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The New Nostalgia… Many Happy Returns

July 2024
10min read

An anthropologist studying the reading habits of Americans at the turn of the late, unlamented decade would find some revealing contrasts. On the one hand he would note the smashing success of Portnoy’s Complaint —with more than 600,000 hardcover copies sold as of the end of 1969—and dozens of other fast-selling titillations. On the other, quite opposite, hand he would find that Americans by the hundreds of thousands were also reading nostalgia—volume after volume of unabashed, hard-core nostalgia.

Of course books that appeal to our affectionate memories have always been around, but the rush of them, and the numbers sold, have been quite phenomenal in the last year or two.

The current epidemic probably started with the publication in 1968 of a facsimile edition of the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, a venture that a smart young publishing firm, Chelsea House, launched in a modest fashion. The idea was suggested by their advisory editor, Fred L. Israel, who also teaches history at City College in New York. Israel decided to assign the Sears Roebuck catalogue to his students to illustrate points in his lectures about American living styles at the end of the nineteenth century. Finding the catalogues very hard to come by, he guessed that a larger audience than his students might respond to the delights of the one elusive early catalogue he managed to locate. Chelsea House, a small company that distributes its books through larger publishers, took the idea around to six firms—all of which yawned politely—before finding one, Random House, that agreed to distribute the book.

Chelsea House printed only five thousand copies at first. “We didn’t even put a dust jacket on it,” Harold Steinberg, the president of Chelsea House, said. “We thought its sale would be entirely to libraries.” At last count the sale of the book, at $14.95, has exceeded 140,000 copies, and it is still selling briskly—to its publisher’s unutterable delight. Other publishers have hurried into print with the 1902, 1903, 1908, and 1927 Sears catalogues; the 1902 number has sold over 400,000 copies in hard-cover and paperback form for $6.95 and $3.95, respectively. Perhaps the finest feat of salesmanship in the whole venture was selling the book back to Sears Roebuck itself. The mail-order store bought ten thousand copies from Chelsea House as gifts and has also been selling the facsimile of its 1897 catalogue ($14.47) through its new catalogue (free to loyal customers).

The publishing formula for nourishing our appetite for nostalgia varies, but one of the most successful—witness the 1897 Sears catalogue—is to find an old yet familiar item, print a facsimile of it, embellish it with new front matter, package it handsomely, and sell it for a large sum. This procedure has certain obvious advantages for the publisher. The volume chosen is often old enough for any copyright to have expired, editorial costs are negligible, and the illustrations are built in.

In selling books for the nostalgia market, Steinberg said that Chelsea House is searching for “things that strike us as having a resonance. We publish these books exactly as they originally appeared, just giving them a new frame. So you could say that we are selling very inexpensive antiques or artifacts.”

The 1897 Sears Roebuck catalogue, or Consumers Guide as it was then called, is an “artifact” to make the reader’s mouth water. As S. J. Perelman says in an introduction to the volume called “Browsers’ Delight,” the cover of the catalogue sports “a rather overweight divinity—Ceres, the corn and earth goddess, I judged—posed beside a cornucopia from which gush forth a variety of goodies—upright pianos, wardrobes, stoves, et cetera.” Over six thousand items are listed in the index, Perelman points out, ranging “from autoharps to kraut cutters, from dulcimers to teething rings, from foot scrapers to feather boas.” Or, to be strictly alphabetical, from abdominal corsets to zulu guns.

The copy accompanying this profusion of goods is what we would now call the hard sell. Richard Sears, who is reputed to have written personally every one of the millions of words of text in these 786 pages (except, possibly, the testimonials from satisfied customers), doesn’t just describe: he exhorts, cajoles, and plots with the customers to run their local retail stores out of business. “Our factory to consumer system may be hard on the middleman, but it’s easy on the consumer. Which class deserves the most consideration?” a marginal note asks. Sears also sprinkles the text with epigrams and puns. For example, on a page describing men’s furnishings is the stern admonition “Shiftless He Who Shirtless Goes.” And under ladies’ summer union suits, he writes, “In union there is strength.”

For the modern browser, however, the most startling thing about the Consumers Guide is the prices. If the portable forge for $6.30, or the popcorn popper for eight cents, or the seven-foot miner’s tent, complete with poles, for $2.30 doesn’t get to us, surely the man’s cashmere overcoat for $5.25, twelve-pound pails of imported herring for eighty-five cents, or a four-panel wooden door (weight twenty-two pounds) for $1.10 will set up wistful vibrations.

