Of catalogs and carriages.


Print catalogs continue to be relevant, useful, and popular among consumer and business audiences.  It’s not likely they’ll be put out to pasture any time soon — an apt turn of phrase, given the theme of this post.

My wife recently gave me a copy of the August 1915 edition of “The Hub,” a trade magazine founded in 1858 and originally published for the carriage-making industry.  She came across it on eBay and knew I’d enjoy reading the ads.

The Hub: August 1915By 1915, seven years after the introduction of the Model T, the automobile (or “power-propelled vehicle”) had made significant inroads on the carriage industry, as reflected in this particular issue:

  • Virtually every ad for parts and components addresses both carriage makers and automobile makers;
  • The editorial content is already tilting slightly in favor of automotive interests over horse-drawn interests;
  • Carriage sales were on a five-year decline from their previous high water mark, according to one letter to the editor.

In spite of all this, the publisher’s message states:

Contrary to the belief of many, the indications at the present time are that the carriage and buggy building industry is enjoying a season of activity that is far and away above what some pessimistic individuals would have us believe… Unless some unforeseen and unimaginable cause arises, things will likely remain equally consistent for a long time to come.

(Ironically, just four years later, “The Hub” would be renamed “Automotive Manufacturer.”)

All this made me think of a comment from futurist Paul Saffo’s landmark 1992 essay on the paperless office, that, “in the end, we will become paperless the same way we once became horseless. Horses are still around, but they are ridden by hobbyists, not commuters.”  Similarly, the widely viewed EPIC 2014 video imagines the future of the New York Times, crippled by New Media, as being “a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly.”

A couple of questions occur to me for multichannel publishers / marketers and their supporting vendors:

Will paper-based marketing media survive as true co-equals with their digital counterparts, or will they become useful only to “hobbyists, the elite and the elderly”? I’ve written before about the utility of print catalogs and people’s (even young people’s) preference for them.  On the other hand, I’m re-reading the opening summary of this post and thinking that no one wants to be the publisher of “The Hub,” writing about the rosy future of the carriage while more and more cars go whizzing by.

Will the continued growth of mobile devices and  acceptance of e-books eventually lead to a world in which print catalogs are used only in niche applications rather than by mass audiences?

Which complementary goods are the “buggy whips” of the print catalog world? There are no ads for buggy whips among the many carriage-and-auto parts ads in that 1915 magazine.   Ads for seats?  Yes.  Headlamps?  Yes.  Axles and springs?  Yes.  Those and other parts were already evolving and would eventually survive in one form or another in the automotive era.  Not so the buggy whipMakers of buggy whips might be able to survive by re-inventing themselves as makers of steering wheel covers or other accessories.  But the part itself – the buggy whip – wasn’t needed to operate a car.

Are there products and services that support the print catalog industry that simply can’t, by definition, adapt in the digital era?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

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