Products Then and Now … From 1960 to 2017

I recently found a 1960 wholesale catalog from First Distributors at 4204 W. North Ave, Chicago at a garage sale. I have no idea how long they were in business, but I became fascinated with the pictures and ads in this quaint catalog. They sold practically everything and also had a showroom! It’s hard to tell from the catalog whether anyone could buy wholesale from First Distributors or whether it was intended for retailers – this is not explicitly stated. The catalog is reminiscent of Sears and Wards vintage catalogs, with less clothing and the added feature of wholesale pricing. They sold everything from lawn mowers to patio furniture, sporting goods to humidifiers, toys to scuba equipment, tires, jewelry, vitamins specifically for teenagers, lingerie, clothes, and yes, even the kitchen sink. In this catalog, they offered two nifty all-in-one refrigerator, range, and sink models – a great solution for tiny apartments! I thought it would be intriguing to select a few products from this catalog, circa 1960 and see how they compare to modern products, circa 2017.

All in One Sink

Recording Devices



Nano Voice Recorder

Most people younger than 65 probably never saw a dictaphone in action, while the youngest Baby Boomers only heard of them! The word Dictaphone is trademarked (like Kleenex and Band-Aid), but has been incorporated in the English language to indicate any dictation machine. Surprisingly, Dictaphone, the American company founded by Alexander Graham Bell, is still in business, but now it is part of Nuance Communications. Reel-to-reel tapes were bulky and inconvenient – the one above is advertised as portable at 11.25 pounds! They were gradually replaced with compact cassette, mini-cassette, and microcassette devices. First available in the 1990’s, pocket-sized digital voice recorders store sound on computer memory chips without moving parts. The sleek little Nano Voice Recorder pictured above is $79.00.


Printing/Copying Machines



Canon All in One Copier PrinterThe first true mechanical copier was manufactured in 1780 by James Watt, the inventor of the modern steam engine. These early copying presses became a staple in offices for nearly a century. Beginning in the late 1800’s, the typewriter and carbon paper made them obsolete for awhile. When the first Xerox machine was introduced in 1959, it revolutionized the copying industry. Keep in mind it was the size of two washing machines, weighed nearly 650 pounds, and would sometimes spontaneously burst into flames. The Print-O-Matic looks fairly archaic, although 6,000 copies an hour is incredibly impressive for a 1960 home printing machine! Interestingly, the Xerox DocuColor iGen3, introduced in 2001, a digital printing system operating xerographically also produced 6,000 copies an hour, albeit full-color, 8-1/2- by 11-inch offset-quality impressions.  Of course it was not intended for home use.

Today’s relatively inexpensive all-in-one home printer copier scanners do a decent job, but are not meant for bulk copying or printing. The printers themselves may be inexpensive, but you’ll end up spending far more on inkjet cartridges. I’ve had three Canon models in recent years – two of them failed after just 2-3 years and now you cannot buy one with a slide/negative scanner, which was a nice feature.

Bathroom Scales


Vintage Health-O-Meter Scales

Health-O-Meter Scales


Health o meter scales have been around since 1919. Their professional scales are the healthcare industry’s leading brand. Personally, I’d love to own one of the circa 1960 scales – I remember my Aunt Dottie had a pink one in her modest bungalow in Akron. They aren’t accurate but I love the way they look. The first platform scales used for weighing humans were invented around 1830. After the Civil War, scales were used at carnivals and fairs to guess a patron’s weight. The first bathroom scales were quite heavy and impractical, however, by the 1930’s, Health o meter was marketing less expensive, smaller scales to consumers. While designs have become sleeker over the years, you can still buy basic dial scales by Health o meter and other brands.


Indoor Exercise Bikes


Battle Creek Exercise Bike

Life Fitness Kaiser M3

Indoor exercise bikes have come a long way since their introduction in the late 19th century. In 1965, Schwinn marketed its first home stationary bike called the Exerciser, which looked more like modern-day versions than the Battle Creek Health Bike, circa 1960. My dad bought a no-frills home exercise bike in the late 1950s and it stood in our basement until the mid-1970s. The Life Fitness bike pictured above is used in spin classes, although you can buy it for home use. The major difference is contemporary bikes are ergonomically designed and as such, are far more comfortable. Bicycling enthusiasts from the late 1800’s would be astonished by the sight of 40+ people in skimpy clothing cycling feverishly to music in spin classes!