Among the other memory feasts that have been offered to the public in facsimile recently is a Montgomery Ward catalogue that is even older than the Sears Consumers Guide ; it dates from the year 1895. Jumping quickly ahead, there is also the 1922 Montgomery Ward version. (By then, apparently, do-it-yourself mining, at least at Montgomery Ward, was out, for the prospector’s tent isn’t even listed.) Another particularly charming entry is The American Girls Handy Book , reissued by its original publisher in 1969. This practical guide to “How to amuse yourself and others” was originally written in 1887 by Adelia B. and Lina Beard. The Beard sisters designed their book as a companion piece to The American Boys Handy Book , written five years earlier by their brother Daniel C. Beard, who later founded the Boy Scouts of America. This one was also reissued in 1969. The reader detects a certain feminist streak in the Beard girls; they state in their preface that the book is for “the American boy’s neglected sisters.” Nor did they go along with the concept that nice little girls of the 1880’s should confine themselves to painting china or embroidering (although these subjects are covered, too). For instance, they urge girls to take up tennis, and they start the section with exact specifications for making one’s own tennis net.

The most recent facsimile reprint is the 1929 Johnson Smith catalogue, published in April of this year. For $10.OO we can recall the jokes and tricks that wowed us when we were children. Items like “the whoopee cushion” or “the joy buzzer” (“under the sheet it feels like a mouse”) entranced a whole generation of little boys, and in the heyday of the company thousands of them mailed off their dimes and nickels to get such thigh-slappers as the melting spoon or the black-eye joke (“It isn’t a bad joke if your friend isn’t hot tempered”). The Johnson Smith Company also sold—and still sells on a much smaller scale—office equipment, musical instruments, books, and jewelry; but what most of us remember, the items with the “resonance,” are the practical jokes—objects that parents of the day tended to regard as junk. Although it is still too early to know how this one will sell, a sampling of the Johnson Smith catalogue was printed as a dollar pamphlet in December of 1969, and thirty thousand copies were appreciatively snapped up by the end of the month, presumably to stuff adult Christmas stockings.

As well as digging out items to print in facsimile, publishers have been thinking up tempting anthologies for the nostalgia market. In late 1969, for instance, Christmas shoppers could choose between The Saturday Evening Post Treasury , in which the list of contributors reads like a course in American fiction (plus thirty-two pages of “classic cover paintings”), or the more frankly camp volume, Parlour Poetry , designed to reintroduce the “recital poetry” that “thrived in Victorian parlours.” This collection includes such rousers as “Barbara Frietchie” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as well as lachrymose staples such as “My Mother’s Bible” and “The Lips that Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine.”

The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century , which sold twenty-five thousand copies in its first month in the bookstores, is perhaps the largest and glossiest of these anthologies, produced with the respect that might characterize a book about cathedrals. For $12.50 the reader can race through twelve whole episodes of the now defunct comic strip without waiting, as contemporary enthusiasts were forced to do, for the next edition of their newspaper to reveal how Buck and his girl friend Wilma managed to escape once again from the menacing clutches of the Red Mongols. Buck and Wilma remain perennially young, in comic-strip fashion, but they reflect the passing years: Buck grows more muscular and Wilma distinctly bustier. If their rocket ships and atomic guns no longer seem so fanciful today, there is still mystery in “inertron,” the miraculous element that falls away from the earth, and an appealing innocence about such expletives as “Satan’s Beard!”

The most unusual of the current deluge of reprints is a book that only a few thousand people ever saw when it was originally written in 1886. Called Professional Criminals of America , it was written by Inspector Thomas Byrnes, who was then chief of the New York City Detective Bureau. Byrnes’s book (which its current publishers refer to among themselves as “the crook book”) contains pictures and biographical sketches of 204 of the leading criminals of the day. It was an era when crime in the United States was becoming a social institution, “a parody, as reflected in a crazy mirror, of the existing business system,” as Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., says in his introduction to the reissue. Byrnes comments on the phenomenon himself. “Robbery is now classed as a profession,” he says, “and in the place of the awkward and hang-dog-looking thief we have today the intelligent and thoughtful rogue.”

Byrnes was a highly successful cop, although some of his methods were somewhat less than ethical. He made deals with criminals that permitted them to pursue their careers unmolested in San Francisco, Minneapolis, or Chicago, for instance, as long as they kept out of New York. Or even more specifically, he often allowed them to operate in the poorer sections of the city if they kept their agile fingers out of the pockets of its wealthy citizens. He even went so far as to lay down a “Dead Line” around the financial district; any suspicious character found on the affluent side of that boundary would be picked up on sight. Criminals, it was said, knew the rules so well that they took the precaution of getting a pass from one of Byrnes’s men when they had legitimate business to transact downtown.

