Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 36, September 1992
To sell their goods to the wide spread population of late last century and early this century the merchants used illustrated catalogues, themselves a symbol of new, efficient methods of production. They divided into two basic types, the retail and the wholesale. Household catalogues offered goods direct at retail prices with some attractive reductions on much the same spirit as the contemporary catalogues, now unfortunately part of an avalanche of "junk mail". Wholesalers sent out large catalogues from which storekeepers could choose a range of stock or make special orders for customers. Factories, workshops, institutions, large farms, stations and estates might also purchase directly. In isolated parts, goods were naturally purchased in large quantities and stored until needed. Many substantial properties had their own store and sold merchandise for cash or as payment on kind.
The best of the large catalogues were always valued items while some remained the property of the distributors, with appropriate warnings that they should not be defaced and that items required should not to be cut from their pages. Some had over 1000 pages and offered more then 7000 items. Smaller, cheaply produced catalogues covering all sorts of goods from general merchandise to farm equipment, clothing, plants and seeds and so on, were widely distributed and are the most commonly found type for collectors. Unless they were reasonably well bound and treated with some respect they have inevitably become rather tattered and frail. I know from my experience around old coachbuilder's shops, foundries and engineering works, that their old catalogues were well thumbed and far from their original state. Smoke, grease and dust, and sheer old age takes a toll of such useful artifacts and it is important to social historians and to collectors generally that as many old catalogues as possible are reprinted.
Many overseas manufacturers and distributors looked to Australia and New Zealand as lucrative markets and so we find some very interesting catalogues from Great Britain, Europe and North America. Some of the most intriguing catalogues of the second half of the nineteenth century displayed colour plates for items where colour and decorative appeal were important. One of the best I have seen has a glorious range of ornate iron and brass bedsteads, all printed on colours such as forest green, carmine, powder blue and rich burgundy. These days we take full colour, illustrated catalogues for granted and yet in time they too will become important reflections of our society and its values.
Needless to say, antique and bric-a-brac collectors, along with those whose particular interests might be old cars, horse-drawn vehicles, traction and stationary engines, old tools and machinery, farm implements - in fact, anything collectable, find catalogues a continuing fascination. They have become essential guides for authenticating and dating items, and for studying the detailed descriptions and range of spare parts. Catalogues are by no means a late nineteenth century phenomenon and many from earlier centuries are highly prized research tools. Household items illustrated in catalogues printed from 150 to 200 years ago are now treasured antiques. They provide us with some idea of the kinds of possessions brought to New Zealand by the more affluent of our early settlers.
What makes late nineteenth and early twentieth century catalogues so interesting is that we can relate to so many of the items illustrated. Some items remain relatively unchanged, others are primitive beginnings for many of our automatic "labour-saving" devices. The popular movement towards simpler lifestyles, self-sufficiency and saving energy resources, has given some of the old ways a new respectability.
Important factors in the trend towards the wider use of illustrated catalogues were the rescinding of the tax on paper in 1861 and the construction of the rotary web presses from 1863 which in time replaced the much less efficient single sheet printing system. One point worth remembering is that we can be misled into thinking that each page of a typical Edwardian catalogue is the one-off work of a skilled engraver. Most were in fact assembled from standard blocks which in themselves were mass produced stereotypes. These were of course taken from hand engraved blocks, but by a process which enabled hundreds or thousands of "cheap cuts" to be made and distributed. Manufacturers of silverware or household lamps would, for example, send a range of blocks to their distributors and this is why the same "cuts" turn up in various publications. To study the skill involved in creating the original block is to realise how simple the processes of graphic reproduction have become.
Use of the word "engraving" suggests intaglio engraving, a demanding process used by print-makers, on early copperplate advertising material, and in photogravure. These later catalogues are printed "letterpress" with the image in relief and made up of lines or in photo-engraving of different size dots. Mention of photo-engraving brings us to the observation that from 1888 onward, we find publications mixing the newly invented photo-engravings with the general mass of stereotypes and even with old wood-blocks. Photo-engraving was a logical step on from a process whereby a photographic image applied to a plate was hand engraved. An American, Frederick E Ives, invented the so-called "half-tone" or photo-engraving process in 1880 and so all sorts of photographic images could be mechanically reproduced as letterpress printing plates.