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The Mail Order Catalogs that Defined My Childhood

When Hanna Andersson and Coldwater Creek arrived, I was in heaven

Before I had access to the Internet, I enjoyed certain wholesome pleasures. When a new issue of American Girl arrived in the mail, or, better yet, a handwritten letter from my penpal, I felt giddy. It was mail-order catalogs, though, that had my heart.


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Chock-full of products I didn’t need, on sale for an amount of money I didn’t possess, these catalogs inspired a particular set of aspirations that no glossy fashion magazine could spark.

ORIENTAL TRADING COMPANY

When the Oriental Trading Company catalog came in the mail, advertising cheap toys and offbeat craft kits, I’d pluck it from the daily deluge of bills and bank statements and pennysavers. I flipped through the color-saturated pages in my parent’s car, on the sidelines of a sibling’s soccer game, or in the bathroom (still my favorite place to read).

Photo: Oriental Trading Company

I annotated the catalog with a marker, and came up with a complicated coding system to rank the tchotkes according to desirability. Birthday party banners first, then plastic necklace pendants, and then wacky light fixtures. I entertained unorthodox Bat Mitzvah theme ideas (Luau! Hello Kitty!) and learned metrics I would rarely, if ever, use in my adult life (i.e., a gross). I learned that any cartoon character could be superimposed onto a plastic cup or funkily shaped balloon, and that even paper products can be (sigh) divided into gender-specific halves. (Floral patterns and Disney princesses for girls’ birthdays; dinosaurs and construction-themed prints for boys.)

With its low-brow kitschiness and wild, aesthetically off-kilter graphics, Oriental Trading Co. is the antithesis of the 21st century, luxury lifestyle brand. The catalog taught me to value "value-priced" goods that serve no real function and inspired me to learn hobbies that would produce novelty goods I could pawn off to unsuspecting family members as "gifts" (glass bottles filled with colored sand, foam picture frames dotted with rhinestones).

HANNA ANDERSSON

Hanna Andersson is a children’s clothing company based in Portland, Oregon. Their signature look is a two-tone, striped legging and corresponding dress set, in sizes meant for a mother and daughter pair. Growing up, my mother, sister, and I had exactly one coordinated outfit, and it was not from Hanna Andersson but from a tourist shop in Hawaii: a pineapple-printed mumu collection, heavy on the ruffles, with varying sleeve lengths; still, I wanted to emulate the cohesive yet quirky look of a Hanna Andersson family collection, which was distinctly special. With each season, the color palette shifts (navy and brown in the fall, candy-pink and lemon in the spring), but the silhouettes remain the same. I found this consistency (along with the company’s exotic, Swedish namesake) to be highly alluring.

Photo: Hanna Andersson

My sister and I cut out our favorite models from the catalog and glued them into a scrapbook. While I was mostly uninterested in dolls as a child, I was delighted by these cut-out characters. They felt real and knowable to me in a way that American Girl dolls never did. I relished any play time with my sister, who is 5 years older than me, but inventing fictional characters, giving them names (Naomi! Hannah!) and creating compelling plot lines was beyond thrilling.

The point of parsing through the catalogs was never really to find clothes we wanted to own (though I did own a pair of navy-blue clogs that were much beloved.) Rather, it was to become collaborative authors of a constantly evolving, composite story that involved models from catalogs like Gymboree, United Colors of Benetton, and Pottery Barn Kids. Also, to ogle at a perfect-looking mother-daughter pair sharing a cupcake, picking flowers in a field, engaging in some sugary-sweet, idyllic task. When I look through Hanna Andersson now, I realize that a large part of the Hanna Andersson fantasy is to match one’s mother, or daughter, in identical outfits. (I’m relieved that my mother did not entertain this dream.)

COLDWATER CREEK

Reading a Coldwater Creek catalog is akin to dipping one’s toe in a lukewarm pool: it’s mildly entertaining, and definitely pleasant, but not exceedingly so. I leafed through catalogs, again, not for the clothes (which are for middle-aged, postmenopausal women, anyway) but for the brilliant copy. I was captivated by how flowery — and, to the best of my 9-year-old knowledge, how deeply poetic — language could be. I’d marvel at how many adjectives could be packed into one sentence, used to describe just one, ordinary article of clothing.

Photo: Goldwater Creek

In the same way that many young women love Eileen Fisher, I’m fond of Coldwater Creek. There’s something so wonderful about the predictability of each collection — sure to have several monochromatic variations of the same cotton crepe dress, with product descriptions always relating back to bodies of water. I learned that fabric could flow like a river and patterns could ripple like waves crashing onto shore. A very ordinary-looking cardigan might "conjure fresh breezes, sweet tea, and flights of fancy" while a pair of mid-rise jeans might fit "like a hug but not a squeeze." The copy transported me to a place where anything — including poor grammar and funky sentence structure — was possible.

Eventually I’d grow bored of these catalogs. I’d stop checking Oriental Trader for new party theme ideas, or Hanna Andersson to shop for characters, or Coldwater Creek to read the latest crazy combination of words. Instead I’d pine after chokers and camisoles from Limited Too; butterfly chairs and flatform sandals from Delia*s; underwire bras from Victoria’s Secret. And then, I got the internet.

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