Saturday, January 8, 2011

Position Available: Queen of Vintage Catalogs

I've been holding out on you...

I'll bet you didn't know that for a few months this past summer I was on the road to becoming the Queen of Vintage Catalogs.

This was the catalog that started things off:  a Montgomery Ward - Spring and Summer 1943.

I have owned a few vintage catalogs for years - a Montgomery Ward's and a Butler Bros. from the 1920's and a J.C. Penney catalog from 1972, and had always enjoyed paging through them.  But last June when I purchased my first 1940's catalog on Etsy - the 1943 oversized Ward's catalog pictured above - I was completely enchanted.   What drew me in were the big and beautiful full-page color fashion photographs.  They were breathtaking. 

Montgomery Ward Catalog cover, 1949 Spring and Summer

Shortly after that first Etsy purchase, I was the winning eBay bidder on this lovely 1949 catalog.  Again, stunning photographs - a number of them in color - and they were huge! 

I've discovered that vintage Montgomery Ward catalogs, at least up through 1960, are all oversized catalogs measuring 13 1/4" x 9".  Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogs are wonderful too, but they've always been smaller - 11" x 8 1/4" - at least from the 1920's on.

Those first two catalogs got me hooked, and soon I was on Etsy and eBay constantly, hunting for good deals on vintage catalogs - and spending every bit of the money that I earned from selling on eBay as quickly as it came in.  Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward... it didn't matter... I loved them all!

It didn't take long before I had added these seven catalogs from the 1940's to my collection. (l to r)  Spring and Summer 1940; Spring and Summer 1943; Spring and Summer 1945; Fall and Winter 1945-46; Fall and Winter 1946-47; Spring and Summer 1948; Spring and Summer 1949.  The two shorter catalogs in the top row are Sears Roebuck, and the rest are Montgomery Ward.

Do you think I stopped with the 1940's - no way!  Next I started on the 1950's and the 1930's (those were tough to get for a decent price), and my next decade of focus was going to be the 1960's.

I was bidding on so many at once, I started to worry that I was going to end up with two of the same catalog. So I made an Excel chart to track, by year and season, which catalogs I already owned, and which were on the way in the mail.

I was definitely a woman on a mission!

I remember going out to a Chinese buffet with my son one evening, and during our meal I couldn't contain my excitement.  "Daniel," I said, "I've decided that I want to own a copy of every single Montgomery Ward and Sears Catalog from 1920 to 1969!  I want to be known as the Catalog Queen!" 

He laughed at me, of course. Then we quickly figured out that if I ever reached my goal I'd have a staggering 200 catalogs in my collection.  "Why would you want to do that?" he asked. "What's the point?"

What's the point?!  Well, first of all, it would just be really cool to have a complete collection of those two famous catalog names - don't you think?  I wonder if anyone's managed it?  Yeah, probably.  Maybe even one of you has come close?

Also, how fun it would be to have the resources at my fingertips to become an expert on vintage catalog fashion, and be able to answer important questions like:

1) When did the snood, the halter, the peep toe, the turban, the bolero, the circle skirt, the mini skirt, etc. first appear as a new fashion item in a Sears or Ward's catalog?

The snood is "fashion's newest whimsey" in the Sears catalog, Spring and Summer 1940.

2)  Which company was the quickest to share the newest fashion trends - Sears or Ward's?
3)  What distinguishes a Beret from a Pillbox from a Derby or a Cloche, a Toque, a Breton, a Bonnet, a Calot or Bumper hat?
4) When did wonder fabrics like Sharkskin and Lastex first appear - and then disappear?

Rayon Sharkskin dresses featured in Sears catalog, Spring/Summer 1940.

5) Year by year, what direction were hemlines and necklines, shoulders, sleeves and skirts going? - Were they going up or down? wider or narrower?

I'll never know the answers to all these questions because I never managed to get even close to reaching my goal of being the "Queen of Vintage Catalogs."  After buying 21 catalogs in less than three months, I decided it was time to quit.  

I finally took a break from my buying frenzy to add up what I'd spent on catalogs that summer - nearly $300 - yikes!  There was no question that this rather expensive little addiction was one I simply couldn't afford.  At the same time, I was also beginning to lose my enthusiasm because of information overload.  It was clear that in order to have the time to do all the research necessary to truly become an expert on catalog fashion, I'd have to quit my day job - which was not an option!

Montgomery Ward Catalog cover, Fall and Winter 1945-46.

