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JOEL Joel's Blog

Catalog 34 Where Are You?


Three different versions of Catalog #34
Three different versions of Catalog #34

Are you still reading print catalogs?

If you're like me, the answer may be “Yes.” I don’t shop from print catalogs, but I love looking at them. A few years ago Lost Art Press (LAP) reprinted the 1914 Stanley #34, one of the greatest Stanley catalogs of all times. Recently LAP decided to discontinue the publication, and now that they have run out, they are offering a free PDF of the catalog here.

I certainly understand that most people would find a free PDF for something they only occasionally use to be better than a book that that costs money, even at a discount. But I like a printed book. (Sorry, we just sold out.)

Most very old books are available on Google books, or some other online archive, pretty much for free. I read some Horatio Alger stories that way. I like the ability to search on a PDF, although interestingly Google search on their Google books isn't great. But as I have discovered, no matter how much I try, I can't really curl up with a tablet and something to read online. I have no issues with looking stuff up, watching videos, and reading stuff when I need to. But if I really want to absorb written information, a real printed book is handy. (And I'm not even the sort of guy who writes "so true, so true" in the margin of an especially pertinent passage about thread sizes of a Stanley plane.)

Incidentally I don't have any eInk readers so I don't know if that sort of media would work better for me. If I traveled a lot, I would probably want one.

Is this generational? In other words, is the reason I'm able to focus and absorb information faster and better from a book than a screen simply because that is what I grew up with? Or are books a better means for absorbing written information, irrespective of fashion? Digital watches came and went because people realized that it was easier to tell time and estimate events on the go with two hands rather than a digital number. Fountain pens are better for your hand because they use less pressure than a ballpoint, but they do cost more and require some practice and maintenance. Some people prefer vinyl or CDs to streaming simply because they feel they're getting better sound and an entire curated event, not random songs. So there's absolutely no reason not to believe that it is possible that reading from a printed page in a book allows you to assimilate information faster than printed words on a screen.

The other thing I find very interesting is that younger people aren't reading as much as they used to. This trend has big implications for society, but does the rise of screens for reading play a role? If you're used to a screen, it may be hard to assimilate information from in a straight printed way. This makes the learning become more difficult, with even fiction becoming less fun. So maybe people don't read for fun on a screen (screens offer many other diversions) and never get the habit of printed books. If I personally wanted to know the current value of an old Stanley plane, I could find it way more quickly on the internet. But if I wanted to really understand how Stanley covered the tool market, or how many different permutations of various models the same tool did the same thing, or what people who were contemporaries of the tools thought were important features of tools -- for these questions, the printed page can't be beat.

This is why I collect catalogs, mostly originals if I can find them. The picture above features three different-looking catalogs that are all the Stanley #34. Until I put them all together, I didn’t realize how strikingly different they look, as befits the different vintages they represent. One of the catalogs is the Lost Art Press Stanley #34 1914 reprint; the others are from my collection - one from 1930 and the younger one from 1952. They are all Catalog 34 and all represent the state-of-the-art of Stanley tools at their time. Here are examples of just the spokeshave assortments as they evolved during the twentieth century. The 1914 catalog has the most complete assortment.

The spokeshave pages from the 1914 catalog
The spokeshave pages from the 1914 catalog

By 1930. most of the selection was still available. but the metal versions of the wooden shaves have disappeared along with the Cooper's shaves. Of course, they disappeared because of lack of demand, as machines replaced a lot of hand work in industry.

The spokeshave pages from the 1930 catalog
The spokeshave pages from the 1930 catalog

By 1952, post-war America was in a massive building boom, but the boom was for lots and lots of low cost private house. Power tools finally replaced most hand tools on building sites, and the demand for traditional hand tools and skills dropped. What is left of the spokeshave selection are just the basics.

 The spokeshave page from the 1952 catalog
The spokeshave page from the 1952 catalog

These catalogs weren’t really retail store catalogs. They were sort of the thing a store might have to show customers or a salesman might give out at a show. But not every retail store sold every model of everything, and retailers also stocked other brands.

This kind of peek at tool history is why I love poring over the Stanley catalog. And if you have the itch, we have other catalogs as well - the The Handsaw Catalog Collection, which features major catalog excerpts from the catalogs of Henry Disston & Sons of Philadelphia, E.C. Atkins & Co. of Indianapolis, Simonds Manufacturing Co. of Fitchburg, MA, and Spear & Jackson of Sheffield, England; two different turn of the century millwork catalogs, The Mulliner Catalog of 1893: Turn-of-the-Century Doors Windows and Decorative Millwork and Roberts' Illustrated Millwork Catalog: A Sourcebook of Turn-of-the-Century Architectural Woodwork and and finally, the Norris Metal Plane catalog. For those whose boats are not floated by this sort of stuff, you're welcome to roll your eyes, and point out that you're reading this blog on a phone or a tablet or a computer but certainly on a screen. Maybe next week I will write about a subject that interests you more.

Join the conversation
02/08/2023 Sue Tolleson-Rinehart
Thank you -- I enjoyed this! What a bounty of spokeshaves!
02/08/2023 Michael Rodgers
Could not agree more. there is something about the tactile feel of a book, especially an old one, that is comforting. Even the smell of books and, of course, the visual appeal simply cannot be replaced by a plastic/metal piece of technology. As an university educator, I can confirm that most young people do not read books although there are some old souls whose parents put books into their hands at an early age. These are mostly kids who were either home schooled or attended private schools where reading classics are still valued. Thanks again for an interesting blog.
02/08/2023 Jason L Hills
The average reading comprehension level of Americans has dropped precipitously over the decades. I am a community college professor and at best one in four of my students can read at grade level.
02/08/2023 Stephen Ashmead
I read a lot for my job and for fun. I like you I prefer the solidity and durability of a book versus and electronic reproduction if I have a choice. Perhaps it is a generational thing.
02/08/2023 Tom Blank
Seems confusing to have multiple year catalogs all numbered 34. Even though they certainly contain different content, later year catalogs were obviously not numbered sequentially.

What was the rationale for Stanley's numbering system?
02/08/2023 Zach
I read somewhere that reading a physical book causes your brain to map what you are learning with the physical pages. With an electronic format there isn’t any tactile or physical aspect for your brain to map the words to, and so people tend not to remember electronic reading as well as printed material. This may not be the sole explanation, but it made sense to me when I read it.
I have no idea about the catalog numbering system. Stanley had dozens of catalogs, some speicalized, some larger. My guess is that #34 always referred to a smaller format of all the hand tools. But I don't really know.
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