Cataloging Hammacher Schlemmer’s long history of great inventions

NILES, Ill. -- In its 169th year, Hammacher Schlemmer gave WGN News a peek inside its innovative world for a look at what the cataloger has done and how it's impacted consumers for generations.

Hammacher Schlemmer has evolved with the times, stayed true to its identity and paved the way for some of the greatest inventions of our time.

Alfred Hammacher and William Schlemmer were two hardworking Germans who opened the store in New York City and carried products as unique as the store's name. The year was 1848 and business was good.

"In the 1880's hardware was on velvet, being presented on velvet like you were at a jewelry store,” says Stephen Farrell, Director of Merchandising. “The sales clerks wore gloves to present the items."

40 years later, they started a catalog and it is still mailed out today 19 times a year, making it the longest running cataloger still in business today.

The high end hardware store eventually got into home goods and was the best in barware, kitchen appliances and fine furniture.

With time, innovation led the way and left its mark.

There is a "Wall of Firsts" at the company's headquarters now in Niles, Illinois and it lays out many of the products Hammacher Schlemmer first brought to market.  Products we still rely on today like the pop up toaster, the electric blender and the microwave oven.

Even the outrageous is included. In 1955 that meant the first electric toothbrush, and decades later, the first flying car.

The merchant today is proud of its many firsts but is also keenly aware of the items that finished last like remote control mistletoe.

And speaking of the holidays, there is height adjusting Christmas tree coming out this Fall. Today, it’s in Hammacher Schlemmer's test lab, also in Niles.  The lab is simply called “The Institute.” There a team of independent testers grind, shoot, even toast over and over again so, they say, shoppers get the very best money can buy.

"All we care about is the quality. That's all that is important," Farrell says. "Last year we turned down about 40% of the tests that we did."

From the everyday to the eclectic, this year the team are feverishly testing commuter cups, virtual reality goggles, heated vests, and juicers.

One of the coolest jobs at Hammacher is the image and whimsy buyer. He is the guy who travels the world looking for the extraordinary, the far-fetched, the unthinkable invention or problem solver that usually comes with a high price tag.

With a company this old, the 60 employees who work here feel a great responsibility with each catalog that goes out. Shoppers from years past include presidents, queens and the biggest names in Hollywood.

With just one brick and mortar store in New York, over 60% of its business is now done online. Still the catalog and its reputation live on with company headquarters in Niles.

“Our brand is not about bragging … when you've been around since 1848, you don't have to walk a walk- you already have it," Farrell says.