Friday, February 11, 2005

Sweets Catalogue: A brief history

While browsing through the pages of early editions of Architectural Graphic Standards I came across an interesting note: “details in Sweets.” As an engineer I am quite familiar with the Sweet catalogues that contain data sheets for just about any product you can possibly imagine; however, I was quite surprised to see a 1932 reference to a trade catalogue—the greyest of grey literature—in a such an academically inspired work as AGS. Before there was AGS, there was apparently Sweets—a product that still takes up (a great deal of) shelf space in almost every North American architecture or engineering firm. So where did Sweets come from?

Tracking down the history of an annually updated work like Sweets is rather difficult. It seems that something that is so close to the actual practice of professionals has garnered little interest from the humanities or social sciences. There are few critical studies of Sweets outside of footnotes; for example, Pai (2002) devotes about four pages to Sweets and provides only one reference—a Ph.D. dissertation by Licthenstein (1990) primarily about the architectural magazine Architectural Record. Primary materials are equally difficult to find. While my local public library has the most recent few years of the Canadian construction catalogue file published by Sweet’s Catalogue Service, the old copies aren’t archived. Archivists aren’t being negligent in this regard. In 1981, Myotka (1981) reported that the complete Sweets ran to 75 volumes! A third challenge for research lies in the corporate structure behind Sweets. While the catalogue was initially established by Clinton R. Sweet in 1906, it was sold to the F.W. Dodge company that same year. F.W. Dodge, in turn, bought by the publishing giant McGraw-Hill in 1961 ("McGraw-Hill Co. maps a purchase," 1960). Unfortunately, the only major corporate biography of McGraw-Hill (Burlingame, 1959) was published the year before talks began between the two companies. The author of the biography, Roger Burlingame was a noted socio-historian of invention and technology and could have provided a valuable interpretive lens for the merger.

Luckily for us, F.W. Dodge and McGraw-Hill are both New York based companies and the New York Times provides some glimpses into the lives of the actors behind Sweets. Indeed, the relationship between McGraw-Hill and the Sweet family takes some interesting turns. But first, I intend to address some issues about the role of Sweets in architectural practice.

So what is Sweets? In a commemorative of the catalogue’s 75th anniversary in 1981, Motyka provided the readers of the New York Times with an introduction. He notes that the 1981 catalogue represents the products of 1,700 manufacturers that the catalogue is delivered to 110,000 architectural, engineering, and contracting (AEC) firms, and to government agencies. He describes Sweets as a middle man:

A manufacturer must buy a minimum of four pages, which costs $4,956 in the general building files. A purchase of 20 pages is more typical, though, and would cost $14,452 in the general building files. Manufacturers who include a large amount of material in Sweet's are eligible for discounts. This year's volumes are 42,281 pages long, and the warehouse in Indianapolis where the loose catalogue pages are stored before binding is the size of a football field.”

He also describes the typical Sweets product entry:

“A typical page in Sweet's describes a product, such as Owens-Corning Fiberglas Sheathing, and includes a photograph of a worker installing the item. The physical dimensions of the item are given, along with installation and packaging information and the uses for the item.”

The use of Sweets within the actual practice of AEC professionals is staggering. A report from 2000 notes that 82% of architectural and engineering firms mention Sweets as their primary product information source as do 60% of contractors—although only 31% of interior designers who rely more on trade magazines (39%) and word of mouth (27%)
("How architects use the Internet to improve efficiency," 2000). When the study was published, (recently incorporated into the McGraw-Hill portal was also the most popular online source of information for AEC professionals. Motyka describes the popularity of Sweets in 1981:

“The easy accessibility and 'one-stop shopping' concept understandably hold a great appeal. For George S. George, an engineer with Metacalf and Eddy, Inc. in Boston and current president of Construction Specifications Institute, Sweet's 'is the single most useful tool to an engineer.'” [NOTE: it's interesting that Mr. George was the president of the CSI. The CSI MasterFormat has had a profound impact on both the structure and indexing of Sweets and AGS]

The importance of Sweets as a comprehensive and convenient information source is certainly consistent with the academic literature. Based on interviews with engineers, Raya and Green note that “Engineers selected sources because they had the right format, the right level of detail, a lot of information in one place” (2004, pg. 563). Engineers’ reliance of vendor provided source of information has also been noted by King, Casto, and Jones (1994), while engineers’ bias towards information that is conveniently available has been noted by a number of other researchers (Hertzum & Pejtersen, 2000; Leckie, Pettigrew, & Sylvain, 1996; Pinelli, 1991). Furthermore, engineers’ preference for visual materials has become increasingly recognized since Ferguson’s initially controversial thesis (1977; 1992).

