By Ray Schultz
Painfully shy, so thin he was rejected for insurance policies, Edward W. Proctor did not look like a salesman. But his employer Charles Guild wanted him to sell, so Proctor did, starting around 1900. This took him to outfits like the Swamp Root Co., maker of the Swamp Root kidney and bladder cure, of Binghamton, New York. Asked what Swamp Root was good for, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, the founder’s son, replied, “About one-and-a-half to two million a year.”
And it brought Proctor to the D.A. Williams Medical Company, seller of a “uthrethral balm” to Civil War veterans. “Exposure, miasma, bad food, hardships of every description—these and not the bullets are responsible for the extremely rapid death-rate among the veterans,” it said in a direct mail letter.
In short, Proctor was selling mailing lists in the format of the time: Letters from customers. Guild explained it in an advertisement: “Letters for Rent. We carry millions of all kinds of letters received in reply to newspaper and magazine advertising, which we are offering for copy at low rates. Our specialty is Nervous Debility and Medical letters.”
Fourteen when his father died, Proctor left school and went to work in an ice house, then as a clerk in a law firm. He wanted to be a lawyer, but his main job after seven years was getting his bosses’ hats shined. So he took accounting courses.
Then he was hired by Guild, a failed advertising agent from Boston. Guild’s first firm had gone into receivership, the result of his financial mismanagement. So he moved to New York, and applied himself to selling ad space in mail order newspapers like Westerner.
This was a step down. These rags were mailed to people who hadn’t subscribed; stacks of them piled up in backwoods post offices. Now, thanks to rural free delivery, they were delivered right to the door. “These disgusting prints thus force their way unsolicited into the homes throughout the country and their demoralizing influence it would be hard to overestimate,” a critic wrote.
The average issue contained fiction like “The Fortunes of a Factory Girl,” jokes and cracker-barrel wisdom and columns on subjects like how to milk cows in winter, all written by “unknown people, whose acquaintance with philology, grammar and other essentials of successful word-weaving has been very slight.”
They also contained patent medicine ads, one more unbeleivable than the next. In a single issue of the Homemaker, Dr. A.J. Hill said that Preparia could “relieve the ailments of pregnancy,” Dr. Mixer sold a “sure cure” for cancer, Dr. Chas W. Green offered one for fits, and Milo Co. promised that “Any woman can cure her husband, son or brother of liquor drinking by secretly placing this remedy in his coffee, tea or food.”
Some of these firms went out of business soon after starting, but not the H.H. Warner Co. Hulbert Harrington Warner Warner had made a fortune selling office safes. In mid-life, he came down with kidney trouble, and the only remedy at hand was a potion made up of glycerin, water and alcohol.
In 1879, Warner bought the rights to this purported miracle drug from the doctor who created it and started advertising it as Warner’s Safe Cure and Kidney Cure, He soon was spending almost a million dollars per year on advertising, and his ad department was “the most important and principal feature of this concern,” a reporter wrote.
Warner was also active in the mail. He sent 35 million letters and almanacs a year, and the Rochester Post Office bought the first automatic machine to handle them. In one promotion, Warner invited readers to send $1 and a urine sample for a “free treatment by mail.”
Many medicine sellers did this, but few examined the specimens; those that did simply passed the vials over a flame. If the liquid turned dark, that meant sugar; white meant albumen. The treatments were the same for both. Pranksters who knew this sent horse urine to the Swamp Root Co., and said it was from a “Caucasian male.”
Warner’s writers moved on. They amused almanac readers by asking them to find spelling errors in their copy, and by describing a conversation on a new device:
Hello! What is it?
Please connect the telephone with Warner’s Safe Remedies Establishment.
Hello! Who is it? What’s wanted?
I do not believe you know me, or would if I should tell you who I am. I want to talk with you a few moments.
All right! Go ahead.
I want to ask you something about your pamphlet, your establishment, kidney disease, and lots of other things. I know you have got a good medicine, but I want to know something about how to keep well.
Whew! Tut, tut, tut—louder! I can only just hear you talking about keeping well, our pamphlet, kidneys, etc.
That’s it. You understand me now. Can you hear?
Yes, but before we get through with this subject, we would burn the wires off. Come to Rochester some day, and we will go through the entire subject.
Yes, but if I should come to Rochester I would take lots of your time, and you would get tired of talking.
Never mind. Come on! Be glad to see you. Good-bye.
Hold on a moment—one more word—may I bring my wife, too?
Yes, have her come, and the whole family: the neighbors, too, if you like.
Warner sold the company, then was ousted for manipulating the stock price in his own favor. But he had set the standard for everyone, and Guild was able to land some of these advertisers as clients.