And so my dear readers, visions of being catalog royalty are no longer dancing around in my head.

I'm back to being just a common ordinary lover of vintage fashion who knows just enough to get by, to be a little dangerous, and to have some fun...

These days when I look at catalogs, I mostly just turn the pages and enjoy the pretty pictures - like these winter coats and suits from my 1945-46 Ward's catalog...

I've included the catalog descriptions for your reading pleasure, because I think that the words are just as lovely and intriguing as the fashion photographs.

Color-Gay Cardigan...Scrolled Braid Perked Pockets...Ebony Spiced Buttons...  Those words sound good enough to eat, don't you think? 

Have you noticed Ward's use of the word "revers" to describe the coat lapels?  Coat "C" above, in the American Beauty color, has "Sweetheart Revers."   That term wasn't used by Sears Roebuck. The same style of coat collar in my Sears 1945 catalog was referred to as having "Heart Lapels."

Here's a closer look at the hats worn by each of the models above.

Taking the photographs drew my attention to their makeup and hair too.  Notice that each of the three models has pretty much the same hairstyle - parted on the side, pulled off the face with some sort of clip, and then curled under along the neckline, from the ear down to the shoulder. 

In 1945-46, Ward's chose to have nearly every one of their featured models, who were sporting the newest fashion trends, wear their hair that same way.  I wasn't seeing much that resembled a "Victory Roll" in this particular catalog - except on the more "mature" women.  Were Victory Rolls becoming out of fashion by this point?  Had that style reached its peak in the early 40's?

So, what do you suppose makes Hat A a "Bumper" rather than a "Beret" like Hat B?  They seem to have similar styling and tilt.  I just don't know...

I have lots of questions, but very few answers.  See, I would have failed miserably as Queen! 

So the position is still open.  Anyone want to take a shot at it?  :-)


  1. This is all soooo beautiful!!! Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Wow, you are super organised cataloguing them. How lovely to have so many vintage fashion pictures to look at. I think my great aunt has some 'Picture Posts' from the thirties, I might have to pay her a visit and have a look. x

  3. What an amazing collection even if you didn't get all 200! Beautiful beautiful pictures, sigh.... I would love to collect 50s versions of these but I know if I started I wouldn't be able to stop and I really couldn't afford it :o(

  4. amazing! You are the queen of catalogs, and we your loyal subjects will enjoy these tastes you give us! What sort of taxation do you prefer?

  5. Thatdamngreendress,
    Ha! I'm definitely not queen material! But if I were, I'd have my subjects pay their taxes with vintage shoes, purses, and jewelry - three things I can never get enough of...

  6. WOW! What a trove! I agree that catalogs are an incredible source of fashion history info, though! Re: the beret vs. the bumper, the bumper seems to be higher and has the shape of a car bumper (you know, sort of crescent-ish), whereas the beret seems flatter? Also, the bumper is worn at the front of the head (tilted and touching the forehead), while the beret is further back, not quite as tilted and not touching the forehead)?

  7. I love vintage catalogs, too and have quite a few, but in addition to being sometimes expensive, they are a BITCH to store! Those suckers take up a LOT of room, but they are wonderful. I like the fact that you are seeing what REAL people were wearing, rather than the stuff in old issues of Vogue or Harper's Bazaar.

  8. Baroness...I think you could handle the job of Catalog Queen very well. Thanks for your thoughts on the difference between a bumper and a beret. Makes sense! I'll have to find some more photos to confirm...

    Moviemag46...I love the fashions in Vogue & Harper's Bazaar. But I agree - how many ordinary people were wearing them? Very few.

  9. Oh, and the Spring/Summer 1961 Wards catalog was the first in the new smaller size.

  10. Oh, thank you for that, Moviemag - you're wonderful!

  11. You're welcome...but the fact that I know stuff like that might explain why I am single :-)

    That catalog has an insert in the front explaining the new size and the new printing presses being used. might not be able to get all of the catalogs from the 20's-60's, but a full run of the 1960's could be doable without selling your soul. I have most of the 60's myself and hope to have the full set sometime in the not too distant future.

    I find it interesting to see how quickly fashions changed and how there really is not a "look" that represents an entire decade. The styles in the very early 60's catalogs are very Sandra Dee/ Doris Day/Jackie Kennedy but by the end of the decade, all that is gone and "Mod" is very much in.

  12. I don't have the catalogs but I am that way with old magazines. I was given issue of the first Life Magazine ever printed and I was hooked. I love the ads, the fashions, the advice of the old woman's mags. I was lucky enough to find some mags from the 20's in fabulous condition. LOVE IT!

