The Most Symbolic American Catalog


Image courtesy of Hammacher Schlemmer

Hammacher Schlemmer speaks with all the confidence of a Madison Avenue account exec in the ’50s, just before things started to crack. Every product is the definitive, consummate iteration: The World’s Slimmest 3D Printing Pen. The Only Heated Beard Softener. The Best Gentleman’s Foil Shaver. The Lady’s Fatigue Relieving Sandals. The Superior Comfort Advanced Flannel Shirt. The Interactive Dog Bone. I page through, rapt, every time this catalog arrives—not because I can afford the stuff, but because I am fascinated by how sure they are of what will fascinate us.

What is now Hammacher Schlemmer began in 1841 as a hardware store in New York’s Bowery neighborhood, selling high quality tools that were hard to find. Today, the company mails out America’s longest-running catalog, specializing in anything that could ease, sweeten, or perk up our lives. The product descriptions make such sweeping claims that they would sound like late-night TV commercials—if the stuff lacked quality. But in the days of ten-second obsolescence, HS’s lifetime guarantee of satisfaction is nothing to sneeze at.

So I read, dreamily. A heated throw would be cozy. … A mug with a charger that keeps my coffee warm all day? And, oh, could I find uses for Harry Potter’s Golden Snitch Drone. Sometimes the stuff sails right past useful to silly, like The Best Messless Chocolate Milk Mixing Mug. Look out, spoons. And with The Indoor Flameless Marshmallow Roaster, they might be missing the point. But then you have the remote-controlled 17-inch Fish Catching Boat that can catch a 2-pound fish, a feat known to reduce grown men to curses and tears.

Hammacher is selling comfort, fun, fantasy, and nostalgia—in short, merchandise carefully chosen to soothe and delight us, filling in our empty places. Mistakes swiftly wind up on sale, like the jumbo wine glass that holds an entire bottle (who wants to admit to that?) and the pricey Personalized Patagonian Gaucho Steak Knives and The Cat’s Murphy Bed that slides out of a nightstand. (Although that is a space-saver.) The tank of jellyfish is a cultural artifact harder for me to assess. They change colors, not because they are jellyfish capable of covert action, but because the LEDs that light up their synthetic egg-drop-soup bodies are changing colors, which is not only cheating but cheesy. Yet for all their artifice, those floaty pastel tentacles are hypnotic.

I pull myself away, turn the page, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but … The Colossal 16-foot Inflatable Snoopy. Who doesn’t need a blown-up beagle four times as tall as their kids? But I am grinning nonetheless. A giant Snoopy does not strike me as one of the many ironic excesses of late-stage capitalism, with its eco-friendly (I typed ego-friendly by mistake and realized it was accurate) $375 rose gold vermeil straw from Tiffany’s (currently sold out) and $425 jeans spattered with a mud-like substance from Nordstrom (also sold out). This is not Versailles self-indulgence or corporate gigantism. This is whimsical excess, and I cannot bring myself to mock it.

Once again, Hammacher has tapped into something very, very American. Snoopy is part of the shrinking cultural heritage we all hold in common. Sure, inflating him until he stands as tall as a ranch-style house might be a little show-offy, but it is the sort of thing a cool grandpa would do to make the holidays special. The Colossal Snoopy looks like your very own Macy’s parade float—and instead of passing you by, it lives in your front yard.

Big is not gauche in the United States. We have room for anything. In the 1700s, the country was like a big house with a few small European antiques rattling around inside. We needed to fill space. This made us loud and pushed us away from subtlety and refinement, hurtled us toward all that was bold and shiny and extra. But that sense of abundance also gave us a confidence we no longer feel in our current cramped, overpopulated States. Big spaces inspired skyscrapers and a trip to the Moon. Big spaces reassured us—until recently—that very different sorts of people could dwell peaceably in the same country. When Route 66 stretched across the country, it studded the journey with its own colossuses: Chicken Boy, Hot Dog Muffler Man, the Gemini Giant, Paul Bunyan, a whale-sized whale, a rocking chair for Gulliver. Usually they were ads, in a time when ads were cheerful promises of progress. Whole towns branded themselves: Collinsville with its giant catsup bottle; Branson with its giant cross; Newark, Ohio, with an entire building in the shape of a basket.

Convince me these things do not amuse you. We take the smallest and most mundane details of our lives and blow them up big, like Claes Oldenburg’s giant three-way electric plug sculpture outside the Saint Louis Art Museum. All of life, it turns out, is scalable.

Still, even kitsch usually has a secret reason. Why turn a little white dog Brobdingnagian? Just to be competitive? Maybe. Your neighbor’s lit-outline reindeer are going to look fairly pathetic next to Colossus Snoopy. There is also a touch of Calvinism at play: “Look, we’ve made it! We have a big house and a great big beagle in front of it! We are so going to heaven.” But at its very core, supersizing a beloved character is a benign, straightforward appeal to the inner five-year-old.

And, I mean, Snoopy. Who stands for joy and imagination and trickster ingenuity, delusions of grandeur, insouciance, and not much loyalty. He is nobody’s poodle.

Besides, the Colossus is efficient. Forget the ladder and the strung necklace of lights that flicker out just as you fold the ladder. You need nothing but Snoopy. Nothing but nostalgia, for a time when big was better.