Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Best of Times

Would you rather spend $100 at Sears (or a comparable store) today or spend the same $100 on items in the 100-year old Sears catalogue? It's an old econ exam question but I happen to be holding a facsimile (with an introduction by Cleveland Amory) of the 1902 edition (#111) in my hand. It is published by Grammercy Books (New York) and is a treasure of entertainment.

There are thousands of products listed and described, many with accompanying illustrations. Practically each one makes food for thought.

After some time with the catalogue, I thought I would have trouble writing a concise answer to the question. It might be easier to get to the point and admit that all the ways we use to make inter-temporal comparisons of well-offness are rough.

Would you want their best 1902 camera for $7.90? Probably not. High-end cutlery for 6 for $1.79? Why not? A great western saddle for $8.95? Sure.

It's the Sears "Drug Department" that is the real eye opener. "Fat Folks, Take Rose's Obesity Powders and Watch the Result ... $4.20 per dozen boxes." Herb laxative teas for 16 cents a box may be OK. Dr. Rose's Arsenic Complexion Wafers 35 cents a box may have few takers today. Vin Vitae for 69 cents ("Not a Medicine ... Not Merely a Tonic"). The "White Ribbon Secret Liquor Cure" went for $2.50 a box. The list goes on and does focus the mind.

At the celebration of the last millennium, the NY Times assembled various intellectuals and had each write a short essay on which century they would have preferred to live in and why.

I do not recall that any preferred the present century. The no-brainer response is, of course, to live in the present (preferably in the U.S., in my view) because the no-brainer "why" can be answered in just two words: medical science.