DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail Chapter 3: ‘We Accidentally Met With Your Address…’

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. When Paisley opened the “envelope,” a folded-over sheet sealed by a red-wax wafer, he found a promotion 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.”

Behold an early example of junk mail. Like today’s ad letters, it was full of hype, promising that the advertused lotteries were ““beautiful, grand, splendid and brilliant.” It even had what is now called a privacy policy: “All communications strictly confidential.”

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 moral 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 these men decided that they had to educate their customers on how to buy by mail. 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 part of a dark general store with tools and bacon hanging from the ceiling. Then he had to pay for the letter.

Most mail was dropped into the system without postage; the recipient had to pay, and few did. Why would they? Some unpaid letters were sent as jokes—the victim would pay 25 cents for an envelope full of manure. General Zachary Taylor refused to pay for the letter informing him he had been nominated for the Presidency of the United States. Even the lottery companies wouldn’t pay: “No unpaid letters received in our office,” B.B. Mars & Co. of Baltimore warned customers:

This 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 inform 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. With this system in place, 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…”

Chapter 4: Gospel Mail

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s