Extraordinary ephemera : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Extraordinary ephemera

Catalogs as a glimpse into a bygone smoking era

by Ben Rapaport

Today, most information about products we need is online because most companies ben2and stores have a Web presence and many operate exclusively online. However, for more than 100 years, manufacturers, retailers and traveling salesmen used catalogs to reach buyers who couldn’t visit their factories or stores. Having first appeared in the 18th century, catalogs were embraced by 19th-century manufacturers as the best way to reach the American market. In their day, catalogs were the main source of information; they existed out of necessity. They were crucial to sales and the most accessible representation of a company to the public.

Old catalogs are evocative reminders of the past, mirrors to a particular period. They give us a wonderful slice of daily lives, our culture in all its quotidian and mercantile glory of the past. That’s their attraction. They are today’s ephemera; they are not, as many are wont to say, nostalgic junk. As The Catalog Kid, an online seller of auction catalogs, declares, they “are valued throughout the world not only as collectors’ items in their own right, but as indispensable reference guides.” Vigorous efforts to find and preserve trade catalogs were spurred by the publication in 1960 of Lawrence Romaine’s A Guide to American Trade Catalogs, 1744-1900. Rockwell Gardner of Stamford, Connecticut, a book collector and dealer, claims, “Today, museums, libraries and furniture collectors realize the importance of catalogs in documenting 19th- and early 20th-century furniture.”

ben1After the 1920s or thereabouts, catalogs regrettably lost their charm and romance, typically presenting products in a more commercial and technical manner. The Insider’s Guide to Old Books, Magazines, Newspapers, and Trade Catalogs asserts, “Ninety-five percent of current demand is for pre-1935 catalogs.” Denise Lee Yohn in “Why the Print Catalog Is Back in Style” (Harvard Business Review, Feb. 25, 2015) reports, “Catalogs may seem old school, but their increased capabilities and the brand-building potential suggest they’ll remain a staple in retailers’ toolboxes—and consumers’ mailboxes.” But I don’t see that happening in the tobacco trade today. Many pipe factories, pipe craftsmen and retailers find traditional print catalogs to be unresponsive, old school and costly, so they have opted for the online catalog. But there are tobacconists who have gone against this digital tide, including Dan Pipe and Cigar & Company, in Lauenburg, Germany (www.danpipe.de). Since 1972, this retailer has issued an annual, full-color, illustrated catalog to active patrons and, more recently, an annual cigar catalog. In the most recent years, the pipe catalog has some 200 pages containing a wide range of products, great imagery in slick photography. Evidently, Dan Pipe believes that the print catalog still plays an important role in the retail sector.

ben3So what might be the most elusive ephemeral document for a pipe smoker, a pipe collector, or a pipe and tobacco historian? Asked and answered: I’d say that it probably is a retail, wholesale or factory catalog from ye olden days. Such a catalog is the king of visual tobacco ephemera! These catalogs function like a DNA sample of the culture, social customs and habits of smokers of that particular era, a valuable map depicting smoking trends and, perhaps, happier times. Toward the end of the 19th century, a catalog’s illustrated tobacco products got flashier. They showed the dazzling array of choices available to ordinary people. An idea of the breadth and range of smokers’ articles and accessories beyond pipes and tobaccos— esoteric sundries and accouterments such as smokers’ trays and tables, ash receivers, steam-pipe cleaners, and more—is revealed by looking through catalogs that the trade offered to the smoking public. Some old pipe designs can be a source of inspiration to today’s pipe craftsmen.

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Category: Feature Article, Other Stories, Winter 2016

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