Once upon a time there was something called the Sears And Roebuck Catalog. It was like the catalogs you now get by the thousands in the mail around the holidays. The difference is the ones you get now are like shopping in a specialty store and the Sears And Roebuck Catalog was like shopping in a general store: That’s General Store, with a capital G and a capital S. The kind you see in western movies, with their shelves stuffed with everything imaginable. Sears Roebuck and Co was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in the late 19th century. The first Sears catalog was published in 1888. By 1894, it had grown to 322 pages. They had car parts and cars (1905-1915 by Lincoln Motor Car Works), tools and underwear, motorbikes and tableware, shoes, socks, potting soil, perfume, eyeliner, sewing machines and fabrics. Unlike the general store the catalog had its prices plainly stated and it quickly became a preferred method of shopping for Americans. It came out once or twice a year and was favorite reading all over the country. It was popularly called The Dream Book.
People would page through with no specific destination in mind, pausing on a page here and there, then looking off momentarily into space before resuming. From this, people became familiar with where certain things were and then could do a more focused search when necessary. At different times it could be found in any and all the rooms of the house. People had favorite sections: woman’s underwear was a favorite of young boys. The catalog had a table of contents but it was rarely used. Browsing was the preferred method of examination, the table of contents was a mostly ignored back-up. The Sears And Roebuck Catalog has disappeared, along with it the J.C. Penney’s catalog. Montgomery Ward has vanished from sight and almost from memory, catalog, lock, stock and barrel.
Now we have the internet. Anybody can have a catalog. Anybody can sell anything. There are manufacturers of every imaginable product willing to help. For example there are clothing manufacturers who will brand out their merchandise to your store name. If you don’t already have a store they will set one up for you. They will do the custom screen printing or embroidery and ship it. You just need to put your store name on your website, tell them what you want your mark-up to be and presto, you’re a retailer.
The internet is a great thing but I’ve never heard internet browsing or internet shopping referred to as a Dream of any kind. That could be because you’re not really browsing products, you’re scanning the table of contents. There’s no alphabetical listing or index. What the internet search engines have managed to do it to sell the table of contents to the highest bidder. Now, to shop by browsing becomes a chore, a back and forth between items and search, without any clear flow. The things the internet does best are the things it did first, back when it was called the World Wide Web; email, chat and all their variations. In short, connecting people to each other. For shopping, I miss the Dream Book.