We’d like to think that our lives are defined by our achievements, our relationships and the unfolding of historical events around us.
The truth, however, is more prosaic and can probably be found in the pages of the current Argos catalogue.
Convector heaters, 3D jigsaws, sewing machines, smartphones, briefcases, carriage clocks and sandwich makers are the objects we interact with on a daily basis and which provide the backdrop to our to-ing and fro-ing. Most of us could assemble a convincing reconstruction of our homes using items sourced from Argos and picked up at collection point B.
Little wonder, then, that past catalogues make for such compelling reading for people of a certain age. Products such as digital watches, leg warmers and exercise benches recommended by Emlyn Hughes prompt waves of nostalgia way more potent than we would get from any video news archive. This is the stuff we bought, the stuff we used and the stuff we chucked away.
A website called Retromash has recognised the appeal of this consumer bible, and contains a fairly comprehensive online resource of Argos catalogues from the first, in 1973, up to the present day. “It’s a window into the culture of the past,” says the website’s founder who, rather shyly, gives his name only as Michael.
“It contains relics from a time gone by, but within our lifetime. So it brings back memories of, say, what we wanted to get for Christmas, when that kind of thing still felt magical.”
I share Michael’s memories of poring over the Argos catalogue as a child, but suspect that these days it doesn’t quite have the cachet that it used to. What was once an aspirational read is now merely functional; the catalogue is a means of obtaining a reference number to plug into an order form.
“Well yes, you couldn’t look at things on the internet back then,” agrees Michael. “The products in the catalogue felt more exciting because they weren’t just a click away, as they are now. They inspired the imagination.”
While our appetite for retro culture is evidently enormous, there’s something surprising about the recent viral appeal of Retromash’s Argos collection, perhaps because of the mundanity of the content. This stuff doesn’t insist upon itself in the same way as, say, the extraordinary photographs of yesteryear that you find on websites such as Retronaut.
“It’s ephemera,” says Michael. “The Argos catalogue is something you’d chuck in the bin, in the same way as you would with toy packaging or instruction manuals that come with electronic devices. But sometimes these things are the most interesting when you look back on them – not least because they’re not going to be archived by anyone. Apart from people like myself, of course.”
Michael started his catalogue quest about five years ago, and was helped by a kindly former Argos employee who stumbled upon a number of them in his attic. Now it’s a question of laboriously scanning and uploading them – not a task anyone would relish. But perhaps Michael will be spurred on in the knowledge that his hobby has a wider cultural resonance; consider Robert Opie’s huge collection of packaging, which today is housed in the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, but at one stage must have looked like an act of dysfunctional hoarding.
“I’m more of a documenter than a hoarder,” says Michael. “I just don’t have the space. But some of the retro items I’ve acquired that have a particular personal resonance I will be hanging on to. And I’m still on the lookout for some of the Argos catalogues I’m missing.”
It might be worth checking the back of your cupboards for the 1980 catalogue; it’s currently absent from Michael’s list and, incredibly, he’s seen this kind of thing offered on eBay for as much as £60. “I’m not shelling out that much, though,” he says. “Even I have to draw the line somewhere.”Reuse content