F.A.O. Schwarz
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These Catalogs Defined Shopping for Generations — and Now They're Mostly Gone

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F.A.O. Schwarz
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Mail-Order Memories

In a way, shopping has come full circle. Today, we can skip the store by clicking a few buttons and ordering online. Years ago, we could do the same by ordering from fat, glossy catalogs — most of which have gone the way of the dodo. Neiman Marcus is bucking that trend: The company recently announced that "The Book," its lavish catalog of luxury goods and interviews with top designers, will return for the fall season after a year's absence. Still, most catalogs aren't that lucky. Here's a nostalgic look back at what used to fill our mailboxes.


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Ikea catalog
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Ikea

As if enough hasn't gone wrong in 2020, it also brought the sad news that Ikea would no longer produce its annual catalog, a veritable bible for the frugal but design-savvy. The first Ikea catalog rolled out in 1951, helping Ikea showcase decades of its iconic products, from the Poang chair to the Billy bookcase. In 2011, Guinness World Records even named Ikea's catalog the world's most widely read, with 208 million copies in 30 languages making their way to more than 40 countries. Hardcore Ikea fans will be happy to know the company has archived many of its catalogs online, and while the Swedish might not translate, the design always will.


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Montgomery Ward
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Montgomery Ward

It's impossible to discuss the catalogs we miss without going back to where it all began: in 1872, with Montgomery Ward. This pioneer of the mail-order business started modestly: The first catalogs were little more than single sheets listing available merchandise and prices, but by the turn of the century, they were thick books reaching more than 3 million customers. The company would remain a major retail player for the first half of the 20th century, but as it expanded into physical stores, it eventually lost too much ground to Sears and other competitors. Though Montgomery Ward still exists as an online retailer, the famous catalog was axed in 1985, and all stores were shuttered by 2001. 


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Delia's
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Delia's

If you were a tween or teen girl in the '90s, you've probably never stopped mourning the loss of Delia's and its sassy catalog, filled with fresh-faced everygirls that could totally be your best friends. Delia's sent out as many as 55 million catalogs a year, leading an entire generation to covet striped sweaters, wide-legged jeans, baby-doll dresses, chokers, and platform flip-flops. While Delia's started out as a mail-order company, it did open bricks-and-mortar stores starting in 1999. But the new millennium brought increasing competition from other retailers like Forever 21 and H&M, and in 2014, Delia's declared bankruptcy (make that "bAnkRupTcy," in Delia's speak) and folded.


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Toys 'R' Us
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Toys 'R' Us

It was a holiday tradition: In the '80s and '90s, kids across the nation would pore over the Toys 'R' Us "big book" every Christmas, dog-earring pages or circling coveted toys with a fat black Sharpie. From Teddy Ruxpin to Cabbage Patch Dolls to Super Nintendos, every hot toy that ever mattered could be found inside. Sadly, when the nation's most famous toy store liquidated in 2018, its famous catalog bit the dust, too, but you can take a trip down memory lane at Click Americana.


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Sears Big Book
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Sears

The iconic Sears Big Book dates to the late 19th century, when Richard Sears himself first used a mailer to advertise watches and jewelry. In the 20th century, the Sears catalog would become the "Amazon of its time," selling everything from petticoats to house kits in its hundreds of pages. In 1933, the Christmas catalog later known as the Wish Book debuted, reaching a staggering 600-plus pages by the late '60s. But as history has shown, Walmart and its big-box ilk would start chipping away the Sears empire, and in 1993, the once-proud chain, now a sliver of its former self, shut down its catalog division. Feeling nostalgic? You can browse through many old Sears catalogs at WishbookWeb.


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Victoria's Secret catalog
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Victoria's Secret

Long before the infamous Victoria's Secret fashion show became a TV event, the lingerie giant was best known for its catalog. It debuted in 1977, slowly filling the mailboxes of American women with all things slinky and sexy (though a peek at a 1982 Victoria's Secret catalog shows that our definition of those words has changed). By 1997, Victoria's Secret churned out an insane 450 million catalogs that netted $661 million in mail-order business, according to a 2016 article from the retail and shopping website Racked, which is no longer publishing. But in the internet era, the catalog became a dinosaur dragging down the bottom line of the suddenly struggling chain, and it was discontinued in 2016. 


