Where It All Began for Me: An Ode to the JCPenney Catalog

published Aug 25, 2017
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(Image credit: WishbookWeb)

Imagine if you will, that it is 1995 and a young, chubby, overly-enthusiastic girl approaches her mother in the kitchen. Seemingly out of nowhere she announces her intent to paint her bedroom a “bright peach” and complement that color choice with an “ivy border!”. Her mother says “Oh, that’s nice.” and returns to her Tuna Helper. Where did this girl find such inspiration? Where did she develop such an eye for groundbreaking decor, you ask? Why, the JCPenney catalog, of course.

By now you may have figured out that that young girl was, in fact, me (based on nothing really, but just a guess). And that this is, in fact, an ode to the design juggernaut that was the JCPenney catalog during the early-to-mid 1990s era. Essentially the Wells Fargo Wagon of its time, and weighing in at roughly 17 pounds (well that’s how heavy it felt to me at least), it was a beautiful behemoth of Clinton-era capitalism where one could find an endless supply of items to circle and beg for for Christmas.

Before the internet and HGTV there were limited resources for kick-starting one’s design daydreams and the JCP catalog was as accessible as it was expansive. I didn’t know how much money my family did or didn’t have, but I knew that we often found ourselves in the just-outside-of-Chicago mall with the Kohl’s rather than downtown at the Bloomingdales or up on the North Shore perusing the Ethan Allen and if I was going to try my luck at getting a canopy bed, good old (Junior Carver? John Christopher? Jane Calamity?) James Cash Penney was my best bet.

(Image credit: Wishbookweb)

Before bowing out gracefully in 2009 (honestly, I’m shocked it was still in circulation when “Avatar” was released) the catalog was a mainstay of American consumerism after hitting doorsteps across the country in the early ’60s. Once Sears discontinued its catalogue in 1993, JCPenney became the number one game in town after targeting the folks on Sears’ mailing list. The “Big Book” reigned supreme until the late ’90s, with a peak circulation of 14 million.

Here’s how a typical afternoon with the JCPenney catalog would go for me: circle a few legging and T-shirt outfits that would help me stunt on my classmates, move on to pick out a few new outfits for my mom and dad so they could stop embarrassing me at school potlucks, cruise through the “Not American Girl” dolls before making it to the main event: the home section. If memory serves me right, it was at the back of the catalog starting with sheets and frilly bedspreads and ending with above-ground pools. And it had EVERYTHING.

I never did get that ivy border — we were renters and my parents knew better than to let a child who carried a parasol around the house truly live out her questionable design dreams, but I got something better, the opportunity to discover and develop my taste. Yes, mercifully, my tastes have changed, but you’ve gotta give props to where you came from and remember where it all started. And so to you, my analogue Pinterest, my paper-brick of bedspreads, I say thanks.

So, what inspired you? Did you rush to the door to grab a Sears catalog? Rip out pages from Delia’s? Sound off in the comments. Oh and if any of you had an ivy border, tell me what it was like to live that particular dream.