So, I've been playing with US [email protected]
catalogs lately, and I've learned some stuff, and still have a bunch of questions. It's not one of those areas that seems terribly well documented in the hobbyist community, because, well, nobody really seems to care that much about them.
But for anyone interested, here's what I've learned, and what I'm still trying to find out (in case anyone knows more than I do, or has any extra info):
It apparently started in the US in 1979. Which... is sort of interesting because I can't seem to find any mention of the program until 1981! The 1981 "standard" US catalog has an order form for the service, as does the Parents' Guide. But the 1979 and 1980 catalogs that I can find make no mention of it. So... what were they doing in 1979 and 1980? Twiddling their thumbs waiting for orders to come in? Obviously they must have advertised their existence somewhere, but I can't find anything. But I'm left wondering-- how did people make their initial orders?
I DO have two order forms for 1980 (each slightly different), but since they're triple-folded, it looks like they were put in an envelope and mailed, rather than being included in (say) a large LEGO set. And since I haven't seen any mention of them anywhere, I assume they probably weren't included by default in any sets, and were requested specifically by mail.
The service was initially called "Spare Parts" or "Spare Parts Service", and was apparently more formally named the "Mail Order Service" in 1982. This lasted until 1988, when the name "Shop At Home" started getting used instead.
These started off offering more-or-less just the accessory and supplementary sets like roof bricks, Technic gears, battery boxes, etc. However, somewhere between 1983 and 1987, they began offering stranger things-- in particular things that couldn't be found in the US normally, like the #6067
Guarded Inn, or #6023
Maiden's Cart (typically not available at retail in the US)-- but also a VERY limited selection of mainstream sets as well. And by 1992 (possibly by 1991, I don't know), they had more-or-less the full retail assortment available.
Also, it looks like most of the catalogs were initially "by request only"-- included when asked for, or possibly included in a delivery of LEGO from the service. However, in appears that by 1989 (quite probably in 1988), they started pro-actively mailing catalogs out to "known" LEGO buyers.
Mailings would vary every year in terms of timing, but typically would have:
"January" - (the default in 1988 or 1989)
"Holiday" - starting in 1989 or 1990 (BrickLink claims there's a 1989 version, but the cover is oddly identical)
"Spring" - started in 1992
"Summer" - started in 1992
"Fall" - started in ... 1999?
The "Fall" one is an oddity. I got on LEGO's radar in summer of 1995, and received catalogs ever since. We seem to have a more-or-less complete collection of [email protected]
catalogs from then onward, and my first "Fall" catalog is from 1999. BrickLink, however, lists them as early as 1996, despite not having any cover art available, and nobody having any for sale. I have pretty good reason to believe that our collection is very thorough for about 1997-2003 (ish), so I suspect that the 1996-1998 "fall" Shop At Home catalogs on BrickLink are probably invalid entries in the database. But I'm happy to be proven wrong if anyone has an example to the contrary!