Byrnes’s book, which one modern reviewer has described as “a coffee table book that won’t just lie there,” was written with the idea of thwarting criminals by making their faces familiar to the public. Now, in 1970. it seems a benign and nostalgic volume. There is a minimum of violence to jar the reader, since Byrnes’s professionals were mostly out for money rather than blood. Even the terminology of crime in the 1880’s sounds less threatening than today’s version. The criminals of 1886 fall into such categories as sneaks, stalls, swindlers, hotel men, dishonest servants, bunco steerers, toolmakers, and satchel workers. And Byrnes includes such fascinating specialists as Funeral Wells, a pickpocket who plied his trade only at funerals; James Titterington (alias Titter), a butcher-cart thief; Mollie Matches, a robber who disguised himself as a match girl; and Hugh L. Courtenay, a bogus English lord who swindled susceptible ladies, using such diverse and colorful aliases as Lord Courtney, Lord Beresford, or Sir Harry Vane of Her Majesty’s Lights. (“The party’s right name is supposed to be Clinton,” Byrnes remarks, “and he is the son of a former lodge-keeper of the Earl of Devon.”)

For the cleverer thieves, Byrnes’s admiration almost gets out of hand. One bank robber named Rufus Minor, for instance, he describes as “no doubt one of the smartest bank sneaks in America. … He is a very gentlemanly and intelligent man … and it is a pity he is a thief.” This is particularly high praise, since Byrnes has earlier stated that bank thieves in general are top of the heap—“men of education, pleasing address, good personal appearance and faultless in their attire.” Less exalted specialists could also win his praise, though. There is Poodle Murphy, a pickpocket who “is without doubt the smartest pickpocket in America. He is the man who does the work, while his confederates annoy the victim and attract his attention.” Although Byrnes in general is more restrained about female operatives, occasionally they, too, earn his respect. “Little Annie Reilly,” he writes, “is considered the cleverest woman in her line in America. She generally engages herself as a child’s nurse, makes a great fuss over the children, and gains the good will of the lady of the house. She seldom remains in one place more than one or two days before she robs it.” Six weeks after publication in 1969 Byrnes and his compendium of crooks had made their way onto, or off of, twenty thousand coffee tables.

It is impossible to guess how long the current vogue for nostalgia will continue, but it is fun to speculate about what will set off the resonance fifty years from now. If this season’s successes are any indication, it will obviously be some item that recalls to Americans of the 2020’s a simpler, cheaper, less threatening, funnier, or more personal time. Will it be a facsimile of a 1970’s clothing catalogue, recalling that quaint time when people still put all those garments on their bodies? Will it be a visual anthology of television commercials from the mid-twentieth century? Perhaps luscious pictures of vegetables and meats will be what stirs that future generation, presumably nourished entirely on pills and seaweed. Or will it simply be a book?

In one of the Beatles’ famous songs, “Penny Lane,” there is a fireman who keeps his fire engine clean (it’s a clean machine, very clean). But that’s about all that can be done to spruce up an apparatus nowadays, when the machines, like almost everything else, are produced by assembly lines, and fire-engine red is the only color tolerated. During the first half of the nineteenth century, when most American fires were put out, or not put out, by volunteer fire companies, the hand-operated pumpers were lavishly trimmed and decorated in a broad spectrum of vivid hues. The dazzling decor of a company’s machine was as much a matter of jealous pride as how far the thing could be made to squirt.

This was partly because in every American community volunteer fire companies were a lively and important part of the social and political scene. In cities like New York, Chicago, or Baltimore they played much the same role that fraternities do on college campuses. You had to be invited to join; there was a prestige hierarchy depending on the social and business background of the member’s of a particular company; and once you were “in,” you loyally maintained that yours was by all odds the best outfit in the city. Its superiority had to be demonstrated whenever possible—by getting to a fire faster than any other company in your part of town, pumping water higher and quicker, rescuing more pretty ladies in daring feats of ladder acrobatics, and if necessary administering fistic correction to any company that too aggressively disputed the field. (Quite a few houses burned to the ground while rival companies engaged in all-out brawls at the scene of the conflagration.) You also had to have equipment that was stunningly attractive, both rich and gaudy in appearance.

The design of the old hand-pump engines offered obvious places for decorative panels—especially the housing of the pump itself—and local artists were called upon to paint appropriate pictures. The Tammany tiger, for instance, was once an emblem on the pumper of a New York company whose foreman was William M. “Boss” Tweed. Thomas Sully, the well-known artist, executed a portrait of Lafayette for the Lafayette Hose Company of Philadelphia in 1833. More often the painter was an amateur, and the motif more general, with a preponderance on the side of allegorical patriotism. Among other things this gave a chance for art that ordinarily would have been considered daring, since everyone knew that goddesses of liberty, equality, and other democratic abstractions had a natural penchant for careless décolletage.

The stirring examples of nineteenth-century fireengine panels displayed on the following pages are all from the collection of the Peale Museum, in Baltimore, and each was once the pride and delight of a volunteer company in that city. We present them here with thanks to the museum’s director, Mr. Wilbur H. Hunter, who had them cleaned and photographed, and who has supplied us with pertinent information.

The Editors

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