are supposed to go away thinking we got a good deal, or a ‘bargain’. At least my parents knew they would have to pay through the nose back then. πŸ™‚
      Best wishes,Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Pete, oh yes, I remember the old days. When mom allowed us to cut the old catalogs. My brother, sister and I cut out pictures of living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens and people: father, mother, child. then we laid everything on the ground, everyone had a family and we played with it. Oh, that was really great!

    What should the children do today? πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Having more than middle-aged spread I now find that when I look in shops for clothes to fit they don’t have my size so I have to use a catalogue. I have some favourites but they seem to send a new one every week and it is usually full of the same stuff as the last one! Also, the sizes seem to have changed in the shops – I picked up a large pair of evening trousers and when I looked at the label before I tried them on it was a size 14. That seemed an average size to me! hey ho!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that sizing alters all the time, Julie. I can buy a size L t-shirt one month, then another from the same company will hardly fit, requiring going up to an XL. A pair of trousers from one shop will fit perfectly, and the same size in a different shop won’t even do up!
      But since the advent of the Internet, I generally no longer bother with catalogues. πŸ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Over here, buying from such catalogues was always the most expensive option, because of the weekly payments. These days we have ‘Payday Loan’ companies charging the same high interest rates.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I loved the catalogues too, seemed so cool to shop from home, (the only way I do now!amazon is my friend πŸ˜€) and the best bit was mum let me have the previous years catalogue and I would cut out the people or things and stick them on cards to make pictures!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My Mum used to get those catalogues too. I remember getting some clothes as a kid and they were always bloody awful, not as they seemed in the photos.
    My favourite catalogue of all time was Innovations. It wasn’t very large as it came with the Sunday papers. Moments of hilarity looking at all the daft things they offered – necessity not being the mother of their inventions. I believe it was a serious business but really, you couldn’t make it up. I think they went bust so now we have to make do with Sir James Dyson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, BF. I have to confess to once buying something from ‘Innovations’. It was a de-icer mitten for the car, and had a PP9 battery inside to warm it up. The scraper on the edge was far too thin to cope with a hard frost, and the mitten took so long to warm my hand, I was already off and driving to work before it was remotely cosy. πŸ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. When we lived in Mallorca catalog shopping was our only shopping most times…..we called them the “Wish Books” and like you spending hours pouring over their offerings…..fond memories….chuq

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Online shopping has become the “in” thing nowadays Pete. And they deliver the items for free. Josef, Nissa and Jovy do it all the time, I have never tried though. I still want to choose and see what I am buying before I part with that hard-earned money…haha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have used Amazon ever since it started up in the UK, and I used the US site before that, to buy DVD films. It has always been 100% reliable, so I have no problem with buying from it. Since moving to Norfolk, I am 20 miles away from any major shopping centre, so it makes sense to buy many things online. I still use local small retailers in Dereham for things like domestic electrical goods though, as I can see them on display in the shop.
      My love for catalogues is just nostalgia, from the late 1950s and early 1960s. πŸ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

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