If just one vintage catalog can help to illuminate a unique time and place, then what can 40,000 do? The University of California at Santa Barbara houses a unique catalog collection compiled by the antiquarian bookseller, Laurence B. Romaine. I no longer remember how I happened upon this archival treasure, but since I have old friends in the beautiful small city of Santa Barbara I took a short research trip there to take a look.
Romaine was not particularly interested in clothing, and I suspect you can learn more about old tools than you can about old dresses here. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of surprises for the fashion historian. Sears catalogs are not well represented, since I suspect that Romaine felt they were too ordinary. Instead there are offerings for lesser known distributors, like the Janalene Company from Indianapolis and the John M. Smyth Merchandise Company from Chicago. I loved the catalogs geared to special clubs, like the Rebekah Society and Native Sons of the Golden West.
This collection underscores how important the catalog distribution system was in early twentieth century America. It also provides evidence of the vast network of door to door salesmen and women. Those catalogs are particularly fascinating because they offer fabric swatches for the dresses, ties, hats, and socks on sale. I knew about the Fashion Frocks Company, advertised in many national magazines, but I had no idea that it had so many competitors. In the John A. Rawson Co. catalog from Boston, sale representatives were told, “There are enough people who want the type of merchandise that Rawson carries to enable you to build a profitable business in your territory.”
Of course, I had my eye out for companies that had the older woman in mind. Both the National Style Book and the National Cloak and Suit Company marketed specifically to this demographic, with their styles for “mature,” “conservative”and “middle aged” women. Other companies offered “stout” sizes and showed those clothes on older looking models. The Virginia Dare Dress Company, for example, offered dresses in larger sizes from 40 ½ to 52 ½. “Every one is made along scientific lines with the style and snap the large women craves but seldom gets.”
If you plan to visit the archive, be sure to contact the library ahead of time so that they can gather the material you need. Just writing about it makes me want to go back and take another look.