Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Whole Earth Catalog

In honor of Earth Day, I thought I'd talk about the Whole Earth Catalog. I first learned about the Catalog in grad school, when it was assigned as part of our reading list for a class about the history of 20th-century craft. If you're not lucky enough to have access to a paper copy of the Catalog (and it really is amazing to flip through), you can view much of it online, including entire issues, at the Whole Earth website.

Published from 1968 until 1972 (and intermitently afterwards) by Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog existed to provide "access to tools". It sold pretty much everything you could think of (and then some).
As stated, "An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:

1. Useful as a tool,
2. Relevant to independent education,
3. High quality or low cost,
4. Not already common knowledge,
5. Easily available by mail."

The Catalog was very much in line with the back to the land mentality of the time, and as you can imagine, there was some pretty amazing stuff in it. If you were looking for a yurt, this was the place to find one. Or buckskin. Or a book about communicating with dolphins. Or instructions for building a Finnish sauna. Or a meditation cushion.
The items were listed by category (with examples from the 1968 and 1969 Catalogs):

1. Understanding Whole Systems (Buckminster Fuller, Surface Anatomy, The Year 2000)
2. Shelter and Land Use (Tipis, Organic Gardening, Architectural Design)
3. Industry and Craft (Industrial Design, Miners Catalog, A Sculptor's Manual)
4. Communications (Auto Repair Manual, Modern Business Forms, Intellegent Life in the Universe)
5. Community (The Modern Utopian, The Realist, Land for Sale)
6. Nomatics (The Survial Book, L.L. Bean, Trout Fishing in America)
7. Learning (700 Science Experiments for Everybody, Self Hypnotism, The I Ching)
You can read some more about Stewart Brand in this article, published in this past week's New York Times Magazine.
Hope you find this as interesting as I did!

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