Reading Eagle (January 27, 1941)
DOROTHY THOMPSON SAYS –
"The Good Old Days"
For a long time, I’ve wanted to get around to saying a few words about one of the most amusing pieces of American history – and one of the most illuminating – that I have read in many a long month. That is David Cohn’s The Good Old Days – as the subtitle tells us:
A History of American Morals and Manners as seen through the Sears, Roebuck Catalogs 1905 to the Present.
The idea of chronicling the history of a civilization through what it buys is similar to an archeological expedition, which reconstructs a forgotten era by the instruments, utensils, clothing, cosmetics and home furnishings that are found in tombs or buried cities. Mr. Cohn has discovered in the Sears, Roebuck catalogues the Herculaneum of the Taft-to-Franklin Roosevelt era. And his book is a record of amazing change. Leaving ideologies aside, this history of Turkish rockers, gold ear spoons with toothpick combined, mustache cups, hair rats, to tractors and streamlined washing machines is a little World’s Fair,
Half a century of progress.
It is also a record of the emancipation of women. The front sections of the catalogue, which, in the good old days, were devoted to buggies, stoves and hardware, are now turned out to women’s clothes. And the evolution of women’s clothes shows that women’s rights have not only included the vote and the university, but the right to dress like human beings. We learn that the trailing skirt that once swept the streets began to be shortened by the habit of bicycle riding, which the Boston Women’s Rescue League described as immoral. From the hesitantly launched bicycle to the brazenly advertised ski of 1940 is a history of American freedom: Freedom of movement. It is also a history of American marriage – from the secluded harem to the free-swinging comrade who carries a rifle and leaps down hillsides with her mate.
But woman’s dress also has its economic and social aspects. America has effortlessly moved from cotton to silk in women’s garments, from bulky woolens to sleek tweeds, from clumsy shoes to graceful pumps and oxfords, with the result that the United States is still the only country in the world where the farmer’s daughter, who picks her clothes from a mail-order catalogue, and the Park Avenue lady, who buys on Fifth Avenue, are sisters over their skin. The democracy of American dress is unique. The United States is the only country where people do not wear in their clothing the badge of class – the only one except for those where everyone is in the same uniform.
The social striving behind the brown or black shirt includes the attempt to abolish class differences by uniformity of clothing. America has solved the question in its own way – through infinite diversity of design with mass production.
A reading of this book also reveals that, while quality has gone up and taste has improved, prices have gone down. The American consumer of mass-produced articles gets more for his money than any other consumer in the world. This is an effective distribution of wealth and is the greatest achievement of American capitalism. From silk stockings to gas stoves, it is without rival.
The evolution of the farm from back-breaking labor to urban civilization is here breathtakingly recorded. From ice house and milk-cooling in wells to the gleaming electric refrigerator bought for a few dollars a month, from the zinc wash tub and corrugated board to the machine that washes and wrings, is an emancipation proclamation without civil war – an emancipation that has lengthened the lives of farm women, who actually today live as long as their husbands or longer. It used to take about three farm wives for one husband’s lifetime, as the country cemeteries show.
And the catalogue also reveals some encouraging things about commercial morality.
The one-price system, that everyone now takes for granted, actually did not enter this country until the turn of the century. Before that, the price at which you bought anything depended on your endurance and lung power. The universal rule, in high prices and low, was “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware! Now the rule has been almost universally transformed into “caveat venditor” – let the seller beware. Or, “the customer is always right.”
The innovation of selling things by catalogue established the fixed price, with the guarantee that if the merchandise did not give satisfaction money would be returned. The only way a purchaser could be persuaded to send his money 2,000 miles on the strength of some words, or a picture, was through such a guarantee, and the only way the company could keep its business, under such a guarantee, was by the quality of the merchandise. The success of this policy, in terms of profits, affected the whole merchandising field. A new field of activity grew up, in which the retailer set up laboratories to test the merchandise of the manufacturer, so that a mattress bought from one of the great retail houses represents experiments in bouncing hundredweights on competing springs.
At the turn of the century, Sears, Roebuck – like everyone else – was selling tons of patent medicines, useless if not actually harmful. The robustness of the American people is proved by the fact that they survived the remedies offered them for everything from tuberculosis to “female disorders.”
One only discovers that cleanliness belongs almost exclusively to our generation. The bathroom today occupies a remarkably large part of the catalogue; the Saturday-night bath in the washtub was not a reality in American life until the middle years of this century. Today a catalogue still designed primarily for farmers offers bathrooms, showers, chemical toilets, water softeners, bath salts, toilet waters, fancy soaps – all find a market in terms of millions.
We also see the retreat of Frankie and Johnny, despite gangsterdom. In 1905, pistol-toting was obviously an American custom and carrying a pistol as common to the Homo americanus as the umbrella to the Englishman. The catalogues show pages of pistols, including those “especially made for ladies” – and anybody could buy them without a license. For ladies there was a purse-pistol coyly called “our baby.”
In a word, the “good old days” were not so good, and the bad new days seem fabulous from circa 1905.
It is interesting that new immigrants to this country are reading this book in Americanization classes. I recommend it to Americans, who will have fun recapturing their childhood, and incidentally, will learn a lot, in a most amusing way, about American folkways.