Calling Western Union

By Ray Schultz

Direct mailers have often tried and failed to find alternative delivery systems. But they were offered one in the early 20th century by a trusted brand name.

“The Western Union Telegraph Company has a complete messenger service for delivering telegrams,” manager J.A. Rudd told Printers’ Ink magazine in an interview published on Sept. 30, 1903.

That said, Rudd announced that this service had been expanded to include advertising matter. It would cover “more than 30,000 cities, towns and villages in every part of the United States.”

As Rudd explained, two developments drove this move. First, the company realized that its messengers had too much time on their hands.

“They came to the offices at eight in the morning, uniformed and ready for work, but the rush did not begin until eleven o’clock, and at three it was over,” Rudd said. “This left five or six hours of time during which they were unoccupied.”

Second was the fact that the Post Office had excluded some publications from second-class privileges.

“The express companies could not handle mail matter, and many publishers were at a loss for methods of distributing their periodicals,” Rudd explained.

So Western Union stepped into the breach, delivering samples, advertising literature, catalogs and “any other matter that we could profitably handle,” Rudd said. “Our service is not based on weight, like that of the Post Office, but on individual deliveries, and we are able to distribute small packages at rates far below those of the express companies.”

Case in point: “A publication weighing one pound, which is the minimum weight of most monthly magazines and trade journals,” Rudd said. “The government carries such a publication for one cent at second-class rates, or eight cents third-class. We deliver it for one cent, and get a signed receipt in each case. The latter is turned into the publisher.”

Rudd continued that, “for a publication weighing five pounds we charge four cents, saving a penny on second-class rates, and thirty-five cents on third-class, under which catalogues are mailed.”

And samples? One patent medicine seller “had a remedy which he was sending by mail, selling it at twenty-five cents,” Rudd said. “Postage came to twelve cents, eating up his profit. Consignments of this remedy were shipped to our distributing centres, and when the manufacturer received an order a bottle was delivered and twenty-five cents collected form the addressee. This service cost five cents, including return of money and receipt.”

Thanks to clients like this one, there was so much work that “we are now putting on boys who work wholly at delivering,” Rudd added.

Western Union even offered mailing lists. “We have made no attempt to furnish addresses to our customers, but our books contain thousands of cable addresses, and we also have lists of wholesale and retail houses throughout the country,” Rudd stated. “These lists, under certain conditions, are accessible to responsible customers.”

It’s not clear how long this service lasted. But there was one false note in Rudd’s presentation.

“There are thousands of people right here in New York who have never received a telegram, and delivery by telegraph messenger is an event,” Rudd said.

That’s a little dubious. As I recall, a telegram was a frightening thing for an average person to get—it usually meant a death in the family.

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