Reading the Uline shipping supply catalog for pleasure
Last week a lot of creatives with Twitter accounts were pissed off at a shipping supplier. “Uline is run by garbage people,” said Oni Press’s Charlie Chu. “Friendship ended with ULINE. Now PAPERMART is best friend,” said artist Melty Buddy. “ULINE SUCKS!!!” said Bojack Horseman’s Lisa Hanawalt.
At least twice a year, Uline (a family-owned business with over 5,000 employees in three countries) sends its phone-book-sized catalog of shipping supplies to just about every business in America. That includes a lot of Etsy sellers, comic book authors, and independent artists—anyone who might need to put their work in the mail. And every Uline catalog contains a heartless political essay by company president Liz Uihlein, a major Republican donor and Trump advisor. Opinions like homeless people are scary and dumb proles shouldn’t vote. This time, she denounced health care reform, food stamps, and weed.
So if you don’t agree, don’t give Uline your money. But do read their catalog, which is otherwise a meditative pleasure.
First step, just rip out Liz’s essay. It’s painful, because once she unironically wrote “How many adults are up-to-date on the latest celebrity buzz, but have no idea what the price of a barrel of oil is?” and you’re going to miss out on that because that’s not the sort of pleasure we seek here. What we seek is nostalgia for the physical object, as practiced in classic art forms like Duchamp’s ready-mades, Kenji Kawakami’s chindogu, and Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl.
For your initial exploration, flip to any page. Pause, peruse. Flip again. On each page is something fascinatingly mundane, something you’ve only considered part of the surroundings, something other products came packaged in or trucked through or built by, now isolated and explored as a product itself, with specifications and varieties. Something like:
- Wrapping paper: Waxed, butcher, freezer, or “bogus”.
- Handicapped parking space stencils.
- Floor mats, in varieties like drainage, Superfoam, anti-fatigue, Cadillac, and Hog Heaven.
- Hair nets and beard nets.
- Staple hammers.
- The Mini Pak’r Air Cushion Machine, which inflates “25 feet of void fill per minute.” Repeat to yourself, “void fill.”
- Five-foot-high bags of industrial packing peanuts, pictured with human for scale.
- Gojo-brand foaming soaps. “Rich, creamy foam with the push of a button.”
- Those yellow bumpy rectangles on the edges of curbs.
- Strapping Protectors, which would make a great Power Rangers knockoff but are in fact the little corner pieces of fiberboard that protect box edges from the straps and ties, which would otherwise cut into them like a plastic bag handle cutting into a palm.
- Silent polypropylene: noiseless clear tape to “eliminate the warehouse racket.” Pictured with a worker taking a phone call while taping up a box.
Each listing includes a product name, a well-shot but straightforward photo, and a table of prices. There are always discounts for larger volumes. Some items are interesting in their particularity; others for the vast variety contained within a seemingly irreducible category: Reclosable bags include zipper bags, double zipper bags, slider-lock bags, drawstring bags, self-seal adhesive bags, leakproof bags, gusseted bags, in hundreds and hundreds of sizes. Very few items carry a brand name. Even cataloged and priced, they seem as anonymous and eternal as rocks.
For most of you this will be enough. For the devoted, it is appropriate to begin a cover-to-cover reading. Compare product colors and sizes: Cub Pink, Debbie Blue, Vogue Purple, Jumbo Lime. Get savvy to industry terms: carboys, frosty eurototes, heavy denier nylon. Gravity shelf bin organizers, slatwall gondola displays (“the workhorse of retail stores everywhere”). Stackable pallets, rackable pallets. The Tuscan smoker’s pole.
As a nerdchild, I hoarded brochures and bookmarks. I once received a baseball card case as a gift; I threw out the baseball cards and filled it with my collection of local business cards: contact info for roofers, accountants, and graphic designers. I developed a blank-notebook fetish that easily outpaced my writing. My favorite video game was the bookstore-simulation demo inside Excel, which came pre-loaded on a hand-me-down laptop from my aunt, along with a trial account for Compuserve. I’ve read other catalogs for pleasure, beyond the obvious clothing and furniture porn; I admired the thousand-lot plastic party favors from the Oriental Trading Company and the intricate miniatures of my sister’s American Girl catalog. But nothing speaks to infinite possibility like the shiny bubble mailers and massive wood crates of Uline. Like my notebooks and my business cards, they make me feel, without doing anything, that I can do everything.
While Uline’s catalogs are updated just twice a year, they feature sixty different covers each year. Most use the same straightforward images as the interior. Sometimes the cover features a smiling employee, a leaping carp, or a beagle popping out of a box. Occasionally the designers go high-concept with a parody of Amazon’s delivery drones, or a ring of hands in brightly colored work gloves. One cover featured two models dressed in corrugated cardboard; customers were sharing and blogging it for weeks.
Maybe like me, your life’s work lives entirely on computers. Maybe the outlets that host your work tend to shut down after a few years, leaving no concrete evidence of your years of effort. Maybe you get jealous of (and romanticize) anyone who builds something solid like a car engine or a table. Maybe you and your fellow digital knowledge workers are surrounded by fetishizations of these physical occupations, in WeWorks and coffee shops made of barn wood and Edison bulbs. You know that’s not what real work looks like. The practical world of Uline is made of plastic, styrofoam, and particle board. The models wear polos and black-soled sneakers. It’s a true representation of the physically mundane.
In the real world, all these honest objects are exploited as tools of capitalism, and the profits from selling those tools are fed into the American political machine. But the pictures in the catalog are just signifiers, as ethereal as your spreadsheets or your blog posts. If the Uline catalog can honor the material world in all its potential, then so can your work. By boycotting Uline, but still appreciating the catalog as its own end and not a means, you promote the catalog to a work of pure art, an inspirational text: Every object can be contained, every void can be filled. And your work has value, whether or not it can be counted on an easy-count digital scale.
Nick Douglas is the creator of the web series Jaywalk Cop and Nick & Siri and former editor of the blogs Urlesque and Slacktory. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their books.