Flush toilets and cell phones aside, human history is not necessarily a steep upward rappel out of the slime. It’s more like a hot, choking crawl through thick sand to the next mirage of an oasis. Still, inevitably, each generation invents its own self-flattering fictions about The Past—those poor chumps who either had it a lot better or worse than ourselves. These days the drift of time seems to wash up ever more detritus, from yesteryear’s lunchboxes to a sense that old man Truman had it all figured out. Nostalgia is a comfortable and unthreatening faith, which is why in troubled eras it’s always a major religion.
Now, the flip side of nostalgia is Amnesia: erasing the past to make the present look newer. I have nothing against turning the world into one big souk, but in our ultra-plugged-in age, as people cheer for the brainstorm of wireless shopping, I get a mite uneasy. Not to knock the Internet, but some of this got done before, and pretty well.
The myth is that we invented the miracle of armchair commerce. It’s easy to forget how good our Victorian predecessors had it. Over a century ago the British Empire’s mail-order catalogues routinely offered banjos, cricket flannels, hip baths, trouser presses, double-barreled shotguns, and the latest Dickens to all corners of the world. Whiteley’s bragged that they would ship you anything from a pin to an elephant. Several London department stores, given one day’s notice, would deliver an elaborate champagne picnic for a hundred guests (crystal and cutlery included) to any address in England; just try to get that now. In those days the sun never set on the flag of home shopping.
On our own shores the great purveyor to a nation was Sears Roebuck, from whom you could mail-order an entire house. Sears’ "Modern Homes" program—a rousing success from 1909 until 1930, after which it was soon discontinued—seems hard to better on any electronic superhighway. For ages they’d sold people building materials; now they sold the whole caboodle. This often meant a cash mortgage to boot: Sears Roebuck, the Farmer’s Friend, actually loaned families the means to move to suburbia and sold them the whole house once they got there. The sad ending was that during the Depression some of those mortgages went bad and Sears had to foreclose; but for two decades Sears (and its main competitor, Ward) sold Americans "the ultimate product."
The idea wasn’t an original one. A British expatriate couple I know worked for years in South Africa, where they rented "a lovely, comfortable, two-bedroom verandad cottage." It had Victorian moldings and stained-glass windows, which certainly sound lovely, and walls of galvanized iron (which don’t). The house, like many others there, had been pre-fabricated in England and brought out in pieces by ship to a Mozambique port around 1890. It was then carried quite routinely by bullock-cart over the hills into South Africa’s East Transvaal, put together on-site, and nearly a century later was wearing quite well.
The routes of empire and commerce naturally tend to overlap. In the Victorian era the Army and Navy catalogues sent throughout the British Empire sold its servants everything from magic lanterns to sailor suits, lawn mowers, and thirteen types of toilet paper, including Apollo, Mikado crepe and Japanese tar. The ultimate worldwide emporium was undoubtedly Harrods. Their telegram address was Everything, London; their 101 phone lines were open 24 hours. They boasted "Merchandise and Stores of every description. . . Shipped Abroad. . . outfits for ordinary wear and for Expeditions of every kind. . . Goods packed for Mule and Camel Loads. . . Residences furnished and equipped in all parts of the World. . . provisioned with the best English and Foreign food-stuffs". They had overseas shipping agents from Edinburgh to Rangoon; any loss of goods was simply not tolerated; and there was no delivery charge within London and its suburbs. Delivery back then meant the next day at the latest. This was 1929.
What did Harrods offer, a phone call away? Havana cigars; French wines and champagne; Chinese figs, Palermo lemons, Maltese oranges; Belgian chocolates and Swiss Gruyere; Irish bacon and Danish hams; Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica, Vencatachelum’s curry from India. They sent out nasal douches, sanitary belts, scalpels, nozzles, probes, rectal feeders, forceps, enemas, ear trumpets, and obesity reducers. They purveyed chauffeurs’ Crash Linen Dust Coats and underwear "from the Softest of Silks to the Warmest of Woolens". They sold huge Pukka Luggage canvas-covered "waterproof and dustproof" Imperial cabin trunks to keep it in. Round the clock they shipped wireless radios, Steinway grand pianos, Sunbeam motorcycles, billiard tables that converted into dining tables; rowing dinghies, canoes, sculls, and Aquaplane Bathing Yachts; cine-cameras and projectors, armchairs, water heaters and bathtubs; frigidaires, parrot stands, dormouse cages; poultry coops, lean-tos, beehives, grandfather clocks; sapphire, diamond and platinum bracelets; even grand Lawn Pavilion Tents.
An Englishman Abroad, no matter how far he peregrinated from Knightsbridge, had only to get a message through to Sloane 1234—a convenient number—to have, say a 17th century salon reproduced from a palace, or a Jacobean oak library complete with chimney, delivered to him. (One catalogue shows a Harrods van arriving by gondola in Venice.) They could bind his books or ship him a new limousine complete with nurse, attendant, and chauffeur. They could arrange for dances, balls, concerts, regattas, bazaars and fireworks on short notice. They could even, throughout the entire world, supply a hearse, embalm, cremate, and bury him.
Empires crumble into dust; emporiums shiver in the cold wind of competition; our small screens may prove the greatest emporium and empire of all. It is comforting to realize that no matter what the mode of commerce, human needs hardly change with the passing centuries. Man needs little besides the swift, convenient home delivery of foie gras, or a new roof, or fine pessaries, or marine insurance, or the promise of having one’s eventual corpse transferred to its final rest by a well-liveried chauffeur sent halfway round the world. The evangelizing, imperializing super-highway may even one day make the long arm of a Harrods or a Sears seem comparatively negligible in reach—but what they offered, from umpteen varieties of pipe to a house, they could deliver on time. In the coming anarchy it may be well to remember the Old Days, at least until we attain as a species that nirvana whence we no longer want to order anything.