the most fun PAPER mail-order catalogs for browsing (not buying!)
November 10, 2020 3:04 PM   Subscribe

I used to enjoy leafing through the various full color mail order catalogs that would show up in the mail like a force of nature. i haven't received any catalogs in years and years, but I'm tempted to sign up for some just so I can leaf through them and marvel at this brave world that has such things in it. What catalogs might I want to order?

Stuff I might be particularly interested in:

Middle class striving for taste and respectability
Niche hobbies (as long as it's not super dry and technical stuff in the catalogs)
Just plain weird
posted by moonmilk to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Ooh, also interesting foods (though there is more risk here that I might accidentally buy something)
posted by moonmilk at 3:07 PM on November 10, 2020

the J Peterman catalog was the first thing to come to mind. The website can give you a pretty good feel for its style so you can see if it’s a good fit.
posted by obfuscation at 3:17 PM on November 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Lee Valley Tools has a lot of great products and also a ton of things that you can just picture the older person who owns it and is very enthusiastic about how it is the greatest thing since sliced bread that has solved some particular problem for them that is so specific that you wonder whether an expensive product was really necessary.

(I unabashedly love Lee Valley. Grew up near their headquarters. My parents own a decent % of their catalog. I'm working on it.)
posted by quaking fajita at 3:19 PM on November 10, 2020 [12 favorites]

The Lee Valley full catalogue (which only comes one year, so you'd have to request a seasonal edition at the moment), American Science and Surplus and Fedco Seeds are all great reads. Lee Valley is sort of a homesteading/woodworking/gardening fever dream, American S&S has everything from laboratory glassware to pangolin figurines to French military paratrooper helmets, and Fedco is probably the most fun you'll ever have reading about new tomato varieties.
posted by givennamesurname at 3:20 PM on November 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Bits and Pieces - jigsaw puzzles etc.
posted by irisclara at 3:23 PM on November 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

One Green World is a nursery that I guarantee stocks fruits you've never heard of = interesting food with lower risk of purchasing. You can browse online and request their color catalog for free.
posted by momus_window at 3:46 PM on November 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Pyramid Collection, witchy clothes and housewares with a surprise two pages of coyly-described sex toys in every catalog, is a hoot.

Rich people shit like Frontgate and Hammacher Schlemmer straddles the line between "striving for taste" and "kitsch"—there's the humor of tackiness combined with the driving existential questions of "who is asking for this and what on earth do they want." I love these. I'd add the Williams Sonoma catalog but I don't like to spoil myself for the yearly Hater's Guide.

American Science and Surplus, linked above, is a genuine weird delight to read but you might be in danger of buying things from it. They will probably not be quite what you wanted or expected (at least when I was getting it, everything in the catalog is depicted through line drawings rather than photographs, so it's hard to have a totally precise picture of what you're getting) but at least they'll be cheap.
posted by babelfish at 3:51 PM on November 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Hammacher Schlemmer is hilarious, its like SkyMall with a lot of bizarre stuff.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 3:52 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

American Science and Surplus - very colorful descriptions and fun/bizarre items

Swiss Colony - this catalog has not changed much since the 80s, can vouch that the food is delicious and fattening
posted by Alison at 3:55 PM on November 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Do I have a gold mine of kitsch for you! They only send one catalog a year, but Kaethe Wohlfahrt is the German Christmas catalog. They have year-round Christmas stores that put any I've been to in the U.S. to shame. They have the stuff you would expect, like nutcrackers and ornaments, but also candle arches (Schwiboggen) and rotary candles (Pyramide) and so much more. High quality, all made in Germany, so not kitsch in the schlock sense, but wonderful stuff.
posted by wnissen at 3:58 PM on November 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

La Tienda for Spanish food, including crazy expensive Iberico ham. They have an online presence but regularly send out a physical catalogue (do not get if you are a vegan!).

Stonewall Kitchen for jams and other specialty foods and gifts.

Uncommon Goods
posted by gudrun at 4:29 PM on November 10, 2020

Restoration Hardware!
posted by mercredi at 5:00 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

I feel like the Ikea catalog is probably too generic / on the nose for you, but its there, it's big, and they'll send it for free. Link goes to the Canadian version, I assume it exists for the US as well but geo-location wont let me see it.
posted by cgg at 5:06 PM on November 10, 2020

I don’t know if kites are niche enough but if so Into the Wind.
posted by mskyle at 5:59 PM on November 10, 2020

Vermont Country Store has a nice selection and they are very faithful; I think it's been 10 years since we've bought from them but they still send a catalog every few months.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds have interesting facts about the varieties they carry, and pretty pictures.
Some niche hobbies with fun catalogues: model train sets, taxidermy, beads/jewelry
posted by The otter lady at 6:00 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Uline sells packing materials and office supplies. The catalog is full of models posing with cardboard boxes and illustrations of weird things you might pack in their crates. I've enjoyed browsing it, but I don't think I would want to receive it on a monthly basis.

Also, they give money to right-wingers so I would not actually order from them...
posted by aws17576 at 6:11 PM on November 10, 2020

Williams-Sonoma, both for the "Middle-Class Aspiration" and the point-and-mock factor (especially around Christmas).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:16 PM on November 10, 2020

Moma Design Store
posted by pinochiette at 6:18 PM on November 10, 2020

KnitPicks catalogues are colourful and fun although I suspect if you are not a knitter, once you've seen one, that's about the extent of it.

Mary Maxim is a little more varied and a lot more kitsch so probably has better long term prospects for enjoyment.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:34 PM on November 10, 2020

VERMONT COUNTRY STORE. It’s so fantastic. They sell things that people born in the 1930s remember from childhood and their early adult life but they are trying to market to people who are currently in their 30s. The Christmas catalog is gloriously camp and the person who writes the item descriptions must love their job. Quite possibly the most entertaining circular ever.
posted by donut_princess at 6:46 PM on November 10, 2020

It also has a whole section of snake oil like homestyle remedies.
posted by donut_princess at 6:47 PM on November 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

American Science & Surplus!
Pages & pages of hand-drawn illustrations & descriptions of random oddities that may or may not be useful.
(Here's a PDF of the September catalog.)
posted by D.Billy at 7:00 PM on November 10, 2020

If interesting foods is in your purview and catalog-as-waning-art is your goal, you want Zingerman's!
posted by LadyInWaiting at 9:46 PM on November 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty sure LL Bean and Wilson (clothes) still offer printed catalogs, and for the inner Rambo in all of us, Cold Steel and Spyderco both publish full color catalogs featuring enough deadly melee weapons to outfit an army of Ninjas or mall cops, and thank you for starting this discussion. It has brightened my mood considerably.
posted by Beholder at 10:18 PM on November 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Townsends, for all your eighteenth-century needs!

They only do one per year but they'll happily send you a copy of the current edition at any time. (See recent discussion on the blue.)
posted by spamloaf at 5:51 AM on November 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Zabar's - an Upper West Side institution

Kitazawa Seed Co - "Your Source for Asian Vegetable Seeds for 104 Years"; browsing this catalog will expand your understanding of Asian produce and food

Seed Saver Exchange - a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds
posted by cursed at 7:46 AM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh gosh, these are great - thanks for asking the question! I wish so much that the American Science and Surplus was available in the UK. Been mesmerised by the pdf copies all day. I can see myself getting sucked in to many more.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 8:21 AM on November 11, 2020

Lakeside Collection Lots of random stuff.
posted by clh at 11:01 AM on November 11, 2020

Nthing the Vermont Country Store, Victorian Trading Co., Archie McPhee and Uncommon Goods. And the seed catalogues.

I'll add Signals (nice upscale museum-gift-shop type gifts) and Pyramid Collection (Wiccan/RenFaire clothing, jewelry, etc., and usually a sudden surprising page full of vibrators) to the mix.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:34 AM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, Novica (pretty fair-trade artisan clothing, jewelry, objets d'art).
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:37 AM on November 11, 2020

Fire Mountain Gems is a jewelry-making supply catalog that is incredibly comprehensive and usually features their employees modeling some of the jewelry they've made.
posted by dogmom at 1:19 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hobby Builder Supply for dollhouses, miniatures, and all the furnishings.
posted by carrioncomfort at 1:53 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I get a catalog from Delphi Glass (preview their smaller seasonal catalog), which is a stained-glass-hobbyist catalog filled with esoteric specialized tools and interesting decor projects (not all stained glass, a variety of art glass stuff too).
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:55 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh my gosh, the Sundance catalog, and especially their specific jewelry catalog, chock-full of gorgeous stuff I love and cannot afford.
posted by Occula at 3:22 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Somewhat akin to Hammacher Schlemmer is The Sharper Image, which is a "consumer electronics and lifestyle products" catalog, featuring things such as the "Fantasy Jellyfish Aquarium" and "Pac-Man Pixel Bash Cocktail Table."
posted by tzikeh at 4:31 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Lehman's is an incredible real life store in Ohio that I think of as being at the center of the Venn Diagram of Amish, preppers, and hippie back-to-the-landers. You can request their catalog here.
posted by mostly vowels at 6:30 PM on November 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh my - Tiffanys Blue Book. One can dream.
posted by soakimbo at 9:50 PM on November 11, 2020

I’ve bought things from Viva Terra before and they have lots of nice housewares and gifts.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 2:11 AM on November 12, 2020

Wireless and Signals are usually fun...
posted by somanyamys at 9:59 AM on November 12, 2020

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