An Ode to History's Most Specific Aesthetic Sensibility: the Lillian Vernon Catalog 

In Depth

There have been unified aesthetics in history—art deco, rococo, Danish modern. But there’s probably never been any sensibility quite as specific, as honed, as that of the Lillian Vernon catalog. Which is precisely what made its founder such a success story.

Lillian Vernon died December 14, at the age of 88, having made herself into an American household name. Her New York Times obituary delved into her approach:

“She was a phenomenal merchandiser,” the direct marketing consultant Katie Muldoon said. “When she started, there were only huge books like Sears and Montgomery Ward that had every kind of merchandise, like a department store. Lillian Vernon created a new retail market, catalogs with a theme: personalized products that you couldn’t find anywhere else.”

It wasn’t simply that, though. Vernon offered personalized products you couldn’t find anywhere else created along very specific—and slightly batshit— lines. It wasn’t just about exclusivity. It was about offering a product mix perpetually novel yet perfectly tailored to American domestic sensibilities. The brand was widely known enough that MadTV could do a recurring skit about a “Lillian Verner” gameshow. If you look on Google Books, you’ll find not one but two devotional books for Christian women which use Vernon’s story to illustrate Romans 8:15. (“Maybe God has put a dream in your heart that is so big you haven’t even shared it with anyone. So what’s stopping you? Why aren’t you running that ad like Lillian Vernon?”)

But truly appreciating the Lillian Vernon catalog requires revisiting the Lillian Vernon catalog in its pre-Internet glory days. Let’s look at the Halloween 1997 edition.

Like any good hostess, Vernon welcomed you herself, with a note reminding you that her products are exclusive and personalization is always free—as well as promoting her memoir/business book, An Eye for Winners. Not that everything she tried worked; December 1986 she candidly informed an Associated Press writer that a particular set of measuring spoons was a complete bust. “I’m always out of teaspoons, and I thought this was going to be a sensational item,” she admitted. “We bought 10,000, but we’ve got 9,229 left. It’s a dog.” A pillow declaring that “A woman who is looking for a husband has never had one” was another spectacular miss.

The selection was obviously firmly tailored to the season. Hence, an immense number of adorable Halloween costumes. Does one buy that mouse costume explicitly with an eye to its embarrassing inclusion in an eventual wedding slideshow, or is that merely a happy result?

As of 1985, fully 96 percent of Lillian Vernon’s customers were women. “Our customers tend to be busy, active women; if they are not working in an income-producing position, they are busy with their Parent Teacher Associations, with church groups,” said the company’s SVP for marketing (and Vernon’s son) Fred Hochberg. But they also got orders from celebs as varied as Yoko Ono, Billy Idol, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vernon told the Times.

Those are some sharp-looking witches.

Really unfair that “Deluxe Skydancer” costume doesn’t come in adult sizes.

That fairy-tale princess getup is a nice segue into a real hallmark of the catalog—the incredibly pink, overwhelmingly frou-frou selections for little girls. The Lillian Vernon catalog offered vision of girlhood intricately intertwined with an overflowing dress-up chest and so many toys they required special organizational solutions. Monogrammed, of course.

Some Ebay trawling suggests a long and cozy relationship with the dollmakers at Madame Alexander. If you were hunting a Doll-in-a-Trunk with an 18-piece wardrobe, Lillian Vernon had your back.

How many hours did I spend admiring that ballerina jewelry box?

The only thing I wanted more was this monogrammed towel with the ballet shoes. Have I ever done five minutes of ballet in my life? Nope!

Not everything was wildly gendered—for instance this plastic food set and that painting kid. But then of course there’s that pink, again.

I remembered all these things from my childhood. But in retrospect, it’s the products for adults that are truly astounding. For instance: a painted fireplace screen clearly meant to evoke ancien régime France. A mere $159.98!

What the hell’s going on here?

A wicker breakfast-in-bed tray! A birdhouse lamp! (Please note the placement of Vernon’s book. An eye for winners is all well and good, but execution is everything.)

Here—an entire spread full of apple-related home goods.

Not to mention the pages and pages of “storage solutions.”

Many of these products are ridiculous. Wonderful, but ridiculous. But Vernon—who was intensely hands-on for much of her career—always insisted she didn’t sell anything she wouldn’t personally own in her home. A reporter sat with her in 1985 as she flipped through a catalog, pointing out items she did indeed have—a crystal vase, a pitcher with an icer, an ostrich-feather duster. She knew what she liked, and she figured others might like it, too.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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