My first thought, when I went to usher Lillian Vernon into the great beyond yesterday, was that I had written something about her catalogue. But I hadn't. What I had written about was the Vermont Country Store, a similar vendor of bric-a-brac, defunct brands, and, to my vast surprise, a certain type of feminine device one would not expect to find sold along with Stove-top coffee percolators, Ralston and toe covers. This seems perfect for the Sunday before Christmas, and I had to share it.
My wife's hairbrush had seen better days. Years of passing through her curly strawberry blond pre-Raphaelite tresses had worn down its bundles of boar bristles to a nubbin.
Time to replace it. But alas, she pouted, showing the worn-out brush to me one day, such brushes aren't available anymore.
Recognizing a challenge when I saw one, I secretly plunged into the Internet and found not just a brush like it, but the exact brush - half-round, boar bristle, from the same Fuller Brush Company. Sold by the VermontCountry Store. Swallowing hard at the $40 price tag, I ordered the thing as a gift.
Only her lack of surprise after I gave it to her made me suspect I had been slyly led.
Once I ordered something, of course, the Vermont Country Store had me in its sites and the catalogs began coming.
The first, Spring 2011, sports a painting of the rustic red Vermont store on its cover, complete with rain barrel and American flag. It surprised me to see offered for sale new items that, when I notice older ladies wearing them, I always assumed had been purchased at a Woolworth's in 1965: muumuus (up to size 3X) and caftans, plastic rain bonnets and floral Latex swim caps. It was a revelation.
And candy—caramel bull's-eyes and Starlight Mints, Herbal Horehound Drops and Black Jack Gum. Plus Whoopie Pies, Bread-in-a-Can, foodstuffs I hadn't thought about in 20 years: Lobster Newburg. Date Nut Bread.
Maybe it's the cynic in me, but I made a connection between all that comfort food and those 3X muumuus — maybe if women skipped the former, they wouldn't have to buy the latter out of a special catalog.
The rest of the merchandise was a hodgepodge designed to satisfy the desires of 80-year-olds trying to re-create the past. Like the "Easy-to-Use Cassette Recorder" (only $59.95). Or those aluminum ice cube trays with a handle to crack the ice. A steam iron that "has the familiar weight and heft that's missing from today's lightweight models."
There were garments the existence of which I had not imagined — "toe covers," which are abbreviated socks designed for open back shoes. Bra extenders, for after you wolf back the canned bacon and Cinnamon Brioche with Praline Sauce and Cream Cheese Icing on page 27 and want to avoid buying new undergarments in a larger size.
Perfumes like Evening in Paris, Coty, Wind Song. Shampoos like Lemon Up. Alberto VO5 conditioner. I felt like I was looking at my mother's dresser. Many of these companies don't exist anymore - the Vermont Country Store, amazingly, re-creates the lost products.
But that isn't why I'm writing this.
No, the Summer catalog arrived a few days ago, touting new wonders: floral swim caps that were out of fashion in 1975. Stove-top coffee percolators. Ralston. Wooden Q-Tips. Sleeve garters. Buster Brown socks.
To be honest, I almost missed the Really Amazing Part, right there in the lower corner of page 66: "Intimate Massagers: Quiet, Lightweight, and Discreet." My wife pointed it out.
The Vermont Country Store sells vibrators and dildos, though never using those words. The catalog offers three models: the Dual Pleasure, the Pinpoint Accuracy and a Dr. Laura Berman signature device — she endorses them, the way Yogi Berra plugged catcher's mitts. Online, there are many more.
In the catalog, they begin, directly, "Hormonal changes can affect a woman's responsiveness, and many couples find that intimacy benefits from a little help." But online, you can almost feel the awkwardness, as merchants used to hawking licorice whips pause, cringe, then present their new line of sex toys.
"As we get older, we don't have to become less able," writes Lyman Orton, whose parents, Vrest and Mildred Orton, founded the store in 1946. "Here at Vermont Country Store, we take a practical, no-nonsense approach to keeping you healthy, physically, emotionally, and . . . well . . . sexually, too!"
Don't you love that little elliptic blush of modesty? I'm certain it eases the way for grandma to pony up $80 for a Dr. Berman-recommended, rechargeable "Aphrodite."
I'm definitely not making fun of this — life's a long time, and you do what you have to.
There's something charming, almost sweet, about a catalog that touts Bonomo Turkish Taffy on the front cover, fade-resistant American flags on the back and has an array of sex toys, including those hawked by the redoubtable Dr. Berman, tucked away inside.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, June 22, 2011