During a recent bout of basement-cleaning, I came across two nearly mint copies of the legendary J.C. Whitney & Co. mail order catalog. These were from 1979 and were mixed in with a bunch of old papers from my first year of college. The fact that they seem to be nearly un-read is indicative of the fact that by the Fall of 1979 I was moving on to other pursuits where I’d have much less time – at least for a while – to pore over these catalogs. Thus, finding them again after a 41 year absence inspired more than a little reflection on how the world has changed over what has now been very nearly my entire adult life.
As you no doubt know from personal experience or as a follower of vehicular legend, the J.C. Whitney catalog – or “book” as it was also called on the spine of the 200 page, magazine-bound, publication – was a digest of automotive weirdness that made its way every several weeks from 1917-19 Archer Avenue Chicago, IL to your very own mailbox. Back then, once you got on their mailing list, the publication would tend to follow you around pretty much eternally. The copies that came to my house were actually addressed to my dad as he was the one who had originally purchased something from them – probably Simca 1000 brake parts or maybe roof rack rails for the 1961 Plymouth wagon – six addresses and at least a dozen years before the 1979 issue that I’m showing here.
We actually seldom ordered anything from J.C. Whitney, but for me at least ordering was never really the point. Rather, it was simply reading.
Note that I said “automotive weirdness”. Yes, sure, to address the obvious, J.C. Whitney probably served some people as a mail order source of more or less traditional auto parts.
In a typical 1970s-era 200 page catalog, there were a dozen or so pages of parts listings for stuff ranging from gaskets to brake shoes to camshafts. Remember (or know) that this was in the days before there was a well-stocked AutoZone, Advance Auto, or O’Reilly’s on nearly every corner. If one wanted access to the “World’s Largest Selection of Automotive Parts” – as the book cover assured you – the J.C. Whitney catalog was the only real game in town. It was equivalent to the Sears (“Where America Shops”) catalog, but only for vehicle parts. And it was all right there at your fingertips with a Postage Paid order blank.
Postage, like the charges for long distance telephone calls, was a BIG deal back then…trust me. So right from the get-go you were assured that J.C. Whitney was going to save you money. This point would be hammered repeatedly on nearly every page.
But really, regular auto parts are not why we’re here, and they’re certainly not why I was a devoted reader of J.C.’s book. No, it was always the “Accessories” that caught my eye, and I think these best showcase the ways in which J.C. Whitney was so reflective of its time.
Here’s a good ad to start with. What the heck? says 2021-me. A little Internet reading indicates that these devices were popular in the 1950s through at least the 70s and that there was “little chance” that they could wind up filling your tire with a fuel/air mixture.
Still, I wonder about the wisdom of running the engine on 3, 5 or 7 cylinders for any extended amount of time (particularly 3) that it might take to inflate a tire…or “spray paint” as some other ads mentioned. I don’t know, maybe someone here has tried one of these things or remembers someone who bought one.
A very popular J.C. Whitney item – as judged by the number of listings in each catalog for similar products –was pretty much anything that could be “sprayed-on”.
Versions of both of these products are still sold, but I suspect that modern users who believe that they “stop rust cold” are relatively far and few between. Still, in 1979, when cars seemed to come from the factory pre-rusted, the idea that you could get something out of a spray can that would result in rust-proofing was pretty magical.
Likewise, the combination of making something not-so-new look bright and shiny “again” – “for just pennies” — was clearly a pitch that resonated with J.C. Whitney’s intended customer.
Plus, it was the 70s. Know, young Padawan, that this was a time when there was very little good that couldn’t be made better by putting it into a spray can; much to the dismay of the planet’s ozone layer.
Inherent in all of the spray-on rust-proofing/rust-repair products throughout the catalog is the idea that the J.C. Whitney customer could get something valuable for much less money than he ever knew was possible. Aside from this likely being actually true – just look at those prices! – the whole J.C. Whitney pitch seems targeted at a combination of Depression-era austerity (“You don’t need to spend MONEY on THAT!”) and the then-growing distrust of “The Man”. In both cases, the subtext is that there exists a “THEY” who are just waiting for the next rube to come along and spend money on something that he ought to be able to get for less or (even better) via some kind of McGyvered alternative that only the well-initiated could know about.
This does beg the question if the “They” in this case was the same “they” that according to the Snack Mate ad thought up the idea of producing spray cheese. But when it came to cheese, I guess “they” were ok. Oh…it’s just so confusing.
While our current culture is still somewhat distrustful of The Man (who is just as likely to be a woman, now), we seem to have generally fewer problems with spending money. Maybe this is because we seem to have a whole lot more of it now. Or maybe it’s because the Depression-era folks are largely no longer with us. I’ll leave that for another discussion, elsewhere.
So, a certain celebration of thrift was definitely at the core of many J.C. Whitney products as was the case in much of the general culture of the time. But it’s still worth noting that sometimes the penny-pinching thing went to extremes.
That’s right, “saves you money” on oil filters! Boy howdy don’t you just hate the high cost of oil filters? Well, say no more! This product is clearly for you, Scrooge McDuck (or Mr. Krabs, if you’re from a later cartoon generation).
Don’t tell anyone. It’ll be our secret. Us and the other enlightened readers of the J.C. Whitney catalog. And not only will you be saving your hard-earned Simoleans by sticking it to those crooks at Fram, Bosch, etc.….but you’ll also be using the best-known filtering material available ANYWHERE. Bet you thought it was for something else altogether. Well, now you know. Not that THEY would ever tell you.
