Archive for November, 2012

Sherlock Holmes & the Case of the Sterling Whatsis (or The Old Mail Order Catalog Saw Everything)

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

A stumpy little sterling “key”, more flat-sided than even a hardware store blank, it was attached by a 4” loop of chain to a skinny canister that looked like a blunt-tipped silver rifle bullet. It came in an auction box lot of  hair accessories (assorted hat pins, a celluloid hair comb with paste stones, etc), but didn’t seem coiffure-related. In fact, it didn’t seem to fit any known category, species, or pigeonhole I’d ever encountered.

Was it the symbolic key to a very minor city? A souvenir of a vampire hunt? A handy place to keep one’s smelling salts (the cylindrical canister had a lid that plugged into it)? A trinket? A trifle? A thingumbob?

I leafed through my reference books, googled endlessly with no sense of direction whatsoever, and posted a pic for the good folk at the Vintage Fashion Guild to comment on. Opinions ranged: A needle case? Watch key? Snuff box? Cocaine container with attached dipping “spoon”? Hmmm…

I considered all these possible angles, googled with renewed energy, and…finally yawned and fell asleep. A month of being stumped is about all I can take.

A few more months went by, and at last I woke up, the sterling whatsis having faded from memory like a bad dream about missing a test in high school. Over my cup of morning tea, I thumbed through a 1943 May & Halas mail order catalog I’d recently received, fascinated by the glimpse it provided of wartime consumer and material culture.

The pages were chockablock with everything from rhinestone-set lapel watches to self-revising globes that anticipated changed borders at the end of the war (those were literally the first and last items in the catalog).

Before taking you on a virtual tour of the catalog, let me stop to share what I learned about the Chicago-based May and Halas company behind it. Turned out it was just one project among many for its dynamo of a president, George Halas,

who in addition to founding the Chicago Bears and coaching them for 40 seasons had co-founded the NFL in the 1920s (don’t pelt me with pigskins when I admit I just learned this yesterday). Halas, who served in the Navy in both WWI and WWII, had a (very) brief baseball career of his own before becoming a sports legend, business tycoon, and general whirling dervish of activity. In addition to his (primarily wholesale) mail order company, he owned a retail store which specialized in jewelry and sporting goods, a real estate office, and a laundry called the White Bear. No wonder he told the Racine Journal Times in 1940 that he typically slept only four hours a night.

As for the 1943 catalog: It was full of nostalgia- and lust-inducing items which opened a window on domesticity in WWII-era America.

There were lucite dresser sets, for men as well as women, and umbrellas with celanese covers and pyralin handles:

A patriotic angle informed everything from luggage to strollers to wallets:

Romantic jewelry was big during the war; there were pages and pages of matched “True” brand wedding rings and engagement rings (with design names like “Adoration”, “Miss America” and “Le Secret”) for all those sweethearts back at home waiting to become brides:

But turned out the KW spammy term “sweetheart bracelet” is of modern coinage:

As long as we’re on the topic of semantics: Men still wore watch chains, and called them “waldemars”:

The latest in everything was offered, from modern style furniture:

to canister vacuums:

to a new-fangled record changer that finally cut down on the number of scratches your favorite 78 rpms were exposed to:

Before Botox and the tanning salon came the face pampering massage device and the sun lamp:

Before the Nautilus home gym came the grip developer and jump rope:

If I was a little boy in 1943, I would have begged the living daylights out of my folks for a functional toy printing press:

but would been lucky to get a toy electric range (also functional), destined to either burn down the house or teach me to cook:

If I wanted to wrap myself in a fur that, while not exactly cheap, at least acknowledged that my pocketbook had a shallower-than-usual bottom, I might go for a Persian paw or Hudson seal (dyed muskrat) economy model:

And if I was racking my brain trying to think up a decent Christmas gift for my honey, I’d skip the trip to Things Remembered at the mall and just order a desktop clock-and-cigarette dispenser from May & Halas:

Or, looking for something more portable, I might opt for this sterling license holder-key ring combo (much handier IMO than the coin-shaped pocket knife pictured next to it):

Whoa! wait a minute… That thingumbob is ringing a very loud bell for me! Isn’t that the mystery object I abandoned all hope of identifying at the beginning of this post? (Guess the reason neither I nor my vintage fashion colleagues even remotely considered “license holder” as an option had to do with the way laminated scraps of paper resist being rolled up and stuffed into skinny cylinders …)

In any event: Case solved! with the lesson to be learned that even if browsing vintage catalogs is dangerously addictive, it’s never, ever a waste of time.