Buying next year's wall calendar has become an adventure in personal style, like selecting furniture -- only a lot cheaper. And because calendars are the ultimate in disposable decor, there's no excuse for hanging boredom on the kitchen wall this year.
There are still plenty of covered bridges and French Impressionists, but some publishers are blowing the lid off old genres. For instance, new subjects that rate their own "scenic calendars" include ghost towns, ocean sand dunes, Appalachian porches and Canadian outhouses. For December, "Outhouses" ($9.95, Nimbus) offers a winter igloo with a water closet of blue ice blocks that looks ethereal, but not very inviting.
Cats are hot while dogs are not, but whatever the pet, calendars often deliver a twist on this old genre. There's the "Official Cat Codependents Wall Calendar" ($9.95, Ronnie Sellers) for people who love their cats too much, and William Wegman's Weimaraners dressed up as wraiths and lumberjacks in the name of art ("Man's Best Friend," $10.95, Abrams).
TV spinoffs offer laughs and nostalgia: The "Seinfeld" calendar, for example, has Elaine's November musings on why "a man changes into a completely different person five seconds after sex . . . It's like they committed a crime and want to flee the scene before the police get there." If you prefer soap opera, "Classic Moments from ABC Daytime" ($8.95, Andrews & McMeel) will let you spend next June with old wedding pictures of "General Hospital's" Luke and Laura, described as "a prominent surgeon's illegitimate daughter, a trusting, vulnerable beauty who has nonetheless killed a man before she was old enough to vote."
If the industry seems to have entered its baroque phase, it's because the competition to make your day -- and month, and year -- has become fierce. The trade magazine Publisher's Weekly counted 166 different calendars on the market back in 1976. This year there are about 4,500. And the dollars follow the same curve: The calendar industry is a $9 billion-a-year proposition today, up from $1 billion in sales only six years ago.
Time is precious for American families, and our obsession with it has yielded profits for publishers. The average American home, in pursuit of the modern goal of better living through scheduling, now has four calendars.
"The growing importance of calendars reflects the fact that everyone's scarcest commodity today is time," says Lisa C. Bonneville, a designer and spokeswoman for the American Society of Interior Design. "Americans have to keep track of their lives with boxes."
The average buyer of calendars is that most time-crunched American, the working mother, according to research by Hallmark, and she wants something with room to scribble on. European calendars with big gorgeous designer graphics and little tiny numbers added discreetly along the edge just don't sell here, according to Jim Adams, a buyer for the Museum of Fine Arts gift shop.
Americans who take a deep breath before they consult the day's schedule also appreciate a laugh as they exhale. Which is why cartoon-character calendars from "Beavis and Butt-head" to "Cathy" and "Sylvia" sell and sell. The calendar king, though, is Gary Larson, whose "Far Side Off the Wall" day-to-day calendar ($9.95, Andrews & McMeel) has been the best-selling calendar in America for seven years, with 2.75 million of them stacked up at bookstores across the country and soon to be stacked under Christmas trees.
Today about half of all calendars are bought as gifts. Twenty years ago most people received cheap calendars as holiday giveaways from local oil companies or insurance agents, but this practice sputtered as printing costs soared. Publishers saw a window of opportunity and jumped through it. Soon consumers were snapping up shiny new calendars as the best Christmas gift since the invention of the tie: inexpensive, timely, easy to wrap and mail.
Most calendars bought as gifts are safe choices: "Great Cats!" ($10.95, Silver Visions) for Aunt Katherine and "World's Toughest Golf Holes" ($6.99, Price Stern Sloan) for Uncle Duffer. If you're a gardener, you're guaranteed to get Monet's paintings of Giverney, again.
But if you're naughty, not nice, someone might give you "The Daily Curmudgeon Calendar" ($8.95, Dutton), with daily witticisms like Nancy Mitford's pronouncement, "I love children, especially when they cry, because then someone takes them away."
And if you get the "Do It!" calendar ($8.95, Andrews & McMeel), with daily exhortations on how to identify and achieve your dreams, it probably means at least one person thinks your life is a mess. Nor is it a good sign if a business acquaintance sends you the "Titanic" wall calendar with its paintings of high life on the high seas ($12.95, Hyperion). At least you don't see it sink until September.