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Viral photos: Who made those J.C. Penney catalog pages?
DALLAS — Retail catalogs from the 1970s and 1980s are often parodied for the fashions and lifestyles their thick volumes chronicled. But one column about the 1977 J.C. Penney spring-summer Big Book catalog keeps surfacing on social media.
The column has been stolen several times. It’s also been converted to an email and forwarded over and over without any credit.
It was written by Johnny Virgil of upstate New York, and published on Oct. 12, 2007, on his humor blog called the “15 Minute Lunch.”
The column and photos were resurrected a couple of weeks ago on the PopSugar blog. Once again, it found a fresh new audience and landed in my email, with “Check this out” from an editor who couldn’t stop laughing.
The column: Virgil starts out saying he found the J.C. Penney Big Book in his grandmother’s attic and proceeds to show us pages of fashions that would “get your ass kicked” in various settings: elementary school, an office meeting, the beach.
When it first went viral in 2007, Virgil said his blog was getting 25,000 hits a day, and that pace lasted for a few months. It was still popular even before the latest PopSugar appearance. The last couple of weeks it’s been receiving about 2,500 hits a day.
It’s hard to improve on Virgil’s comic critique. I’m not going there, but I did decide to find some of the people who actually worked on those catalogs, which were hugely successful in their day, and let them reminisce.
J.C. Penney discontinued its Big Book catalog in 2009 after the fall-winter volume. Two men and two women with a combined 121 years of J.C. Penney catalog experience offered some of their memories.
Yes, couples really used to wear his-and-her Western shirts and dress their toilets in pastel-colored fur. And there were plenty of basement game rooms outfitted with furniture made out of real bourbon barrels from Kentucky.
The creators: And you know what, said Bob Bowler, who was the buyer for that barrel furniture, “We sold a ton of it.”
Those 1,000-plus page Big Books had a $4 or $5 price on the cover.
“That was just to give it a perceived value,” said Pattie Shaw, a senior product development manager for home. “We wanted the customer to have skin in the game. It came with a $5 coupon inside.”
Shaw says she spent years trying to get approval to do home bedding pages that weren’t all matchy matchy sets of bedding, curtains and pillows. She was finally able to do that in 1999.
Peak circulation for single Big Books was 15 million, and it was distributed outside the U.S. in Japan, the U.K. and on military bases around the world, said Rich Last, who spent his 30-year career in the catalog and then online sales.
So risque: In some countries, the wives of U.S. servicemen would black out any skin so that only the underwear showed so the books could be circulated on base, he said.
And the letters from the U.K. were hysterical, some of them asking: “Why would anyone want to buy dressing for the loo?” Last said.
In those old catalogs, women have exaggerated poses and couples gazed in each others’ eyes, suggestively.
Underwear ads received the most mail.
“I remember walking by Bob’s secretary’s office when she was always opening letters with pages from the lingerie section and letters saying ‘This shouldn’t be coming to my house,’” said Beth Curran Tipple, who was a senior home division manager.
“We shot men in underwear in a library once,” Shaw said, but no one remembers why.
The first time a male model with a six-pack abs posed in boxers, sales soared, Bowler said.
Big names: Search a famous model from the 1960s on through the 2000s on Pinterest and their fashion shots show up from the Penney catalog.
Tipple said there were certain models that the buyers wanted their clothes shot in because they would always be sellouts.
Joan Gosnell, director of the J.C. Penney archives stored at Southern Methodist University, said the catalog’s famous models over the years included Veronica Hamel, Lauren Hutton, Cybill Shepherd, Shelly Hack, Susan Dey, Ginger Rogers, Kim Basinger, Carol Alt and Phoebe Cates.
When Sears went out of the catalog business in 1993, it was an exciting time. Penney took out full-page ads, Bowler said, with the message “We’re still in the catalog business.”
Hysterical: The former Penney catalog employees don’t fret much when they see the parodies of the old Big Books. Shaw says she finds them hysterical. “I remember hating polyester and those silly leisure suits even back then, but looking at old TV shows is the same — we just documented it on paper.”
Tipple said they thought some things “were oddball” back then too, but financially it was hard to argue with the data and their strong sales numbers.
They often had to put their personal tastes aside. “Somebody wants this item,” Tipple said. “It’s my job to respect their right to purchase what they want without judgment, and present the merchandise in the best way possible.”
Bowler explained how fierce the competition was for each page.
Inside J.C. Penney, an item trying to make it into the book was basically competing for advertising dollars, Bowler said. They even had a Million Dollar Page Club, he said, and everyone celebrated when an item sold to that level. “And there were a lot of them,” he said.
Got it made: Getting on a cover was huge for the buyer. Bowler remembered how controversial it was in 1970s to put a model wearing an Eskimo coat on the cover of a get-ready-for-summer catalog. The model was sitting in front of a window air conditioner priced at $149.99. The unit sold better than in any prior year, and it was a $3 million cover.
There were also bombs like the portable steam bath that cost $300 in 1979.
Total annual catalog sales reached a peak of $5 billion. The big books had 200,000 items in them, including electronics and appliances, camping equipment, paint, toys, office furniture, even canoes.
The four former colleagues recently met in the J.C. Penney archives housed in the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University. Among the archives are hardbound copies of catalogs going back in the 1960s.
They were proud that Penney was one of the first catalogs to feature ethnic shoppers in the 1960s. “We kept track of our diversity and picked shots accordingly,” Bowler said.
And they all remember the one year that the all-important 800 number on the cover of the catalog was wrong.
That was in 1997, and if they know who did it, they aren’t about to share that information with a reporter, even 20 years later.
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