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JCPenney catalog
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JCPenney

While its history isn't quite as storied as that of Sears, JCPenney was another behemoth that made a mint from the mail-order business. The department store first launched its catalogs in 1963, sending out three each year that could total 1,000 pages, and staffed catalog desks inside many of its stores. The pages held almost every conceivable item, from tool sets to sweaters to collectibles to nativity scenes. Three decades later, Penney's became the nation's largest catalog retailer when Sears exited the business, but that didn't last long: In 2009, it slimmed its catalogs way down, to roughly 50 pages each. Even those were discontinued a few years later, though it has experimented with larger mailers off and on since then.

SkyMall
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SkyMall

And now for something completely different: SkyMall. Starting in the mid-'90s, these zany catalogs used to be as much a part of the in-flight experience as packs of peanuts. Each edition guaranteed at least a half-hour of head-scratching entertainment as airline passengers perused the bafflingly niche items, from floating poker tables to half-scale suits of armor to pagers designed specifically to locate a long-lost can of beer. Sadly, the company went bankrupt in 2015, and while it continues to hawk plenty of weird items online, you'll no longer find that familiar flight companion in your seat-back pocket.


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Service Merchandise
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Service Merchandise

Hop in the wayback machine and you may come across a copy of the Service Merchandise catalog. The company, founded in 1960, was one of the most prominent examples of a now-defunct sector of retail: the catalog showroom. Shoppers would browse the wide-ranging catalog — full of electronics, toys, sporting goods, and shiny jewelry — then go fill out an order form at the showroom, and await the delivery of their items via a conveyor belt from the back. And while the showrooms and print catalog no longer exist, believe it or not, Service Merchandise still does, though with a much more narrow focus on holiday items and jewelry.

J. Crew
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J. Crew

J. Crew hasn't had an easy go of it lately — it filed for bankruptcy in May — but back in the '90s and '00s, it represented the standard to which every wanna-be prepster aspired. The company mailed its first catalog in 1983, and within a decade, images of all-American models frolicking in New England became a cultural touchstone. There were khakis, rugby shirts, striped sweaters, and anoraks galore, all selling a lifestyle that was simultaneously attainable and just out of reach. By 2005, a J. Crew catalog may have landed in your mailbox as many as 20 times a year, and circulation hit 55 million, according to GQ. And while you can still get your hands on J. Crew catalogs (or a "Style Guide," as it's now known), the company dramatically shrank and streamlined them a few years ago.

F.A.O. Schwarz
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F.A.O. Schwarz

Long before any youngster could be a Toys 'R' Us kid, another iconic toy brand was pumping out yearly catalogs that became fodder for holiday wishlists. In 1876, F.A.O. Schwarz became one of the first companies to sell its wares using a mail-order catalog. Over the decades, the pages of its holiday opus were a guide to what a child might covet in any given year — for instance, Matchbox cars and elaborate doll houses in 1967. The tony brand has floundered in recent years, declaring bankruptcy in 2003, being sold to Toys 'R' Us in 2009, and closing its flagship store in 2015. The catalog shrank, too, checking in at only 40 pages in 2010. Though F.A.O. Schwarz has been resuscitated in recent years, there's no sign of its iconic catalog.


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Spiegel
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Spiegel

While the Spiegel most of us remember primarily sold women's apparel (just check out this fabulous edition from 1961), the company began as a furniture retailer in the 1860s. Its catalogs have several unique distinctions: For instance, in 1909, they introduced Americans to teddy bears; in 1955, they became the first to offer tropical fish; and in 1995, they featured a little-known model named Heidi Klum in her first U.S. catalog appearance. In 1997, Spiegel even became the first major fashion retailer to put its catalog online, eventually halting print production. More recent years brought bankruptcy and new owners for the company, but there's little trace of it today.


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Hammacher Schlemmer
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Hammacher Schlemmer

To end on a happier note, Hammacher Schlemmer's catalog is still going strong today. First published in 1881 as a bound hardcover book, it sold tools of all kinds and even grew to an enormous 1,112 pages by 1912. Soon the company would broaden its offerings, selling everything from household helpers to personal care items, and the catalog sold the world's first pop-up toaster in 1930, steam iron in 1948, microwave oven in 1968, and cordless phone in 1975. Today's offerings are a little more exotic (seven-person tricycle, anyone?) but the company does back everything with a lifetime guarantee.


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