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Old Argos books are a fascinating snapshot of our past

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Want to spend a few minutes – or hours – wallowing in retail nostalgia, to travel back in time to an era before smartphones, Xboxes and the internet?

Well thanks to great fun website called ‘Retromash’, you can do just that, by browsing online through vintage copies of a British retail institution – the Argos catalogue.

Earlier this year, Argos announced it would no longer be printing paper copies of its twice-yearly catalogue, instead relying on its more versatile (and cost-effective) website. For generations of British shoppers, taking a trip to town to collect the new Argos catalogue and then trawling through its glossy pages was something of a ritual, maybe even a guilty pleasure.

For children it became an invaluable aid to compiling their Christmas list (though Argos has still produced a Christmas ‘mini-catalogue’ this year). More than just a catalogue, it highlighted the latest trends, fashions and developments in all manner of consumer goods, with vintage copies now viewed as important social history documents.

‘Retromash’ – a website devoted to objects from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and the memories they evoke ­– has a whole section devoted to old Argos catalogues, starting with the very first one in 1973 and going right through to 1999. The website curators have managed to source most of the Argos catalogues from those three decades and painstakingly ‘digitise’ them so their joyously nostalgic pages can be viewed online. Work continues to fill the few remaining gaps.

The technology allows you to ‘turn’ each page just as you would with the original paper product, and to zoom in on items which catch your eye. You’ll find yourself transported back in time and constantly exclaiming “We had one of those!”, or even “I’ve still got that!”.

You can access this marvellous online depository by clicking here, then clicking on the  ‘View on Issuu’ button for the catalogue edition you want. Once browsing a particular catalogue, you can view it fullscreen and ‘zoom in’ for a close-up look. You’ll soon get the hang of it.

The back cover of the first 1973 catalogue shows there were just 17 Argos shops at that time, mostly in and around London. But it also advertises three more ‘coming soon’ and makes the promise that “Argos shops are springing up all over”. So let’s take a quick look at some of the products available to buy in the tantalising pages of that very first catalogue from almost half a century ago.

On page 11 you could buy a new Kodak Instamatic camera outfit, complete with film cartridge and ‘Magicube’ flash, for the ‘Argos Price’ of £8.35. For the more dedicated snapper, the latest Canon 35mm film camera would set you back £135, with a wide range of slide projectors also on offer.

There were just three TV sets available from Argos, but a new Pye colour model with an 18-inch screen would cost you £165, while a Philips black and white 12-inch portable was just £52.95. By contrast, there were pages and pages of radios, record players and ‘stereograms’, not to mention the new-fangled tape cassette decks.

In lighting, a teak finish standard lamp with gold-trimmed shade was a snip at £6.95, while a few pages later you could buy a Sunhouse electric fire with realistic glowing coal effect for a tad under £35. Art lovers were spoilt for choice on page 57 with a tempting selection at bargain prices in the ‘Prints for Pleasure’ section, but budding mathematicians would have to fork out a very hefty £59 for a new Hanimex electronic pocket calculator. The Emblem Slide Rule was cheaper, at £1.55.

A Hoover De Luxe Cleaner would keep your psychedelic ’70s carpets spick and span for £28.25, or you could save on electricity by choosing from the 14 different manual carpet sweepers, priced from £2.55. In the kitchen, a Russell Hobbs chrome-plated automatic electric kettle was yours for £6.10 while the compact Kenwood Chefette food mixer was £11.45. A delightful floral-patterned enamelled steel cookware range included the must-have matching fondue set.

1970s crockery was wondrous to behold, and would probably cost more now in the ‘retro kitsch’ section of the antique shop than it did back then, even allowing for inflation. Most of the jewellery, by contrast, seems fairly timeless in design, with the possible exception of men’s signet rings, medallions and identity bracelets.

How about an attractive tartan-patterned foldable shopping trolley or a matching pipe rack and ash tray set? You could choose from four styles of briar pipe to adorn your rack too, just £1.95 each. Digital watches were still too space age for the 1973 catalogue, but a chrome-plated Ingersoll pocket watch and chain was yours for £5.35.

DIY was all the rage in the self-sufficient ’70s, evidenced by eight pages of assorted hand and power tools, while home mechanics had an additional eight pages to pore over. There was lots of camping gear too, including a Lichfield four-berth canvas frame tent in a fetching shade of orange, presumably to match the Ecko plastic picnic set. Or you could stay home and work out in your new Fred Perry nylon track suit, flexing your biceps with the £10.75 Bullworker 2.

Finally, for the kiddies there was a huge range of toys and games, everything from Action Man and Tiny Tears doll to Space Hoppers and Etch-a-Sketch. Sadly, not an Xbox or PlayStation in sight.

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