Oster Humidifier


The Oster humidifier looks a lot like a traditional vaporizer used when you have a common cold, especially with the mask attachment. The two terms are often used synonymously and they are closely related. I associate modern-day humidifiers with adding moisture to the air and traditional vaporizers for medicinal purposes. Steam vaporizers boil water so they have inherent dangers, especially for children – my college roommate suffered terrible burns on her foot and leg from one of these vaporizers as a young child. Basic types of humidifiers include steam, impeller, ultrasonic, and wick/evaporative. This intriguing visual timeline of humidifiers goes back to the 1930’s. These days, humidifers are so attractive they often look like modern sculptures – a far cry from the console humidifiers that looked like clunky pieces of furniture!


Space Heaters


Vintage Portable Heaters

Portable Heaters

Like humidifiers, space heaters have made leaps and bounds aesthetically in the last 60 years. The campfires our ancestors made 1.5 million years ago were brought inside caves and dwellings at some point. The first ancient space heaters can be traced back to 2,500 B.C. Greece. The fireplace we recognize today was first invented in the 1600s in France. Electric heaters were considered groundbreaking when they were introduced by General Electric in the 1890’s, although they were not portable. Post-World War II saw rapid advances in electric heater technology and many oil-filled models were available to consumers. Follow safety precautions if you use a space heater inside your home!

Hair Dryers


Dominion Hair Dryer

Electric Hair Dryer

Dyson Hair Dryer


Does anyone remember using bonnet hair dryers like the first two pictured above? My mom had one but it came in a round box rather than square. Although the first handheld blow dryer was invented in the 1920s, the technology didn’t see huge advances until the 1960s. I have no idea why my mom opted for the old-fashioned bonnet-type hair dryer, but I remember the first blow dryer we owned was a white Vidal Sassoon. It lasted for a good 20 years before biting the dust. I recently saw the Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer in person and although it is magnificent, I cannot imagine blowing $400 on a hair dryer!


Electric Shavers


Norelco Speedshaver

Philips-Norelco Wet-Dry Shaver


Colonel Jacob Schick patented his dry electric shaver on May 13, 1930 and incorporated his company Schick Dry Shaver, Inc. the same year. The early electric razor was not as popular as Schick hoped, but he opened a factory in Stamford, Connecticut which employed 100 people. New models were introduced and the business grew. Philips started making Norelco electric shavers in 1939, however, production was delayed until 1948 due to World War II. In 1940, Schick Dry Shaver Inc. was incorporated in Delaware as Rainbow, Inc. and the name was changed to Schick, Inc. in 1946. In 1981, Norelco took over factory operations. The 1960 Speedshaver looks quite innovative with similar rotary blades as today’s Norelco shavers. Three-rotary blade heads were introduced by Norelco in 1966, although today’s shavers are very lightweight in comparison.

Home Massagers


Nadco Deluxe Massager


Tens Unit


The basic practice of body massage emerged in India around 3000 BC and between 3000 and 2500 BC in Egypt and China. Many weird electrical devices cropped up in the late 19th and early 20th century – medical quackery rather than legitimate massaging devices for sore muscles. Pelvic massages were a routine part of most Victorian doctors’ routines – used to cure women’s hysteria and other ailments. Many people will recognize the iconic deluxe belt massager pictured above, purported to tone jiggly muscles – it has been spoofed numerous times!

Electric stimulation of the muscles became popular within the new field of physiotherapy during the 1920’s in America and Europe. Today, tiny transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) devices weigh just a few ounces versus the heavy handheld Oster massage devices pictured above. TENS units are available in hundreds of different models for a relatively inexpensive cost compared to just a few years ago. Despite its widespread use and popularity, this type of therapy seems to be based on individual experience rather than scientific evidence.

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