Guess what? In 2021, you can still buy toilet paper oil filters. There’s a company selling them online, helpfully named the Toilet Paper Oil Filter Company. Amsoil even has a page devoted to the pros and cons of these devices. This page hints at one of the main drawbacks of the TP filter. That being the use of toilet paper that is engineered just fine for … you know … but not necessarily up to the tolerances sufficient for insertion into your engine’s oil-flow. All of this I was able to discover through a few minutes of online searching. Unfortunately, in 1979 (not to mention the 1950s when ads for this thing probably first started running) Tim Berners-Lee was barely out of college and thus there wasn’t a WWW, and therefore 1979-me would have nothing to rely upon except for the tiny type in the J.C. Whitney catalog. Well, maybe I could turn to Goober down at Wally’s…who’d likely be just as happy to let me slowly starve my engine of oil due to poorly engineered toilet paper. There’s good money in doing rebuilds.
The inquiring J.C. Whitney catalog reader/customer might ask how come if toilet paper is so superior to the oil filter his car came with, then how come toilet paper filters had to be purchased as an after-market accessory? Well, weren’t you reading? It’s a SECRET. Sheesh. This is of course on top of the fact that only chumps and those entirely cowed by the oil-filter-industrial-complex buy over-priced parts and supplies from dealers. Come on…after market is the BEST market!
Didn’t spring for the rear window defroster? Heck, for under $10 you can get a stick-on one that looks like it’s factory equipped! Take THAT Detroit!
Car doesn’t already have a snazzy – “sports car styled” – luggage rack? J.C. gives you options! You can either drill a bunch of holes in your car to achieve the proper effect, or if that’s more work than you’re up to, you can get a suction-cup mounted one. Either way, they’re sparking-chrome and rust-proof. Of course, the same probably can’t be said of your car after you’re done driving it around a couple of winters with dozens of extra holes drilled in the trunk lid or roof.
Well, there’s probably something in a spray can that can take care of that when the time comes.
Of course I have to give due to the iconic J.C. Whitney (although there are so very many contenders for what can be considered “iconic” J.C. Whitney) line of after-market horns. This two-page spread should cover all of your Yelp-Yelp-Yelp, Ah-OOO-GAH and Hollywood Wolf-Whistle needs.
Finally, the mid-to-late 70s catalogs also reflected some of the key geo-political issues of concern at the time. I’m referring to the “gas crises” of 1973 and 1979.
For those too young to have lived through those years in the U.S., it’s hard to convey the complete shock, panic, and dismay that these events launched upon the American driving public…and society in general given the auto-centric culture that was post-war America. The seemingly overnight (in 1973) rise in at-the-pump prices from around 25 cents per gallon to over 50 cents simply blew peoples’ minds. Plus the virtual rationing (based on odd/even digits in your license plates) initiated in the Fall of ’73 fell upon a population that still vividly recalled — and therefore feared — full-fledged gas rationing during WWII. Except that time, gas rationing had come linked with a national commitment to fight Nazis and the folks who had bombed Pearl Harbor. Weren’t we done with this 31 years later in 1973??
And it all happened again in 1979!
Whether based in reality or not – I’d say “not” by my own experience at the time – the popular culture therefore became quite concerned about “gas thieves”. People desperate enough to go to the effort to suck the precious commodity out of your gas tank instead of shelling out an outrageous 50 cents a gallon to buy it on their own. Of course J.C. Whitney had a solution for that!
This was part of an overall increased awareness of the fact that many cars at the time were woefully unprepared to thwart miscreants. Typically, gas fillers were accessible to anyone with a hand to turn the gas cap, and hoods could be opened by anyone who wanted pull the little lever behind the grill. Inside hood releases or gas cap locks? What? You can’t trust your fellow man?
Anticipating the total collapse of social order, J.C. Whitney & Co. had your back; well before automakers typically made these features standard.
Although I do need to point out that the shifty dude in that particular piece of catalog art is most likely going to get taken care of by Darwinism before the cops get to him. Smoking while siphoning is probably not on the list of Gas Thieves’ Best Practices.
(And yes, that seems to maybe be a Pontiac – certainly not a VW – in the “For Volkswagen” ad. I have no idea if this was noticed in 1979.)
There you have it. Everything eventually comes together and popular culture is the virtual basement in which all of these old things pile up layer upon layer. Sometimes it helps to reflect upon the layers, as they often don’t look too much different from some of the other things we’ve yet to send down the basement.
Until it faded away, the J.C. Whitney catalog-book was an excellent reflection of popular attitudes and concerns related the day-to-day conditions of buying, owning, and maintaining vehicles; and in turn, it simply says a lot about what was important to its readers.
I suspect that many other CC readers have their own recollections of J.C. Whitney. This might particularly be the case if one were into Jeeps, VWs, or vans at the time as the catalog had whole sections devoted to accessories and parts for those.
Personally, my first J.C. Whitney purchase was actually several years after 1979, and was related to car audio.
No, not the RCA Music Service – an unusual intrusion of a name-brand product into the J.C. Whitney catalog…and one where I had already taped my penny, gotten my six “free” albums, and then committed to buying “4 more hits” that I really didn’t want for a price I couldn’t afford within the next three years — but rather something that supported a now equally archaic listening activity.
FM radio. My 1971 Buick (which I didn’t even get until 1980) had only an AM radio. This little add-on – attached with double-sided sticky tape since I didn’t at the time have a drill that could penetrate the Buick’s lower dash — kinda-sorta brought the Buick’s sound system into an era that went well beyond the talk-radio and non-stop 1950s music that AM had become by 1980.
Thanks to J.C. Whitney, I joined the “fantastic world of FM listening” and vastly improved the audio experience that Buick had given my car from the factory. More better, less money.
Who wouldn’t want that?
All J.C. Whitney scans are from the 1979 issue 383B, direct from my basement to these pages.