When catalogs were catalogs: Lessons in writing from the Hammacher vault

I wrote for the venerable oddball catalog Hammacher Schlemmer for oh, about a year and a half — but what a great year and a half. Because you’ll never write something nuttier than what you write for a venerable oddball catalog.

I created copy for fiber-optic snowman tree toppers, remote-control golf balls, transparent kayaks, sonic mosquito repellants and robot vacuum cleaners. I test drove a motorcycle that was no higher than my shins; I rubbed my face over a $2,000 eiderdown pillow (and was promptly yelled at); and I wrote with a straight face: “This stainless-steel ship’s lamp is a modern interpretation of the lanterns used in the days when Scandinavian whaling ships thronged the frigid waters between the Faroe Islands and the Baltic Sea.”

Cuz that’s how you roll at Hammacher. Even though it sounds like we had free reign to write the kookiest things that came to mind (and although the often-outrageous products warranted it), Hammacher house writing style was actually one of tremendous authority. We were to add no hyperbole or salesy gimmick. Nothing but facts and straightforward reporting of a product’s features, with perhaps a wry smile at the more absurd moments. I was told once to picture Walter Cronkite introducing the reader to the product — a trustworthy father figure giving a utilitarian dissertation of what the thing does without undue embellishment.

Although if you’re given a pricey kerosene lamp to sell, you may have to bust out the allusions to the 19th Century Scandinavian whaling industry. Once, when we had a particularly prosaic cookie jar to sell (it spun and played Christmas music, but was otherwise a typical ceramic vessel for holding cookies) we had to resort to counting how many cookies it could hold, because otherwise, how do you say something authoritative about that? At the very least, we could show that Hammacher had calculated your actual volume of potential cookie storage. (The product bombed anyway.)

But even if I thought I had a few nutty products to sell, nothing beats this gem from the archives, circa 1961; I’ve held it dear for years as a reminder that sometimes you just have to put reservations aside and Go For It.

1 Comment

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One response to “When catalogs were catalogs: Lessons in writing from the Hammacher vault

  1. Octopusgrabbus

    I loved this the first time I saw one, and would love to purchase one.

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