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Under the Influence of Our Stuff: Lessons From an Old Sears Catalog

Under the Influence of Our Stuff: Lessons From an Old Sears Catalog

We are under the influence of our stuff—home décor and furnishings, fast fashion, modern art, and too much more—and it’s slowly gnawing away at our contentment and human potential.

What prompted this realization?

Some old Sears catalogs, actually. And a love for antiques, the reason for which I couldn’t quite put into words.

But let me try now.

While flipping through an old Sears catalog, the beauty of its  illustrations and the quality of the items depicted struck me. How antithetical the now-decades-old catalog appeared in comparison to our modern shopping scene!

The kinds of products sold in the old catalog bespeak a more holistic view of life, sorely lacking in today’s shopping culture. The items—antiques by today’s standards—appear so much more beautiful than their modern counterparts, and their beauty brings with it a character and a sense of permanence that invites reflection and creativity into the spaces that house them.

Here, we find once-in-a-lifetime items like homes and tombstones.  Yes, tombstones! These purchases invite much pre-purchase forethought, prompting the buyer to reflect on how the item will serve its purpose over time.

Sear's Catalog Tombstone

We might see the tombstones and ponder our mortality, or flip through the houses for sale and imagine our ideal sort of family life.

Nothing in these catalogs would trigger an impulse buy. It’s impossible to imagine someone buying one of the nice winter coats or the gold-rimmed dinnerware offered in the catalog only to discard it a few weeks or months later. The questions that the catalog prompts in a potential purchaser are of this sort: What would serve my family best for years to come? Is this worthy of being an heirloom one day?

Contrast that with today’s throwaway culture. Hardly ever would a memento mori such as a tombstone appear in the pages of a shopping catalog. Sure, we’re told to shop local, shop green, and be climate friendly (which many products now dubiously tout), but we often fail to consider how our items will serve not only ourselves in the short-term but also those who come after us; rather, we look only for what suits our immediate needs or wants.

Consider, for example, Amazon, where one look at an item leads to endless recommendations of similar and related products. In the modern online shopping scene, we find ourselves lost in a microcosm of almost infinite, short-term options. To page through the Sears catalog is to travel back in time to a world more holistic and grounded—in which longevity prevails and a more comprehensive view of life is reflected.

With our modern preference for faster and cheaper comes the loss of allure that beauty and craftsmanship entail.  Look, for example, at the font and illustrated ads of an old 1918 Sears catalogue and a 1940 Sears Fall and Winter catalogue. Today, even the illustrations themselves reveal a deeper level of craftsmanship. We could frame one of these and hang it in our home.  In addition, the more “everyday” items for sale, such as dinnerware, fine china, and vases, boast beautifully ornate artistry.

1940 Sear's Catalog Illustrations

Flipping (digitally) through the old catalog, I couldn’t help but imagine what a home must have looked like furnished with the well-crafted items that were so beautifully hand drawn there. Such exquisite craftsmanship gives items the power to imbue their surroundings with personality and to inspire creativity. I thought of a quote I came across on Pinterest apparently from Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat İldan: “Give me an old house full of memories and I will give you a hundred novels!” Winston Churchill similarly said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”

1940 Sear's Catalog Furniture

I can attest to the accuracy of these sentiments; while studying abroad in Germany, I got to experience quite a few castles, old homes and shops, and quaint inns. And the architecture and the interior furnishings—even of the more modest homes—oozed stories, both real and fictional. The charm of beautiful surroundings was pervasive, and it generated a livelier and more creative thought-life during my time studying abroad.

And one needn’t have a castle nor even a little old house in a quaint German town to cultivate such an atmosphere of romance and creativity. When my little family moved from our D.C. apartment to a tiny brick townhome and traded our modern (often IKEA) furnishings for old thrift-store finds, our little home experienced the welcome intrusion of personality and mystery that antiques bring with them. Who owned this before? Will this beautifully upholstered bench be passed down to my children someday? Could I gaze at this painting and be transported to another life?

The movement away from quality, lifelong purchases that prompt such questions and spark creativity is not only displayed in America’s shopping scene but also, more pathologically, echoed in the modern American psyche. We encounter “throwaway” culture in movies and pop music (I recently wrote about Taylor Swift’s latest album and the death of long-term relationships). If something or some relationship isn’t “working for you,” just cut it out (which is not always the wrong approach, but it’s certainly not always the right approach either.)  Don’t feel the love and devotion you once felt in a relationship? Leave. Our purchases, just like our life choices, are constantly subject to the ultimate criterion of today’s culture: whatever makes you happy now.

And, quite frankly, catering our shopping to our every whim and ever-changing appetites is not conducive to the cultivation of timeless, finely crafted pieces whose artistry fuels the imagination.

That’s not to say that modern art cannot be used tastefully nor that every shop these days is guilty of pandering poor-quality items—rather that quality finds are a rarity these days, and our short-term consumer appetites lead us to prefer faster, cheaper solutions with none of the personality of the equivalent items of our forebears.

Somewhere along the line in our modern world, we traded beauty and quality for endless options, affordability, and convenience. And with this trade, we lost the fine craftsmanship and the attendant romance that things once had. And we lost our ability to connect our purchases with important immaterial goals, such as raising a family or investing in an heirloom. We lost the kind of home that could inspire “a hundred novels.”

Maybe if we started investing in aesthetic, handcrafted items meant to last a lifetime, we might then better focus on the things that matter and making those things last—a novelty in today’s throwaway, me-oriented culture to be sure, but one very much worth the expense.

Image credit: public domain

Rebekah Bills
Rebekah Bills

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  • Avatar
    Margaret Rouhani
    June 25, 2024, 4:30 pm

    Beautiful article & I wholly concur with what the author says. There was pride of craftsmanship that is for the most part, lost today. Things were beautifully made & they were made to last.

    Really, a strong statement regarding where society is today & what it values.

  • Avatar
    Jill Garrett
    June 27, 2024, 7:30 am

    Thanks for this thought provoking article. Always loved the Sears Catalog.

  • Avatar
    June 28, 2024, 2:39 pm

    Surround yourself with what you love.
    George Carlin

    If you don't choose carefully, and don't love what you choose, there will be no memories worth remembering


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