Hong Kong’s much-vaunted reputation as a shopping paradise has always been more tourism industry hyperbole than cold hard fact; a century ago, this was no different. Online shopping has largely superseded mail order catalogues in recent years, but the phenomenon of ordering certain goods unavailable here from overseas, in personal quantities, has a long local history. As a glance at advertising hoardings around Hong Kong can attest, “Made in the United States” remains a sought-after imprimatur of perceived (if not always actual) quality and reliability for a vast array of consumer goods. Montgomery Ward and Co., established in Chicago in 1872, exported their entire stock worldwide by mail order, and Hong Kong’s then-tiny middle class were enthusiastic purchasers. The telegraph – much like the modern internet – facilitated rush orders and the international transfer of funds to pay for them; within a few days of a purchase being confirmed, goods would be on their way from the Midwest, halving the delivery time of an order form and cheque sent by mail, which would itself have taken several weeks to arrive. And what did Hong Kong shoppers send away for? Furniture and fittings that were otherwise unobtainable in the Far East (unless they were made to order locally, sometimes with curious results) or else available with only a limited product range. Entire bathrooms could be ordered. In these years, an “American-style” bathroom, with hot and cold running water, gas-powered geysers, porcelain enamel baths and vitreous China sinks and toilets, were considered the absolute height of luxury; most bathrooms in the Far East offered little more than lidded commodes, Shanghai jars for bathing water, and bare concrete drains, which remained standard fittings in many places well into the 1940s. Most of Europe was little better off. Upright pianos, in numerous styles, were another popular purchase. The invention of the pianola in 1896 transformed home entertainment globally; simply by inserting a punch-stamped roll for the machine to play – these also came by mail order – everything from a Beethoven sonata to the latest ragtime dance tune could be enjoyed, simply by pumping the foot-operated bellows. Glass display cabinets were also sought after, as the kinds of frosted, patterned and coloured glass used, and unusual veneers and finishes, were completely different to those generally available from Chinese craftsmen. Open-fronted versions, known to that generation as Whatnots, allowed the display of other forms of mass-produced, ordered-in Victoriana. Sometimes furniture was copied locally from examples seen in mail-order catalogues – much in the same way as dressmaker’s patterns – but the snob value came from having the real, mass-produced item, sourced from the US, and not some shoddy local knock-off. Spring mattresses were ordered in large quantities. Locally available bedding consisted mostly of kapok-stuffed cloth mattresses, which became lumpy with prolonged use. Bent-wood rocking chairs with elaborately turned spokes, with or without arms, had a place in many wealthier homes, and would be handed down as heirlooms. Like many similar flat-pack purchases today, these items were sent out to Hong Kong boxed up in pieces, for assembly on arrival by the new owner. Light fittings and lamps were also popular – milk-glass shades and wrought-iron or brass gaslight brackets, as well as table and ceiling-mounted kerosene lamps with hurricane chimneys, were sought-after practical purchases. In widespread use across the US by the end of the 19th century, these items were regarded as world leaders in quality, reliability and price, and a greater variety of styles could be found there than elsewhere. Local interior photographs from the early 20th century reflect these trends. More affluent interiors were not greatly dissimilar to the present day; a jumble of high-quality or expensive portable items, incongruously mixed with functional pieces of furniture, still characterises the average Hong Kong interior style.