Privacy in the 19th Century

By Ray Schultz

There’s one small error in the white paper, Privacy and Advertising Mail, by the UC Berkeley School of Law.

The paper quotes a 1917 editorial: “Mail solicitation of business by printed circular has become an intolerable annoyance, to which all are subjected whose addresses appear in the directory or the telephone books.”* And it states that this was “an unusually early instance of stated concerns about advertising mail.”

That’s not quite true. Critics were complaining about junk mail long before 1917. And they sometimes referred to what we now call the privacy issue.

In 1875, in a article titled, “Fancy Advertising,” The New York Times reported on a man whose letter and Post Office boxes were “daily ‘made the recipients’… of a lot of envelopes, which he is put to the trouble of opening, and which he finds contain only advertisements of articles that he does not want to buy, or of companies or professional persons that he does not wish to employ.”

That piece didn’t mention mailing lists, but the vice crusader Anthony Comstock touched on the subject in 1880, in his book Frauds Exposted, when writing about lotteries and other types of frauds. “Any person who ever wrote a letter to a lottery, or other advertised scheme, is liable to have a large circle of correspondents,” he wrote. “The name once obtained must go the round of the fraternity, and, when thus used, is either kept for a new scheme by the same fraud or else sold to another one of the brotherhood.”

Case in point: The use of boarding school catalogues. “At last the child reaches the school, and his or her name appears upon the roll and is printed in the catalogue,” Comstock wrote. “These catalogues are sought for by those who send circulars through the mails advertising obscene and unlawful wares.”

Comstock added that names could also be had by “buying old letters from other dealers for the sake of the names, or by sending circulars to postal clerks and others through the country, offering prizes for a list of the names of youth of both sexes twenty-one years of age, or by purchasing addressed envelopes of those who make a business of collecting names, and then addressing envelopes to supply parties doing business through the mails.”

Granted, Comstock was more upset over what people were being offered by mail than how: privacy was a secondary issue. And legislators failed to mention privacy when they banned lotteries from the mail in 1890. But the subject came up again in a whole new context.

Medical Privacy

In 1904, Ladies Home Journal reported on the letters sent by women to patent medicine advertisers.

“Not one in a thousand of these letters ever reaches the eye of the ‘doctor’ to whom they are addressed,” the article said. “There wouldn’t be hours enough in the day to read them even if he had the desire. On the contrary, these letters from women of a private and delicate nature are opened and read by young men and girls; they go through not fewer than eight different hands before they reach a reply; each in turn reads them, and if there is anything ‘spicy’, you will see the heads of two or three girls get together and enjoy (!) the ‘spice.’ Very often these ‘spicy bits’ are taken home and shown to the friends and families of these girls and men! Time and again have I seen this done: time and again have I been handed over a letter by one of the young fellows with the remark; “Read this: isn’t that rich/” only to read of the recital of some trouble into which a young girl has fallen, or some mother’s sacred story of her daughter’s fall!”

Worse, these “sacredly confidential” letters were offered through letter brokers—“clearing-houses where patent-medicine frauds and quack doctors exchange, sell, and rent letters,” wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in Collier’s magazine in 1906. (In effect, he was describing the early mailing list business).

This came to an end, too, but not because anyone objected to the misuse of personal information. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring that patent medicine advertisers list their ingredients and not make exaggerated claims. Many firms went out of business.

But the sale and trading of names survived, and it was duly noted—before 1917. In 1913, The Kansas City Star wrote, “It probably does not occur to (the average man) that by buying something by mail he has made his name a commodity in itself and become a target for commercial correspondents as long as he lives and probably long after a tombstone has been erected to him on some grassy hillside.”

 *Richard B. Kielbowicz, Origins of the Junk-Mail Controversy: A
Media Battle over Advertising and Postal Policy, 5(2) JOURNAL OF
POLICY HISTORY 248, 253 (1993).

Click here for a related article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s