Read Them and Weep

Do catalogs describe the way we are?

By Deborah Salomon

Once in a while I stumble upon a catalog (out of the 60-70 received each year) that makes a statement, or speaks for an era, a social movement, a slice of American life — palatable or not. This began with SkyMall, a publication tucked into the seatback pocket of airplanes. It enticed a captive audience with stuff nobody needs, everybody wants, including the Nash Ramblers of electronics.

Walkie-talkie, anyone? Vibrating back scratcher (batteries not included)?

SkyMall crashed and burned along with other travel niceties like pleasant flight attendants and knee space. After that, I investigated a catalog from The Vermont Country Store, perhaps the last purveyor of woolies — those flesh-colored knee-length undies for cold grannies. Last year in this space, it was Harriet Carter’s Distinctive Gifts Since 1958, featuring basically the same gifts as ’58 at a higher price.  Harriet’s pièce de résistance was the tushy-shaped Fanny Bank that awarded each deposit with flatulence.

So, I figured, when Harriet goes low, I’ll go high, starting with Hammacher Schlemmer, a name long revered and mispronounced by aficionados of expensive gadgetry. Moving quickly past a cashmere sweatshirt and outdoor heated cat shelter (with gambrel roof and clear plastic door flaps) to the world’s smallest quadcopter — only 1.1-inch square, with piezoelectric gyros and accelerometers, for CFOs who graduated from paper airplanes but haven’t quite mastered H-S’s sidewinding circular skates that work on grass and dirt.  Dog people appreciate silent dog toys with ultrasonic squeaks only your Lab and the political far right will hear. Of interest to local duffers, golf ball locating glasses with blue lenses that make white golf balls pop out of shady glades. Yeah, right. Ditto the six-person sandless beach mat that “sheds sand that comes in contact with it, using military technology that protects helicopters from dust.”

How about quadcopters?

I wonder which clinic approved the Clinically Proven Circulation Improving Throw that “converts released body heat into therapeutic infrared light that is reabsorbed back into the skin”? That’s after you rub on the snake oil.

I did like H-S’s low-tech Desktop Bat Signal that projects Batman’s logo 26 feet into the night. But I cannot grasp the reasoning behind animated rocking horses for kids. I thought the purpose was making a pony rock. However, the underwater hand-grasp scooter sounds like fun if it didn’t cost $700.

Moving on to rival Sharper Image which, sadly, paled beside H-S — an Electronic Rock ‘N Roll Drum Mat is cheaper than a set of real drums, and makes sufficient noise. I could use that Lost Item Locator, which finds car keys and other stuff. Only problem — this gizmo requires downloading an app, which means finding my cellphone. The personalized bobblehead doll (send photo, choose body type) is positively creepy, at $189. I don’t need a travel mug that, when plugged into a car cigarette lighter, reveals beverage temperature, but I’m intrigued with the potted waterless Levitating Fern, which draws moisture from the air and — get this — floats over an electromagnetic base. Watching a fern float should entertain my cats for hours . . . unless they choose to remain cloistered in that non-fossil-fuel heated house.

The less said about the Surround Sound Shower System, the better. I love Billy Joel, just not diluted by shampoo.

When Femail Creations catalog arrived I thought good job, the Me-Tooers have gone retail. I opened it eagerly, expecting meaningful merchandise from women, for women. I soon realized the distaff creators might be channeling Harriet Carter, circa 1958. No techno-tronics. Instead, coffee mugs blaring “Nurses can’t fix stupid but we can sedate it” and hats embroidered “Garden Hair Don’t Care.” But wait. By page 38 Femails had sunk to a paperweight engraved “Sassy, Classy and a lil’ Bad Assy,” a Ruth Bader Ginsberg necklace and a soap dispenser displaying a familiar bearded face alongside the rhyme: “Wash Your Hands and Say Your Prayers Because Jesus & Germs are Everywhere.”

I’ll spare you the bathroom spray.

Really, girls.

The only tempting item was a plain black cosmetic bag with timeless wisdom attributed to Coco Chanel: “Don’t be like the rest of them, darling.”

Maybe I’m drawn to these catalogs because they illustrate the State of the Union as perceived by vendors: Despite a government in turmoil, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, salmonella, mass shootings, a volatile stock market, immigrants crowding our gates . . . if enough Americans are willing to lay out $99.99 for a rechargeable heated massaging stadium seat, maybe things aren’t so bad after all.

Because the last thing a football fan who pays $500 for a bowl ticket wants is a cold, unmassaged tushy.  PS

Deborah Salomon is a staff writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at

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