Life Lessons From Sharper Image Catalogs

If you're wondering what happened to The Sharper Image, America's one-stop shop for overpriced junk, this sad tête-à-tête from their website sums it up nicely:

Q. What happened to the Sharper Image retail stores?
A. All Sharper Image retail stores have closed.

After filing for bankruptcy in 2008, the gadget emporium was acquired by a joint venture firm that now operates its website and has nothing to do with the original retailer. In other words, The Sharper Image as you or I know it is dead.

All that remains are old catalogs, and inside each of these is a precious glimpse into a bygone era when we all blissfully teetered on the edge of catastrophic consumer stupidity. The following products were all sold in Sharper Image catalogs from 1987 to 1989 and they each teach us a valuable lesson about what life was like back then.

Man-Sized Dolls Were Your Only Defense Against Rampant Crime

The 1980s were so dangerous, if you didn't have a large man by your side at all times, an 18-wheeler would appear out of nowhere and smash you into smithereens. That scenario serves as catalog copy for Gregory, a "burly six-footer" whose "stern appearance is no accident":

"His rugged cleft chin, square-set jaw, firm expression, and broad shoulders telegraph to criminals that this is a man to avoid." Men want to be this doll, women want to be with this doll.

Some notable features of the $500 mannequin:
-Gregory has no lower legs.
-Gregory can be "changed with cosmetics to any age or race." It should be noted that, in his original state, he looks like a six-foot white baby.
-Like all us real macho men, he is "also available unclothed."
-You can "garb him in sports, casual, or business attire...or put him in a tux for formal occasions." This Gregory didn't get the memo, and showed up to a ritzy new year's celebration in a turtleneck:

Ideally, Piping-Hot Coffee Was Groin Adjacent

The dilemma: You bought great tickets to a San Francisco 49ers game, but you were up all night watching The Pat Sajak Show and need three quarts of coffee to stay awake.

The solution: The Sit N Sip, a seat cushion that stores and insulates three quarts of your favorite hot beverage and dispenses it from a spout placed in between your legs. An invention so simple and elegant, nothing could possibly go wrong to the person using it.

Americans Spent Most of Their Lives Rewinding VHS Tapes

Make that copy of Beaches haul ass with the AutoWinder, a machine that rewinds video cassettes and, uh, looks like a car. The catalog boasts that it "rewinds a two-hour movie in just under four minutes" and "saves your VCR from unnecessary wear and tear." Think of the money you're throwing away by not rewinding your VHS tapes in a tiny plastic car.

Cell Phones Were Important, But Only Because They Made You Look Rich

The Sharper Image was prescient enough to foresee the cellular phone boom, but too status-obsessed to profit on it with anything other than a fake antenna that you put on your car to make people think you were rich.

"Drive to class reunions with this new Phone-E antenna on your car," the catalog's description states, "and even Mr. Most-Likely-To-Succeed will be envious. Everyone will assume you have a cellular phone—the mark of success in the 80s." And if you're worried about someone breaking into your car to steal your rich-person's radio, I know a guy named Gregory who's not to be messed with.

Robots Body Shamed You

Stepping on a scale can be a humiliating experience, but with the Weight Talker II, it's a humiliating experience narrated by a disappointed robot. The scale uses a "pleasant male voice," giving you the terse Ukrainian gymnastics coach you never knew you wanted.

But Getting in Shape Was Easy

"Hello, this is Stetson. No, I can talk, I'm just working out and reading about my stocks. Yes, I too can't wait to see what kind of trouble Alf gets into next. Alright, nice speaking with you, President Reagan."

Toddlers Were Rich Jerks

Little Colby here just had a five martini lunch and he's speeding back to work in his Porsche so he can fire your ass before heading up to the Hamptons.

fun

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Costco Is Now Selling a $20 Cheese Flight

Costco
Costco

Whether or not you know why Costco employees check receipts at the exit or have a handle on all the perks the company offers, there's one thing about Costco you probably do know: In addition to getting awesome deals there, you can also get more unusual things like huge tubs of Nutella and mac and cheese—and now, you can add a cheese flight to that list.

Cosmopolitan recently reported that Costco Deals, an Instagram account “not associated with Costco Corp,” posted a photo of Kirkland Signature Cheese Flight, Variety Pack.

“Now a new summer cheese flight is available! Only $19.99! These sell out fast and seem to be in select stores! Grab it if you see it! This was found in NW Region,” the Instagram post reads.

That’s right—for less than $20, customers can buy a total of 1.8 pounds of fancy cheeses in one package: Yellow Door Creamery, Tuscan Hand-Rubbed Fontina, Jasper Hill Farm Cabot Clothbound Mature Bandage Cheddar, El Pastor Spanish Red Wine Soaked Goat, Busti Il Tartufo Pecorino Toscana (white truffles from Italy), and Yellow Door Creamery Monteau Alpine (aged for 150 days). Three of the cheeses are made from cow's milk, one from goat's milk, another from sheep’s milk, and four of them don’t contain the rBGH hormone.

Instead of paying a lot of money to get a wine-and-cheese flight or charcuterie board at a wine bar, you can now DIY a cheese-wine flight at home. The packaging even describes what kinds of wines and beers you should pair the cheeses with. For instance, the alpine goes well with pinot noir, champagne, and a hoppy or amber beer. (Luckily, Costco is also known for its affordable booze selection.)

The post has more than 3000 likes and almost 400 comments, so there’s a chance your local Costco might be out of this life-changing product. But while you’re looking for Costco deals, they have Eggo Waffles, boots, head boards, plants, and non-wine-soaked string cheese on sale, too.

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