By Ray Schultz
History doesn’t tell us much about A. Paisley. All we know is that he lived in Gloucester, Mass., and that a letter was sent to him there in 1837.
Most mail was dropped into the system without postage in those days; the recipient had to pay. And few did. Why would they? Some unpaid letters contained news of deaths in the family, but others were sent as jokes—the victim would pay 25 cents for an envelope full of manure. But this one was paid, so Paisley probably opened the “envelope,” a folded-over sheet sealed by a red-wax wafer. And when he did, he found a letter from Sylvester’s Exchange & Commission of New York.
“I beg leave to submit to your attention to the annexed – Our brilliant Schemes to be drawn in the month of March either of which professes attractions far superior to any Scheme yet laid before you,” announced the handwritten note. “Early notice is thus given that my most distant correspondents may not be disappointed.”
In 1827, Congress passed a law prohibiting local postmasters from working as lottery agents—no longer could they dispense handbills in return for a percentage of the sales. So the lottery barons started mailing directly to the rubes; by 1830, if you believe the later claims, they even had an agency in New York to facilitate this “circular advertising.”
So great was the outcry against lotteries that most northern states gave up theirs. But tickets for border and Southern state lotteries were sold in shops and by mail by firms like Wood, Eddy & Co., of Wilmington; Egerton & Bros. of Baltimore; and the combine of Archibald McIntyre and John Barentse Yates, of New York. And they required education on how to do businss by mail. For example, Egerton & Bros. explained that “we invariably answer letters by return mail, enclosing the Tickets in a proper envelope, observing the strictest confidence and after the Drawing is over we send the Official Printed Drawing, duly certified to by the State Officer, and Managers with a written explanation of the result.” Smallwood Co. promised that its tickets would be returned in “strong safety envelopes.”
The average person learned that he had mail when he saw his name in a newspaper listing. Or he found out when he visited the post office, usually a dark general store with tools and bacon hanging from the ceiling. Then he had to pay the postage. General Zachary Taylor refused to pay for the letter informing him he had been nominated for the Presidency of the United States. And even the lottery companies wouldn’t pay: B.B. Mars & Co. of Baltimore warned customers: “No unpaid letters received in our office.”
But this all changed when Congress passed the Postal Reform Act of 1855. Magazines and newspapers excepted, senders now had to pay in advance. And the lottery operators were happy to educate people about it. “From and after 1st April 1855, prepayment, either by stamps, stamped envelope, or in money, is compulsory,” Emory & Co. advised its customers.
What is more, envelopes could be now registered and tracked for a fee. Thus enabled, the lottery promoters papered the country with offers, almost all containing an apology:
“Trusting you will not find us intrusive…”
“We crave your indulgence for intruding on your valuable time…”
“We accidentally met with your address…”
William France was a “common drunk” who rigged a lottery so that he won the grand prize himself. And he used the name of a competitor, Murray, Eddy & Co., for one of his own mailings. That firm complained that it was “being daily robbed by a man who, at the same time, swindles the public and makes the Post Office Department the innocent accomplice of his guilt.”
Not that Murray, Eddy & Co. was any better. Its main offering, the Kentucky Lottery, had been chartered in 1838 to improve the water supply in Frankfurt, Kentucky—a project long since completed.
France and others like him invented devices that would later become standard in the trade. In 1861, Schoofield & Co., of Baltimore, sent a mailing for the Delaware State Lotteries. It went in a small brown envelope with Schoolfield’s name and post office box stamped on it—one of the first return envelopes. The note that went with it implied that a prize was a sure thing.
“Dear Sir: From what we can learn of Public Sentiment we are satisfied that there exists a strong feeling against Lotteries in Your State – and desiring to remove all such prejudices by selling a good Prize to some influential person in your locality who will give it publicity, – we take the liberty to enclose you a Scheme of the Consolidated Lottery of Delaware Drawing April 24th – Class 68.”
Another agent said that he was “anxious to sell you a prize and create an excitement in your neighborhood.” And that evolved into this: “We are confident that if a good Prize was sold by us to some person in your neighborhood who would show the money and give it publicity that it would greatly extend our business and add to our reputation as Prize sellers. For this purpose, we have thought proper to tender you the Prize upon condition that you will use your influence among your acquaintances in our favor.”
Not all these letters explicitly stated that the person would win. But they inferred it, and by 1865 the mails were flooded with letters offering prizes to people who would show the money.