Crooked Colonials

By Ray Schultz

It started when the country was thinly settled, with only a few towns scattered along the coast. Most mail arrived by ship, and was dumped on tables in taverns, where anyone could read it.

Still, colonists had little choice but to do business by mail. And a few smart men exploited this state of affairs. Benjamin Franklin, the Philadelphia printer sold products by mail through his newspaper: the Gazette (“The widow READ…continues to make and sell her well-known ointment for the ITCH”). And he published a book catalog, promising buyers “the same justice as if present.”

Franklin is now revered in this business for his work as postmaster—he added routes, ensuring better service and profits for the Crown. But he didn’t do it out of altruism, nor for the Crown. Rather, the job “facilitated the correspondence that improve my newspaper, increas’d the number demanded, as well as the advertisements inserts, so that it came to afford me a comfortable income.”

In fact, Franklin’s real contribution to the direct mail art was running a lottery. Long “fostered by Christian communities,” lotteries were the main way of financing roads and buildings in Colonial America. Washington ran one, so did Jefferson, and even the clergy played them. But there soon were too many, and the amateurs in charge were unable to cope with this market reality. So they hired promoters, and asked them to “advertise in the Papers, and have Hand bills struck off, and dispersed thro your neighborhood.”

They shouldn’t have asked. These promoters started papering the cities with handbills, caring little if some ended up floating in rivers, and even less if the pieces contained a grain of truth. Whereas early lottery handbills specified the precise number of blanks (losing tickets), the new ones vowed that there were “not two Blanks to a Prize.”

Outright lying wasn’t their only innovation. Soon, they had country postmasters tacking handbills on their walls. Trapped in some backwater, the postmaster would receive a letter and a packet of handbills from a faraway company.

“For the information of your place and vicinity, I have taken the liberty of enclosing a few Bills showing the present very interesting and brilliant situation of the Grand State Lottery of Maryland, of which only one drawing now remains to complete,” wrote J.I. Cohen, Jr. of Baltimore in 1824, well after the Colonial era. Many postmasters tacked the handbills on the wall or handed them out to townspeople, in return for a percentage on the tickets sold.

In 1825, Allen’s Lucky Office of New York put out a handbill saying that that a $25,000 lottery jackpot had been shared by “a patriotic soldier who had lost a leg in the service of his country.” In many towns, rubes who fell for a line like this could buy lottery tickets from the postmaster. But Allen’s Lucky Office invited direct contact: “Orders from the Country, (post paid) promptly attended to.” In this way it would get the names of customers. And it could mail them over and over without anyone knowing.

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