The behaviours demonstrated by engineers seem to be shared by their brethren architects. Pai, for example, discusses vendor-supplied information as an essential building block for the formation of the information artifacts used in the daily practice of architecture:

“The catalogue was another essential yet marginal genre in the discursive field of architecture. Even toward the end of the century, a period when architects came to rely heavily on standardized building components, the catalogue carried little significance for the discipline.” (pg. 23)

Part of the catalogue’s professional insignificance may have been due to the common practice among engineers and architects of maintaining personal sketchbooks or pattern-books. As noted by Booker
(1963), in a time of little specialized manufacturing (i.e., there were few firms that specialized in either roller-bearings or sash-windows), each architect or engineer had to maintain their own catalogue of patterns, often copied from the work of colleagues or other published sources. This practice represents a consistent professional thread dating from the sketchbooks of the 13th century architect Villard de Honnecourt (Harvey, 1972). The fact that catalogues emerged as a popular medium at all is perhaps more interesting than their insignificance in the 19th century. Pai continues:

“Though architects were already grappling with what was called the ‘catalogue problem,’ they regarded the catalogue as merely a means to an end, having no effect on the integrity of the design process. The trade catalogues that were sent to the architect’s office came in various sizes and formats—from pocket-size to folios, from thin leaflets to hardbound books hundreds of pages thick. As far as the architect was concerned, the catalogue problem was one of sheer quantity and variation of information. The profession’s position concerning this problem was succinctly expressed in the ‘Sweet’s’ Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction… In the introduction to the first single volume of Sweet’s, Thomas Nolan, professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, repeatedly emphasized that the catalogue was not ‘reading material’ but information for reference, belonging in the ‘same category of the dictionary, or the telephone book.’ Its guiding principle was the ‘reference idea,’ the ‘logical way of escape from this muddle.’ In other words, though the information in the catalogue was necessary to architectural design, it was not treated as an integral part of the discipline. The issue was simply one of organizing the information in a ‘concise and systematic way.’ There was no sense that the proliferation of catalogues could somehow affect the nature of architectural practice. Instead, the notion of a ‘scientific standard catalogue and index of building materials’ was established to reinforce the ethical dimensions of building practice.” (pg. 23)

I find it quite interesting that Nolan would emphasize that Sweets is not reading material. By 1981, things had changed. Motyka notes that professional readers of Sweets often use it to spot trends. Popular architectural items like armour plating or environmentally friendly products tend to appear in Sweets prior to either the popular press or the mouths of clients.

While Motyka and Pai provide some insight into the use and significance of Sweets, we’re still in the dark about the actual functioning of the inscriptions within the document; however, history has provided us with one unique glimpse into how these inscriptions were possibly intended to function. Unfortunately, the chronicling document is exceedingly rare (perhaps due to an indexing gaff). In 1951 Howard T. Hovde wrote a review of a recent book for the Journal of Marketing
(Hovde, 1951). Calling it brilliant, Hovde introduced the world to Lèonberg-Holm and Sutnar’s Catalog Design Progress (Lèonberg-Holm & Sutnar, 1950). The two authors were both with the creative department of Sweets and Sweet’s Catalog Service published their book. This rare work was based on their experience with Sweets and they apparently based some of the commentary on the extant 44-year history of the catalogue. Unfortunately, it’s now very difficult to find. WorldCat indicates only 96 copies in library collections; the closest copy to me is buried in the stacks of the Toronto Reference Library; however, there is a very active trade in used copies. Ebay currently lists a copy at $1,000. What’s the deal?

This modest work (spiral bound and less than 100-pages long) is now considered to be a masterpiece of commercial design (Heller, 2003; Makovsky, 2002). Commentators note that the authors presaged Tufte’s work in visual representations and that Catalog Design Progress predicted the visual representation techniques that were later exploited by the World Wide Web, a technology that has become crucial for the dissemination of Sweets. Unfortunately, most libraries assigned it the subject heading "Catalogs--Commercial", a subject heading with a notoriously high cull rate.

