Historical Perspective: Cataloging’s Early Years
In the wake of Kmart’s recent merger with Sears, we thought you’d enjoy this nostalgic look back at what it was like to work for a catalog pioneer during its heyday. —Editors
As American business was getting back on its feet after World War II, I entered a career adventure with one of the world’s largest catalogers, Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Since all my associates in 1948 were more than twice as old as I, that means I’m the last survivor of the company’s catalog creative division from that era. Here’s a look back at what catalog creation was like in those bygone days.
“I started at the bottom”
Back then I was recently graduated and needed a job. Moreover, I was competing with millions of military veterans for those jobs. My mother had a friend who was secretary to the head of Sears’ catalog production at its Homan and Arthington Streets national headquarters in Chicago. It was a huge complex that stretched for almost four blocks and could be traveled through via tunnels and warehouse passages.
I started work at the bottom, bringing catalog-page materials jackets to the merchandise departments for their writers. Back then, writers were embedded in individual departments rather than working in one group. The jackets contained reference materials on the products for each page for 11 catalogs, some as large as 1,200 pages. The jackets made their way from the creative division, where layouts were developed based on space allocations determined by each department’s sales manager and buyers, to the type-markup department across the aisle.
With so many product departments, it was a great chance for me to learn not only their numbers and product lines, but the people in each. For example, plumbing was department 632, and Zula Estes was its copywriter.
Since all the page-jackets passed through the creative division, I became familiar with the six layout artists. The most interesting person was the divisional head, Leonard Kemper, a gray-haired, quiet-spoken man who was a creative genius. He could draw with both hands at the same time! He was legendary for being able to quickly and attractively organize a catalog page or spread, to fit precisely, from just a brief review of the products involved. And in many cases, it could be different products, such as hardware and tools, or dishes and cutlery.
I pestered him with my sketches of catalog items, and eventually was hired as an apprentice. Jobs were hard to get and didnot pay much at Sears, but it was a start.
Bill Eckels (“Eck”) probably was the best layout artist Sears had at the time. He taught me to draw trees (“You can see through them, but the leaves in the middle should be in shadow to help develop the tree’s rounded shape,” he once said).
We used 19-by-25-inch pads of tracing tissue for the comprehensive layouts (“comps”). We also used tracing tissue with faint outlines of catalog-spread borders, along with dashed lines of the type border and pagination boxes for our “roughs.” This helped each department allocate space for its products when submitting them, with pasted-on product clips, to our division for layouts.
And when a layout was finished, we applied fixative from an atomizer can with a pipette we’d blow through (pressurized spray cans hadn’t yet been invented). Mounting the tissue layouts required applying rubber cement on both surfaces (no one-coat available yet). The two sheets had to be matched evenly, or you’d have a rippled effect, perhaps requiring rubber cement thinner to pull them apart.
The best fashion artist was Ben Kob. Using charcoal pencils and color pastels (Nupastels), he’d work at version after version, throwing away pages of rough sketches. Periodically, he’d stand back and squint at his efforts. I once asked him what he was doing, and he said he was looking at their “color.” Later, I realized he was seeing the weights and balances of the interplay between darker masses and lighter spaces. His talent was evident when the Sears photography department would capture his layouts and help create some of the most beautiful fashion pages Sears has ever produced.
One of our best lettering artists was Russ Morgan who taught me to see the “color” between each typeface character in the headlines in my layouts. Carl Piehl was noted for the crispness of his layouts. Everything he drew had the look of it being applied with a single stroke. Ric Benekos had the loosest layout style, with soft strokes of pencil and pastel in unfinished lines, almost like a designer’s sketch rather than a layout.
Bob Griffith was the group’s unofficial second in command. An interesting thing about his sketches: He used the same female face in his women’s fashion layouts, a tall, wide-eyed blonde with flowing hair.
Maxine Bell organized the distribution of the catalog pages. After reviewing them with Kemper, she’d give the product jackets to the artist most suited to each. She attached the layouts when completed, and she approved each jacket before sending them on.
Raised Voices Behind Closed Doors
Sometimes, Kemper would hold back certain spreads. His large desk would have about 50 fat No. 1 pencils on it along with several layout pads. Using both hands, one on each of the two pages of a spread, he’d beautifully outline the basic product-and-type arrangement, while sales managers and copywriters would sit and stare in awe.
Kemper had a fiery temper, and on several occasions raised voices could be heard behind his door. Presumably the arguments were about the graphic strategy for a major product campaign. Kemper actually left Sears three times, and was hired back each time — and this in view of a firm Sears policy not to rehire anyone who quit.
In 1952, Sears hired another layout artist, since its post-war catalog business was booming along with that of its newly launched retail store chain in major markets. Dick Bremner’s drawing style was more contemporary, almost cartoon-like; but it was a fresh look in catalog layouts. He kept busy on fashion pages, much as he did at Montgomery Ward, his previous employer.
There also were many outside studios and artists working on catalog pages in the early 1950s. One of those artists worked mainly on fashion pages using French pastels (very smeary) to create magnificent layouts that almost looked like finished illustrations. He’d draw, hunched over his layout board, smoking cigarettes and listening to radio broadcasts of horse races.
Before Desktop Publishing
As graphic artists, we’d usually try to follow the copy space allocations in the copywriter’s sketch provided. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. Copywriters would stretch their suggestions way beyond the page’s border. But when things finally fit, the layout would be mounted on its jacket and sent to the type-markup people who’d also use a preprinted page tissue with borders on it.
The “type” man would scale the layout’s copy spaces and provide a separate tissue of each copy block with a rectangle on it. This indicated a fill-in space for the typewritten content that corresponded to the amount of final typeset copy to fit into each layout space.
The writer then would either type right onto this tissue sheet, or make duplicate-size type boxes, onto which he or she would edit copy to fit. It usually worked flawlessly, until a writer noticed something like a sizing chart was needed, and page creation would have to start all over again.
Some days we were so busy that page jackets would stack up on artists’ side tables. But during quiet periods, we’d play cribbage or throw darts, which we usually did after lunch in the Sears employees’ lunchroom. (An Irish cook there made lamb stew that was to die for.)
I stayed at Sears for six years, until 1954. By then, my wife and I had a son, and I needed to make more money. I joined an Illinois company as ad manager. Being from Sears usually was a big plus on a resume. In fact, many young people joined Sears just for the experience, then left a year or two later.
I went on to become a manager at one the world’s largest ad agencies. And during the years I’ve worked in management positions for other ad giants, doing account service, writing copy and doing graphic development. For more than 10 years I had my own direct marketing agency on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, serving numerous Fortune 500 companies.
I suppose today’s catalog graphic technologies are far more efficient than when I was a young man at Sears, but I think it may have been more fun back then. We started with a blank sheet of paper, and used our own drawing ability and imagination. It was life in cataloging’s stone age. And boy, do I miss it.
Copyright© 2005 Robert F. Bobowski. All rights reserved.
Robert F. Bobowski is a direct marketing consultant and university lecturer. He is one of the founders of the International ECHO Awards Competition. Contact him at: email@example.com.