American Inventions - Game 4, SMU

Neiman Marcus and its outlandish Christmas Book are two Dallas originals. - Joe Mabel, used with Creative Commons license

Nothing is more American than spending tons of money on useless stuff, making today's invention very American.

To mark the first season of basketball in the American Athletic Conference, we're featuring inventions that symbolize each of the other nine cities in the league, two inventions apiece. Here's the first invention we came up with for today's opponent, the SMU Mustangs.

INVENTION #4: THE NEIMAN MARCUS CHRISTMAS BOOK

Founded in Dallas in 1907, Neiman Marcus is a very upscale chain of department stores. The story of the founding is funny in itself. Abraham (Al) Neiman, his wife Carrie Marcus Neiman, and her brother Herbert had a very successful promotions business in Atlanta and when they decided to cash out, they had two offers. One was $25,000 in cash. The other was a stake in a "sugary soda pop business" in Missouri and Kansas. They chose the money, went back to Dallas, and established their store. The sugary soda pop business turned out OK, too. It was named Coca-Cola. But that's not what we're here to talk about.

Neiman Marcus survived a major fire in 1913 and reopened in its own building the next year, where the company's headquarters and flagship store still operate 100 years later. Al and Carrie had a falling out and divorced in the 1920s, and Herbert bought Al out of the company, which means for over 80 years there has been no Neiman in Neiman Marcus. Al's life ended up being quite the roller coaster, too. He amassed and lost more than one fortune and died penniless in 1970. But that's not what we're here to talk about, either.

In 1926, Neiman Marcus created a catalog of items to purchase as Christmas gifts. At the time, there was only one store, so it was simply a way to show off the company's regular wares to its best customers, and eventually to an audience outside of Dallas. The catalog didn't become famous for its lavish and over-the-top gifts until 1952, when Al and Carrie's son Stanley Marcus, now in charge of the company, was contacted by Edward R. Murrow to see what unusual Christmas gifts they might be offering. Right on the spot, Stanley came up with the gift of a live Black Angus bull, accompanied by a sterling silver barbecue cart, reasonably priced at $1,925. From then on, "fantasy gifts" became a staple of the Christmas Book, and the sky and the store's imagination were the limit.

Here are just a few of the crazy items Wikipedia has listed as being part of past Neiman Marcus Christmas Books:

  • His and hers hot air balloons ($6,850), offered in 1964
  • $10 live oak trees "for optimists" and a $588,247 Noah's ark with all the endangered species in the world aboard "for pessimists", offered in 1970
  • A 12 x 15 foot "privacy egg" built on site and stocked with whatever the customer desired ($80,000), offered in 1972
  • Napoleon Bonaparte's glasses ($90,000), offered in 1990
  • His and hers personalized action figures ($7,500), offered in 2002
  • Custom suit of armor ($20,000), offered in 2004
  • A Dallas Cowboys end zone in your backyard ($500,000), offered in 2008

The Christmas Book used to be a Christmas Catalog, but it was stolen out of mailboxes so often that a postmaster suggested Neiman Marcus make it a book and wrap it in plain paper. Today, if you don't have one mailed, you can purchase the book for $15 at a Neiman Marcus store during the holiday season, with the money being returned when you buy something from it.

The 2013 Christmas Book, which is unfortunately not online anymore, included such wild gifts as an $11,000 "ciclotte" exercise cycle; a $30,000 night for two and dinner for 12 in architect Philip Johnson's weekend residence; a 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante priced at $344,500; and my personal favorite, a falconry set for $150,000, complete with portable mew, custom trunk, 20-karat gold-plate perch, hand-sewn glove, and much, much more. There's a whole bunch of other insane stuff in the book as well, along with more ordinary items.

And that's what makes the Christmas Book perfect for our American Inventions series. Because what's more American (and specifically, more Dallas) than having a shit ton of money and spending it on the stupidest, most unnecessary stuff you can get your hands on? Nothing, that's what. Unless one of the 14 other inventions tops it. Which could easily happen, so keep reading.

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