Before leaving my discussion of Sweets I want to return to the twist that I mentioned earlier. As noted, Clinton W. Sweet sold his catalogue to Frederick W. Dodge. Dodge was quite successful and died a relatively young man in 1915 ("Frederick W. Dodge dead," 1915). His one-time partner Clinton W. Sweet followed him several years later. It seems that after selling his catalogue business, Sweet returned to the greener pastures of garment manufacturing, establishing the very successful Sweet-Orr Overall Company. His success was to be short-lived:

“Clinton W. Sweet, head of Sweet-Orr & Co., Inc., manufacturers of over-alls, and founder and editor of the Record and Guide, a New York City real estate paper, and of the Architectural Record, was found dead in bed at his Yonkers home on Old Jerome Avenue yesterday morning. A bullet from a revolver which he held in his hand had passed through his head. Coroner Egle investigated and the death certificate gave 'probable suicide' as the cause of death.” ("Find aged editor dead with pistol," 1917)

[NOTE: According to Shanken, Sweet started Real Estate Record and Building Guide in 1868, and Architectural Record in 1891.]

We can only imagine Sweet as a man driven to the brink with rage at his folly for having sold off his most precious asset: Sweets. This conjecture is probably false. Sweet died as quite a wealthy man and left considerable sums of money to his two sons ("Sweet estate $2,160,782," 1918). His sudden death led to a change in leadership at Sweet-Orr and his son, Stanley A. Sweet took over as president of the firm. Stanley had two sons: Stanley Jr. and (luckily for us) Clinton W.

The next we hear of the Sweet family is in 1944. Clinton W. is acting as the best man in the wedding of his brother Stanley Jr. The bride’s name is Barbara Whittlesey McGraw, daughter of James H. McGraw Jr., then president of McGraw-Hill publishing ("Barbara McGraw to be wed," 1944). Did Stanley Jr. apply pressure to his father-in-law to reclaim that family asset that was lost a quarter of a century earlier? I suppose we’ll never know.

The conclusion of this history is with Stanley A. Sweet Sr. He died in 1952 of a heart attack on the Fenwick golf course ("Stanley A. Sweet dies playing golf," 1952). When he died he was the chairman of Sweet-Orr Overall and on the board for A.G. Spalding and Brothers Inc. While I’m familiar with Spalding, I have never heard of the Sweet-Orr Overall company. Apparently, their factory in Newburgh was torn down in 1968 to make room for an office block hosting such illustrious firms as Xerox, GM financing, a Wall St. brokerage, and lawyers and insurance offices ("Major office building finished on full block in Newburgh," 1968). It seems that Clinton W. Sweet’s second enterprise was ploughed under by services, a sector he left with the sale of his catalogue. A Google search for “Clinton W. Sweet” brings the seeker to McGraw-Hill’s site, which celebrates him as the founder of Sweets. A search for “Sweet-Orr” leads to three eBay auctions for antique buttons.


Barbara McGraw to be web. (1944, May 6). New York Times, p. 24.

Booker, P. J. (1963). A history of engineering drawing. London,: Chatto & Windus.

Burlingame, R. (1959). Endless frontiers: the story of McGraw-Hill ([1st ed.). New York,: McGraw-Hill.

Ferguson, E. S. (1977). The Mind's Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology. Science, 197(4306), 827-836.

Ferguson, E. S. (1992). Engineering and the mind's eye. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Fidel, R., & Green, M. (2004). The many faces of accessibility: engineers' perception of information sources. Information Processing & Management, 40(3), 563-581.

Find aged editor dead with pistol. (1917, September 25). New York Times.

Frederick W. Dodge dead. (1915, November 11). New York Times, p. 13.

Harvey, J. H. (1972). The mediaeval architect. New York,: St. Martin's Press.

Heller, S. (2003, June). Ladislav, Sutnar: Web design before the Internet. LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education. Retrieved Febrary 11, 2005, from

Hertzum, M., & Pejtersen, A. M. (2000). The information-seeking practices of engineers: searching for documents as well as for people. Information Processing & Management, 36(5), 761-778.

Hovde, H. T. (1951). Catalog design progress. Journal of Marketing, 16, 117.

How architects use the Internet to improve efficiency. (2000). Design Firm Management and Administration Report, 0(8), 6-9.

King, D. W., Casto, J., & Jones, H. (1994). Communication by engineers : a literature review of engineers' information needs, seeking processes, and use. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library Resources.

Leckie, G. J., Pettigrew, K. E., & Sylvain, C. (1996). Modeling the information seeking of professionals: A general model derived from research on engineers, health care professionals, and lawyers. Library Quarterly, 66(2), 161-193.

