Every yuletide fire needs some good, combustible tinder to get the flames roaring. And Americans don't have to go out into the brush to find some. We just tear off pages from the thick, slick holiday catalogs that keep arriving.
Figures aren't in for 2009 yet, but the Wall Street Journal reports that last year alone, more than 17 billion catalogs were mailed in the United States. That's 56 for each and every American!
Don't Worry About that Loud Thump at the Door
The L. L. Bean Company of Maine, which makes snug outdoor wear, alone sends out a quarter of a million catalogs, and some companies mail several within the holiday season. No wonder mailmen and women walk with a bit of a stoop this time of year.
This is all somewhat surprising at a time when Americans are increasingly turning away from print products like newspapers and magazines and shopping circulars in favor of online options. Some people consider holiday catalogs to be little more than fancy junk mail.
Product catalogs have been around for a century or more. Sears and Montgomery Ward department stores began sending them out in the late 1800s. This Sears Christmas catalog is 1970s vintage.
But companies keep sending out expensive catalogs because studies show that a lot of us look forward to leafing through them, much as we used to love peering into festive department-store windows.
While Americans are buying more and more merchandise online or on the telephone, it's often the colorful printed catalogs that send us there.
The Journal estimates that holiday catalogs consume about 80 billion tons of paper. That's roughly 3 percent of all the paper produced in the country each year. And advocacy groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund have estimated that the energy used to produce all the holiday catalogs could power one million homes for a year.
The retailers who make and mail catalogs at an average cost of one dollar apiece say they'd love to use more recycled paper, but it's difficult to make the catalogs' thin, glossy pages from recycled pulp. And don't forget, they add, the millions of dollars they spend on postage each holiday season help keep the U.S. Postal Service in business!
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.