Proctor felt that he had finally found a career. And he applied himself to it in a way that his boss Mr. Guild never would. Soon, he met rival letter brokers like Herbert H. Hull, who owned a million letters, and Frank B. Swett, who had even more. “There are five million chronic sick and incurables in the United States, and I’ve got letters from one million of them right there in that building,” said one such broker, pointing to his warehouse. They were convivial fellows who cooperated with each other even as they competed and what Proctor couldn’t learn from Guild he learned from them. He commenced his education.
He learned that the value of a letter decreased as it got older.
He learned that a person who wrote out of curiosity was not as good a prospect as one who knew what he would receive.
He learned that the names of mail order buyers were better than those copied from directories or clipped from newspapers.
He learned, too, that some of the most coveted names were those of sick people rejected for life insurance policies; treatments could be sold to these unfortunates.
More valuable still were the letters held by Lydia Estes Pinkham, of Lynn, Mass. Her Vegetable Compound, an herbal concoction with an 18% alcohol content, was guaranteed to “ease women through the Change of Life, dissolve and expel tumors from the uterus, and cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints, all Ovarian troubles, Inflammation and Ulceration, Falling and Displacements, and the consequent spinal Weakness.”
Pinkham’s “mild Quaker face” appeared no only on bottles of the compound, but in all circulars and newspaper ads. “Many small newspaper offices possessed no cut of a woman’s face except that of Lydia’s maternal countenance, which occasionally was shifted from an advertising to a news column to do double duty as Queen Victoria,” wrote historian James Harvey Young.
Every ad for the Vegetable Compound invited readers to “Write to Mrs. Pinkham at Lynn, Mass., and she will advise you,” and millions of women did. But Pinkham insisted that the letters were “opened by a woman, read only by a woman, seen only by a woman,” and she wouldn’t rent them—to anyone. “They can’t be bought,” a broker said. “The old girl won’t even answer a letter about them. I don’t know what sort of a plant she has at Lynn and it doesn’t matter much, as her files are worth more than the plant.”
Rubbish, said another; Pinkham’s advertisements are “so wide in their scope…that hardly a woman can read them without feeling that she is a sufferer… they are practically worthless after written.” (Little did they know that Lydia was dead, and had been since 1883—the company was now being run by her children).
The tone of Proctor’s talks with these brokers can be inferred from an 1890s newspaper account, in which a young man meets a letter broker on a train.
“I am a dealer in old letters, and am now on my way home with a check for $250 in my pocket which is all velvet,” the broker said. “This check I received for the use, for one month, of 10,000 letters, of which I am the owner.”
The older man was happy to explain the business.
“You, in the course, of your life, have written in reply to some advertisement, asking information in regard to the article advertised, or sent a request for a sample to be forwarded, and enclosed the necessary price, otherwise you have been different from most persons.
“The letters received in answer to such advertisements have a distinct market value among parties who deal in novelties. They are better in every way than lists made up from directories, representing, as they do, interested parties, or, in other words, persons who, attracted by the catchy wording of advertisements will be still more liable to bite after reading lengthy circulars with arguments as to why they should purchase.”
The broker went to his compartment, and returned with samples.
“For these letters I pay at the rate of from $30 to $50 per thousand, and thus become the sole proprietor of them,” he said. “I have my customers, to whom I rent them at the uniform price of $50 per thousand for the first month’s use. They find them very valuable in sending out their circulars, and on their return these letters become a part of my stock in trade, being re-let at constantly decreasing prices, according to the number of parties through whose hands they have passed, until they remain marketable for many years at so low a figure as $3 per thousand for 30 day’s use.”
But these were not as valuable as his medical letters.
“I have got a number of hundred thousand of such as these, which we call ‘the blooming sucker variety,’ and for which I pay as high as $75 to $100 per thousand,” the broker continued. “These I let to my medical customers for, say, $125 per thousand for the first thirty days, reducing the price afterward.”
What good were these letters to a patent medicine seller? The broker explained it. “Did you ever go fishing more than once to a pond where you had spent a whole day trying to get a bite? Oh, no, you always go where you have been able to fill your basket before, and it is just the same in fishing for men.”
“Why, my dear boy, some of these medical practitioners in special diseases will not sell their letters for love or money. Why? Because after they have worked the fools under one name for all the money they can get out of them, the doctors then address a letter to the innocents under another name, saying they have learned that he (the patient) had been under the treatment of those unmitigated quacks, giving his former name, and telling why they condoled with him for such a misfortune, and wishing that he could have come under their treatment, which could but prove successful. Nine times out of ten they catch the gudgeon, not only the second, but even the third time.”