Lèonberg-Holm, K., & Sutnar, L. (1950). Catalog design progress. [New York]: Sweet's Catalog Service.

Lichtenstein, S. R. (1990). Editing architecture: "Architectural record" and the growth of modern architecture, 1928-1938. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Major office building finished on full block in Newburgh. (1968). New York Times, p. R6.

Makovsky, P. (2002, July). The shape of information. Retrieved February 11, 2005, from

McGraw-Hill Co. maps a purchase. (1960, November 29). New York Times, p. 51.

Motyka, J. (1981, August 23). Catalogue marks 75th sweet year. New York Times, p. R6.

Pai, H. (2002). The portfolio and the diagram : architecture, discourse, and modernity in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Pinelli, T. E. (1991). The information-seeking habits and practices of engineers. Science and Technology Libraries, 11, 5-25.

Stanley A. Sweet dies playing golf. (1952, August 4). New York Times, p. 15.

Sweet estate $2,160,782. (1918, August 4). New York Times, p. 28.

UDPATE. October 22, 2006.

It seems that I'm not the only one with a passing interest in Sweet's. Andrew M. Shanken has put together a very interesting discussion of its role in architectural practice. Our discussion are largely orthogonal--his being considerably more well researched and, frankly, interesting. Here's the citation:

Shanken, Andew M. (2005). From the gospel of efficiency to modernism: A history of Sweet's catalogue, 1906-1947. Design Issues. 21(2), 28-47.

Shanken discusses the evolution in the form of Sweet's. The catalogue aroese in response to the need for greater information to service the changing nature of architectural practice:

"The new skyscrapers, railroad stations, and other industrial and commercial structures, both individually and collectively, forced the building industry to rationalize. This meant forsaking the intimate and quasi-familial basis of business that prevailed before the advent of the corporation. The new system evolved to accommodate the new scale of operation." (pg. 29)

The scale of industry and construction early in the twentieth century called for a whole new process of creating and disseminating information. The process of rationalizing information into a common form was widespread throughout various industries. A common thread runs through the efforts of Dewey, Taylor, Dodge, and Sweet. Indeed, Taylor--and scientific management in general--were to play an important part in the "scientific discourse" of Sweet's.

At the time, architects were plagued with a variety of commercial catalogues, each of a different size and format. Sweet's was different. It "would be lean and informative, a rational tool for business, and not a debased vehicle for promotion." (pg. 31)

Sweet--and subsequently Dodge--pressured manufacturers to standardize how they presented their material so that the catalogue had a unified feel. Furthermore, it grew to include detailed indices to improve the usablity of the ever-increasing compendium:

"Sweet's imagined a scientific book of tables more than a trade catalogue, and fought 'to induce some of these manufacturers to give up the publication of irrelevant matter... to indue them 'to get down' to stating facts, something about their products that could be weighed or measured, or tested in some way or another.' The modern drive towards a scientific or technical manual for architects came partly to fruition. In the first two decades of publication, diagrams of materials and specification charts played an increasingly larger role, both as a replacement for text as an ornament to the page." (pg. 33)

Sweet's eventually grew to occupy an expanded role. By 1912--as part of F.W. Dodge--it offered consumer advocacy information through its Statistical Research Service and thorugh Dodge's Building Statistics. It also offered Graphic Review, an analysis of statistics for the building trades. The consistent and tightly regimented appearance of Sweet's became less important and two important designers came aboard: Knud Lonberg-Holm and Ladislav Sutnar.

Shanken's discussion of these two desigers is fascinating, but a bit off topic for where I want to go. What I do find interesting is the rise of a standard style epitomized by Sweet's. Both desigers published guides that defined how to create modern catalogues and Sweet's even offered a design service to its clients. Instead of enforcing draconian measures to ensure visual consistency, Londberg-Holm and Sutnar created demand for a particular visual style, which they could sell as outsourced design. The net effect for Sweet's was the same: visual consistency!


Blogger SAU said...

Wondering if you have come across a library of out-of-date Sweet's catalogs? I am looking to complete a missing portion of our archived Housewrap and Air/Moisture Barrier specifications for a construction project completed in 2004.

27/1/15 12:06  
Blogger George Goodall said...

Sorry, I can't help you. Catalog information gets culled pretty quickly from library collections. might have some old information but I really don't know. Gg

27/1/15 12:48  

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