A good chunk of my cultural education, as a child, came from the bi-monthly Signals catalog that arrived at my parents' house.
We never bought anything from it, but I read it cover-to-cover, and thus learned that Rumpole of the Bailey's wife was called "She Who Must Be Obeyed," and the names of all of Jane Austen's books as they corresponded to their giant boxed VHS miniseries sets, and that hobos drew drawings of smiling cats next to the homes of friendly women, and for only $29.95 you too could have a smiling cat to hang outside your home.
I learned, from the Signals catalog, that there were shows called Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served? and Doctor Who, and the details of old-timey radio programs like The Shadow, and that Madame Alexander had made a set of very ugly dolls based off of the characters in Little Women, and even though they were very ugly dolls I wanted them anyway because I liked anything to do with Little Women.
(I think, actually, we did buy something from the Signals catalog once. I convinced my parents to buy me a giant puzzle which featured images from all thirty-seven of Shakespeare's plays, for one of my birthdays.)
I hadn't thought about the Signals catalog in years until I saw one, addressed to "occupant," arrive with the mail at work (and get dumped, with the other catalogs, on the lunchroom table).
I brought it home with me and sat down to read it cover-to-cover.
Some things never change. They're still selling that "hobo cat drawing" woodcut. They're still selling the umbrella that looks like a bouquet of roses when it's folded up. They're no longer selling the personalized "authentic Egyptian hieroglyph" necklace where the hieroglyphs, miraculously, spell out your name; or the Jane Austen sets; or anything to do with Rumpole of the Bailey.
They no longer have the full page of iron tavern knots which they advertised would take hours to "untie;" I used to study them and try to figure out how the metal would have to be manipulated to separate the pieces.
The abundance of Celtic kitsch is now sharing space with a fair segment of Indian kitsch; I could have purchased a wooden plaque that read "Namaste," or a bracelet that read "Karma: What Goes Around Comes Around." They also had figurines modeled in "yoga poses" that looked nothing like anything I've ever done in my Ashtanga class.
After fifteen years the Signals catalog no longer reads like a cultural repository but instead appears like an effete Skymall (not to mention that all pop-culture references older than 2006 seem to have been removed -- Harry Potter claims some page presence, but there is no Rumpole or John Cleese or even Doctor Who, to say nothing of The Shadow). This is truly disappointing.
But it amuses me that they're still selling that hobo cat picture to hang outside your door. There must be a lot of women out there who want the neighborhood to know that they're the kind of person who would give a hobo food, at least in theory. ^__^ I wonder what happens when the real hobos show up?