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.