  13. really...i think you are onto something!! when i was growing up, we had our encyclopedias that gave us all our info into the world of everything. why not have publications that still do that? i love them!!! i don't think $300 is that much. could be worse. could be expensive shoes that cost $300 each pair!!! good luck with your quest. now that you aren't looking anymore, the rest of the issues will fall in your lap!
    i'm not quite sure what a snood is or lastex fabric, but i do know what spandex is and i'm so lucky we have that for the year 2011!! i wouldn't be able to snuggle into a rayon dress after all my episodic holiday splurges!!! maybe one day the big thighs of our standards will be skinny thighs of the new standard and our outgrown spandex will be vintage chic?
    thanks for such a great post!!! you always make me laugh.

  14. These are dreamy vintage eye candy. I love 40s rayon dresses and I spotted a pair of vintage shoes I have in my collection. I didn't know the Ward's catalogs were biggie sized. I wish my grandmother never threw anything away!

  15. This is utterly amazing... and what a cataloguing system. Swoon! Such wonderful pictures :D x

  16. Oh, utterly fascinating and totally gorgeous. I've a few vintage magazines I love perusing through but your research and cataloging put me to shame. Wear your crown with pride, Queen. xxx

  17. Ohh you make me sooo feel like time traveling!! Just beam me to the 50ties and let me take my purse with me! (I don't think I could shop over there with euros, too bad).

  18. It's amazing how dedicate you are!! I'm sincerely impressed!!
    I tend to collect the fashion magazines of nowadays, in order to show them to my grand-daughters, if I have some!!;)

  19. Love that collection! I adore old mags and catalogues- old Vogues and National Geographics are amazing for their adverts for luxury goods like cartier watches.

  20. Can I come over to your house and spend a week doing nothing but look at your catalog collection? Please? Can I?

  21. What a great post! I love all the scans! The colors in those catalogs are so vivid, and a lot of the photography, even though it's supposed to be a throwaway shot, is frame-able. Another ebay fixation for me to fixate upon! I managed to ween myself away from vintage, high school girl generated scrapbooks (for much your reason, too much money and time taken-- that, and I'd get so heartbroken when I was outbid for something I knew was one of a kind), but this! I could live with this! :) I have a Sears Roebuck catalog from 1946, it's just the same kind of candy to the eye. Thanks so much for sharing!

  22. Lisa - you and I may be bidding against each other on eBay. I thought I was completely over my obsession with catalogs - but after writing this post, that urge to buy has come back. Crap!

    VintagePrecious - thanks for stopping by. Those vintage inspired little girls dresses you make are sooo incredible. Talk about eye candy!

    Perdita - I love old mags too, but I can never get my hands on a Vogue for a price I'm willing to pay. National Geographics are so cheap though! - and I've been surprised by some wonderful ads inside.

    Eileen - Lucky you to find a collection of 1920's magazines. I have so few from that era - but aren't they charming?

    Lexy - Of course you will have grandchildren! And how fun to save mags for them which will be considered vintage by the time they're old enough to appreciate them.

    Kim - You can come over to my house any time! And can I join you in Las Vegas?

  23. Quite an impressive collection! Color-gay cardigan cracked me up tho, hehe ;)

  24. Hi Susan - I so enjoyed looking through the catalog with you. Love the coats and suits and the old hats. I can see where buying them would get expensive. How organized of you to do an Excel sheet! That would be a good way for me to catalog all my treasures.

  25. Well, if you can't be the queen, th3n why not be the Princess of Catalogs. Or if that is too much, then perhaps Lady Catalog?

    It is amazing how much you can learn from studying these, as you have pointed out so well.

  26. WOW. I love them. You have yourself a really nice collection. :-)

    have a lovely day!

  27. The pictures and clothes look gorgeous. Must be so much fun to have and look at

  28. well an longstanding mystery has been solved for me! i am forever looking for vintage catalogs and never find them, it's because you have them all! ;)

    let me know if you ever want to sell a little lot of them, i want some.

  29. Amazing!!! All the pictures are supergreat!
    Hugs and kisses

  30. Great scans and thank you for sharing with us. Hope we get to see more in the near future.

  31. I have a 1960 WARDS summer catalog Oakland 16 Calif.In fair to good shape,anyone know what it is worth to a collector, might want to sale it if it's worth it.
    please send a reply to my e-mail please. I can take pics and send them .


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