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What would Franklin think?

December 18, 2014
Joyce Schenk , Westfield Republican

Over 200 years ago, that innovative gent, Ben Franklin, came up with the idea for the first catalog.

His invention of a listing of items for sale through the mail grew into the family's "wish books" of our childhood.

You probably remember, as I do, the excitement when the big Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards catalogs were delivered. Life as we knew it stopped for a time as each member of the family browsed the eye-popping variety of treasures available by mail.

Though the catalogs of those early days were a popular staple, shopping malls eventually brought their vast hubs to every suburb. Eager shoppers quickly followed, drawn by the magical mountains of merchandise.

But these days, the longer check-out lines and growing traffic jams have made the convenience of shopping at home more attractive than ever. And now, the family computer, in combination with those enticing catalogs, has opened up the world of on-line shopping.

Every year, my mailbox welcomes a new collection of catalogs. But I know the ones I receive are only a tiny fraction of what's available.

Recently I went on line to investigate just how many catalogs are out there and what they offer. I was astounded to find there are over 2 MILLION web sites listed, all with on-line catalogs, many with printed ones as well.

Among these are hundreds of the most well known merchants, selling their wares by Internet and hard copy catalogs - from Spiegel and Lillian Vernon to Victoria's Secret and Lands End.

And a search reveals countless other websites offering everything one can imagine from basic needs to the unexpected to the downright weird.

Here's a sampling:

A company called Bits and Pieces specializes in all kinds of jig-saw puzzles, from challenging pictures with pieces made of cardboard or cork to "master rated" 3 D versions.

Fun Stuff Toy and Novelty site offers a catalog aimed at the endless kid market.

Lotions and Lace focuses on "everything for romantics."

The Lighter Side is a source for "unique and fun gifts."

Puttin' on the Dog and several others carry lines of irresistible goodies for the canine members of the family.

Several website catalogs offer parts and accessories for your Porsche and Mercedes cars.

There's even a Fisherman's Fleet catalog, inviting shoppers to "enjoy delicious, mouthwatering seafood at home." This one seemed a bit dangerous to me, considering the short shelf life of such foods and the delays of delivery. Two week-old shrimp? I don't think so.

Another intriguing list of items can be found in the Spy Headquarters Catalog. It offers the "finest in personal protection items, surveillance and counter surveillance equipment."

Today's colorful catalogs and websites are a far cry from those old black and white "wish books" you and I grew up with.

I can't help but wonder what old Ben Franklin might think if he saw how his simple catalog invention has changed over the past 200 years. We can be sure that he wouldn't order that seafood, either.



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