By Ray Schultz
At what point, as William Dean Howells put it, does a businessman start “his evolution from grub to beetle?” It began for Charles Howard Guild on September 14, 1901, when William McKinley died of gunshot wounds and Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President.
There was no immediate impact on Guild, a failed Boston advertising agent who now brokered mailing lists, in the form of used letters, in New York. He worked mostly for patent medicine sellers and other commercial riffraff.
But Roosevelt expanded federal regulatory power, and went after the meat-packing industry; it was only a matter of time before he took on the medicine business. Ladies’ Home Journal had been denouncing it for a decade, and in 1905 Colliers magazine started a multi-part series on the evil by Samuel Hopkins Adams.
Americans, Adams wrote, would that year spend $75 million on patent medicines, and “swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud.”
Woe to the innocents who wrote to patent medicine firms, Adams continued in the fifth article in the series in 1906. “The reply will be marked, in conspicuous letters, ‘Strictly confidential,’ even in some cases, ‘Sacredly confidential.’” But these letters were sold through brokers, and packaged by disease.
“One of the largest of these letter-brokers is the Guild Company of 132 Nassau street, New York. Guild’s brochure, the ‘printable part,’ offered Dyspepsia Letters, Narcotic Letters, Heart Letters, Kidney Letters and Obesity Letters and Stomach Trouble and Deaf Letters,” Adams went on.
One can only imagine the alarm at 132 Nassau St, where Guild and his man-Friday Edward W. Proctor worked at this trade. Anthony Comstock’s office was down the block at 23 Nassau. Would the old vice crusader raid them?
He didn’t—the real danger was economic. Roosevelt had that year signed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring, among other things, that medicine sellers label their ingredients. Guild’s client Swamp Root now stated its potion contained “NINE PER CENT PURE GRAIN ALCOHOL” (a revelation for people who wondered why they felt better after drinking it) and that this was “Guaranteed by Dr. Kilmer & Co. under the Food and Drug Act, June 30th, 1906.”
Weaker patent medicine firms closed their doors, and others saw their mailing lists eviscerated. Another Guild client, the D.A. Williams Company, went from having 62,366 letters to rent between 1901 and 1906 (just like today’s mailers, the medicine companies relied on list rental revenue) to a mere 8,655 for the two-year period ending in 1909.
The Roosevelt administration then struck out at Guild’s other client base —the mail order newspapers. The post office ruled that they would be mailed at the publishing rate only to bona fide subscribers. But there were few of those. And now the papers had to stop sending free sample copies and listing the recipients as…subscribers. The Guild Co. took a hit: Revenue fell to $6,537 in 1906, and the loss was almost double that amount, thanks to the $10,000 bonus Guild paid himself.
The tree-lined town of Haworth, New Jersey consists of a church, a row of stores, and a gas station. Just west of this small town center stands a two-story house that in 1995 was home the Guild Co. Ed Proctor Jr., a thin-faced man of 89 who had just undergone open heart surgery, sat there one snowy afternoon and discussed his father.
“My father was the smartest guy who only got through 8th grade,” Proctor said. “He never finished high school, but he read incessantly, and he always went to the YMCA and other places for courses. He was a very religious man, very straight. He wouldn’t put with anything,”
If that were so, how could he work for the medicine pushers and mail order paper barons?
“You could advertise anything you wanted in those days—the FDA wasn’t there,” Proctor Jr. answered. “It was the same thing with publications. You could advertise any sort of circulation, go out and rent lists and send the papers for free.”
Proctor pointed to the only visible remnant of the founder: a photo standing on a cabinet. Guild is wearing a dark suit, a vest and a straw hat, and holding a cigar. A white dog stands between him and an air-cooled Franklin automobile. “That would have been in 1920,” said Ed Proctor Jr. “Mr. Guild must have been about 70 at that point.”
“Mr. Guild was a great salesman,” Proctor continued. “He’d go into someone’s office and say, ‘Break out your checkbook, I’ve got a million names for you.’ He’d bluster his way through., whereas my father was shy and retiring.” On the other hand, “Mr. Guild was a wild guy—my father was a settling influence. He would calm him down. Guild respected my father.”
Of course, Proctor knew (as did Guild) that legitimate firms were already mailing to niche audiences. In 1895, Horlicks’s Food Co., of Racine Wis., offered clergymen a sample pack of its new malted milk mix. The powder contained “nutritive extracts of malted cereals, combined with rich Wisconsin dairy milk—Hence its value to you as a preventive of exhaustion incident to close application to study, or a long discourse, (so trying to clergymen, both physically and mentally),” said the letter printed in green ink, in a facsimile of typewriting.
Then there were the giant mail order firms, like Sears, Roebuck. Could the Guild Co. win a better class of client?
It apparently did, and Proctor credited his father. “My father was the financial wizard or brains for that group,” he said. “That’s why Mr. Guild went broke in Boston—he had no grasp at all of finance. My father was the one who had to learn the business and make the contacts.”
In 1907, sales jumped to $21,826, and in 1909 they topped $41,000. Proctor was now making a very comfortable living, possibly as much as $5,000 a year. He married a secretary in the office, moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and in 1909 Edward Jr. was born.
Eventually, the Guild Co. offered letters from farmers, and from people had purchased dry goods and novelties. “Millions of original letters of every description we have for rent—all of which are recent,” it proclaimed in a 1916 trade ad. “They are letters received from advertising in leading publications by mail order houses. They can be rented at a nominal price.”
Just what did the company offer? Letters in some old business categories—and some new ones.
“They are letters received from advertising in leading publications by mail order houses,” the ad said. “They represent MEDICAL—DRY GOODS—AGENTS—NOVELTY—FARMING—INCUBATOR—TRUST—FOREIGN LANGUAGE—LETTERS, etc.
“Increase your business by direct advertising,” it urged.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the news came through that Germany had surrendered in the Great War. But Proctor had little time to celebrate. His client, the John C. Winston Co., had summoned him to Philadelphia, and he had to get there by train past celebrating mobs in the streets. “It was a wild day in his life,” said Edward Proctor Jr.
Winston, the largest Bible publisher in the country, had some lucrative sidelines. For example, it mailed a book titled, “Sexual Knowledge: What every young man and every young woman should know,” in a plain brown wrapper. And it had recently hired an historian and a military analyst to write a book titled, “History of the World War.” Proctor had to help sell—by mail—a book that was not yet written. He went home that night with an order for several million names.
Meanwhile, the balance in the office had shifted. Guild was spending more time at his home in Maine. He hunted and enjoyed his breakfasts of steak and fried potatoes. Proctor ran the office, although Guild’s wife Addie was listed as president.
“He was a jolly old fellow,” said Ed Proctor Jr., who accompanied his family to visit the Guilds in Maine. “He sure was rotund—he ate regularly.”
Maybe he ate too regularly. In 1920, Proctor Sr. came home one night and announced, “Mr. Guild died.” Several months later, Proctor bought the company for $100,000 that he borrowed from a bank. And he took over just as direct mail was entering its most prosperous decade.
Note: Edward Proctor sold the Guild Co. to Bob Dale in 1979, and it was sold, in turn, to Wayne Willereth and finally to Merit Direct. He continued working there, for clients like Walter Drake and Miles Kimball. He retired in 1999, and died in 2000.