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 he did, starting around 1903. This took him to outfits like the Swamp Root Co., maker of the Swamp Root kidney and bladder cure, in Binghamton, New York.
What the product was good for? “About one-and-a-half to two million a year,” the founder’s son Willis Sharpe Kilmer replied.
Proctor also visited 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. Mailers simply copied the return addresses into ledgers or onto envelopes, noting pertinent information like what diseases the people were suffering from. And he handheld clients and wheedled them into selling Guild their letters for rental. For Guild, a failed advertising agent from Boston, was a letter broker—an early day list broker. However, he didn’t like the business, and was all too willing to dump it on his clerk.
In time, Proctor met rival brokers like Herbert H. Hull, who owned a million letters, and Frank B. Swett, who had even more. 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 (judging by reports from that time) 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 those of 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 not 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 run by her children).
The tone of Proctor’s talks with these brokers (and with Guild) 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.”