Suzanne Tobias

How much for the life-size Tyrannosaurus skeleton?

The annual Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog — an American institution since 1848 — can provide hours of family fun.
The annual Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog — an American institution since 1848 — can provide hours of family fun. The Wichita Eagle

This is how the game begins:

“Mark Twain’s fountain pen,” says my son, Jack.

He briefly shows me a photograph of said pen on page 10 of the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog, being careful to cover the price of the pen and its “Ink Refill, specify blue or black, 3 oz.”

He continues.

“This is the classic fountain pen endorsed by Mark Twain for its mess-free ink reservoir that refills with the simple tap of a finger,” Jack reads. “First patented in 1897, the venerable Conklin design features a bladder filling system that is controlled by dunking the tip in an inkwell and depressing the rose-gold crescent on the barrel.”

I nod, considering.

“This innovative mechanism eliminates the waste of disposable cartridges, as well as the mess and tedium of feeding ink into an old-fashioned pen with an eye dropper.”

Oh yes, I agree. Filling my pens with an eye dropper is so tedious.

The catalog’s description goes on to explain how Twain proclaimed this pen a “profanity saver,” and that it may have been the key to his penning some of the greatest novels in American history.

So, Jack asks: “How much?”

And this, my friends, is one of the most glorious unofficial pastimes of the holiday season: the Hammacher Schlemmer Catalog Guessing Game.

Your partner reads a description from America’s longest running catalog — “Offering the Best, the Only and the Unexpected for 168 years” — and you have to guess the price. That’s it. Determine a point system based on your own family’s competitive nature, or just read, guess and repeat until dinner is ready.

Credit where credit is due: I learned this game from author Catherine Newman, who praised its ability to make time fly during family road trips, and it has been entertaining my family every December since.

This year’s challenges include the “Indoor Flameless Marshmallow Roaster,” the “Marrakesh Expressbag,” the “Only Outdoor Heated Cat Shelter,” the “Messless Chocolate Milk Mixing Mug,” the “NASA Sleep Promoting Light Bulb,” and a 23-acre “Wild West Town” amusement park in northwestern Illinois (live actors not included), which is a bargain at only $7 million.

How much for a biofeedback posture trainer? What about a personal oxygen bar, or the world’s smallest remote-control quadcopter? All are fabulous items you didn’t realize you wanted until you hear the description – like SkyMall on terra firma.

(Mark Twain’s pen, by the way, retails for $189.95.)

If you don’t have the catalog, don’t fret. Just go to the company’s website, click on the tab labeled “The Unexpected” up top, and have endless fun trying to imagine who might order a $30,000 “Tranquility Pod” or a $100,000 life-size Tyrannosaurus skeleton.

And happy Hammacher holidays to you.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias