Guest Post: Cataloguing the Catalogue

Cosmin Dszurdsza is a research assistant at The Life of Words.

In my last guest post I discussed problematic magazine classifications. Now, once again, a periodical publication proves to be an exciting and difficult genre identification challenge. The kind of text I will be dealing with today is the “catalogue” (filtered out of our data using the catal. identifier).

# OED quotations with “Catal.” in the title, by decade.

The word is attested in OED2 as early as 1460 to refer to a (figurative) list, or register: “the Cataloge of Popes”. In our work, though, we are mostly dealing with the modern catalogue (see graph), which tends to be commercial. Hand in hand with the growth of the free market and the proliferation of the printing press, businesses sought to expand their operations and sweep up broader and larger swathes of potential consumers. This is where the mail-order catalogue comes in.

It was businessman Pryce Jones of Wales who first took “advantage of the national postage service and began the first ever mail order business” in 1861 (BBC). Soon the idea reached the shores of North America. Luxury retailer Tiffany’s adopted the model, sending out regular catalogues to its customers. Montgomery Ward followed in 1872. The catalogue reached Canada in 1884 with the publication of the iconic Eaton’s Catalogue (four years ahead of Sears, fwiw).

Since catalogues of this kind are likely places to find, in print, new names for new things, it’s not surprising that the mail-order catalogue encompasses the bulk of the catal. quotations in OED. But that title label also appears in works of other kinds of genres (mostly ranging within the documentary register).

So what should a “catalogue” be, for our purposes? As always, we can begin with the OED definition:

  1. A list, register, or complete enumeration; in this simple sense now Obs. or arch. (OED)

This definition covers one of the two most frequent kinds of texts with catal. in the title. It would have been great to simply mark all of these as “lists”, but genre tagging is never as simple as that! OED definition 2:

  1. Now usually distinguished from a mere list or enumeration, by systematic or methodical arrangement, alphabetical or other order, and often by the addition of brief particulars, descriptive, or aiding identification, indicative of locality, position, date, price, or the like. (OED)

In this definition the full documentary range of the catalogue comes to light. Using OED’s description as a starting point we can distil and elaborate several characteristics to apply to specific textual artefacts:

  1. Often periodical/seasonal.
  2. Systematic arrangement of contents
  3. Includes descriptions, illustrations, and/or other identifying information.
  4. Items may be various and very different from each other.
  5. For the purpose of purchasing or documenting.

The first difficulty which arises in the attempt to tag catalogues is the extent of characteristic 3. By this I mean that what separates a catalogue from a mere list is the amount of “descriptive or identifiable info”. For us, a “list” will contain very little to no descriptive information about an item, whereas a text used for elaborate documentation will.

Furthermore, the nature of the expository information might also alter the text’s categorization. If an item appears for the purpose of advertisement rather than simple description then the catalogue can even move out of the documentary register into the expository, and even the literary.

In my experience, the “mere list” catal. was a relatively easy kind of text to identify. Lists provide quick and easy ways for the OED to scoop up nouns and adjectives, so the OED quotations themselves were in many cases enough to make a determination. Here are a few examples where the OED has quoted listed items from catalogues:

  • Harrod’s General Catalogue (1917): “ Harrods Writing Pads. 100 Sheets.  1.  Large 8vo., Thick Cream Wove, Plain, 8×5.  O/6.” (quoted for writing-pad)
  • Heal & Son Catalogue (1930): “Twin Bedsteads in Limed Oak.” (quoted for limed)
  • Habitat 1977/78 Catalogue (1977): “Elgin schooner. For large sherries. 3½ oz.” (quoted for schooner)

Following this pattern of item followed by a short descriptor with some numerical value (weight, price, quantity, etc), we can make the reasonable determination that OED is pulling these quotations from lists.

But where do we draw the line in terms of exposition? Take this case for example: “A Catalogue of Books to be Sold by Auction”, found in The Harleian Miscellany  

This doesn’t, at a glance, look much like a “mere list”. But books of the period had long titles like these, and when we look up close we see that in fact each entry is numerically listed and contains only a single item, therefore sweeping the entire catalogue into the list genre.

The primary question here seems to be about exposition: when does something cease to be a list? Is it a measure of length or type of content? Is anything sequential—no matter how long—a list? This was a constant debate when trying to sort out certain catalogues that tested the definition of “list.” After inspecting several of these, we decided that any description beyond the immediate identifying details of the item would qualify as “other documentary”, rather than “list”.

Let us return to a catalogue of books as an example, but one of a different sort this time: A Catalogue of Superior Second-hand Books… (1888) by Henry Sotheran & Co.

The first bit of the entry is list-y, in the same way as the previous example. But just below, more information is provided that extends beyond what’s needed to identify the work. An argument could be made to call this work a list IF the OED was quoting the title/simple descriptor of the work, but since the quotation is pulled out of the longer expository portion, based on our categorization scheme this quote would extend outside of the bounds of the list.

The last distinction to be made in consolidating the categorization of catalogues is between documentary titles that don’t are more than mere lists and borderline expository texts. As we’ve discussed before, catalogue works are largely determined by the quantity of exposition provided in them, but what about questions of type of content?

One thing you find in catalogues that aren’t always a part of the cataloguing is ads. Although an entire genre to themselves, for our purposes they tend to live on the outskirts of the expository register (usually tagged “other expository”). Going just by OED quotations, advertisements can be tricky to spot. Often they only include the name of the product followed by a brief descriptor, which could easily be passed over as just another list. Primarily, it is through the style of the exposition where one can determine an advertisement from something else.

Ads tend to lean towards selling the item rather than describing it. Although the whole purpose of catalogues is to sell merchandise, advertisements are specifically tailored according to a specific rhetorical genre. Take this hair tonic advertisement from the 1897 Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue:

You can tell this is an ad when you see it, but when dealing with just the text alone we have to rely on other clues, like rhetorical questions or more imagistic language. For that reason, in some cases ads may even verge into “other literary”!

Ultimately catalogues are interesting textual artefacts that are quickly being scrapped in the dustbin of history. Dealing with them has illuminated how genre boundaries can be determined by characteristics such as expository length, description, and style. Yet, if anything, the OED’s interest in them proves their worth for intellectual study and more particularly for the development of genre theory as practised by us here at The Life of Words.



One Comment

  • D-AW wrote:

    What about Catal. Internat. Exhib. (most of the 1860s spike) or Fisheries Exhib. Catal. (most of the 1880s)?

    BTW the 1890s are dominated by M. Ward (296), Sears Roebuck (184), and Eatons (42).

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