By Ray Schultz
John P. Cramer was another small businessman who found a way to make a dollar off junk mail around the turn of the 20th century. He owned the Multi-Mailing Co., a lettershop that performed “the entire mechanical function of a mass mailing.” Located on Park Row, this outfit printed circulars and stuffed them into envelopes. And it compiled mailing lists out of telephone directories. “The rural telephone sorts out the influential classes in every community, and lists of names made up from telephones are excellent for high-class propositions,” Cramer said. “I should call such names the very best that could be secured for investment advertising.
“Here are the telephone directories of the country around Akron, Ohio. Some of the little independent lines built by farmers for their own communities are only fifteen miles long. They have perhaps 100 subscribers. The subscribers’ list of such a line gives names that have been hard to get heretofore, as they are in no directory.”
Firms like Cramer’s drew legitimate clients. For instance, the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Company sent circulars printed on tinted paper to names taken from the Elite Directory or Blue Book: HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT OF HAVING A TELEPHONE IN YOUR HOUSE? Those little worries and annoyances that cause so much friction in household affairs are abolished by the telephone, which makes the householder independent of distance, weather and promises.
In Chicago, the Irene How Sanitarium asked physicians to refer women who wish to seclude themselves until they have passed what might be an embarrassing confinement, and offered a liberal percentage for referrals. And it added, Where the mother wishes to dispose of her infant we find it a home with respectable people.
Other letters, those sent by charities, achieved a divine eloquence:
The Bowery Mission and its famous Bread Line are favorably known throughout the length and breath of our beloved land. In every State and in every county may be found those who, once stranded in the great Metropolis, homeless, friendless, and penniless, found, in the time of their direst need, and in the Bowery Mission a City of Refuge and a Haven of Rest…Think of a thousand homeless men and boys, in line every midnight for coffee and rolls. Think of the clothing, the shoes, the underwear, and the linen necessary to give the shabby men a respectable appearance that they may have a better show when seeking work! Think of the thousands of aged and feeble ones who must be sheltered from the wintry blasts in clean and wholesome beds!
All this requires funds. Give what you can, and give quickly, and may the blessing of Him who says, ‘Inasmuch as ye do it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me,’ be your recompense and your reward.
Not everyone liked getting letters from strangers, though. “If a man or woman utterly unknown to you should stop you in the street, and, after tapping you on the shoulder, begin to tell you a story about his or her affairs—what he or she has to sell and how good it is—you would consider it a great impertinence,” wrote a young businessman. “But is it any the less an impertinence for that strange man or woman to take advantage of the mails to do the same thing?
He complained that he was “the target of scores of paper bullets which are shot at me every morning. Here, for instance, is a good woman who has imported a lot of baby clothes, and stops me to tell me of it, or another boasts of her woman’s underwear…Another person brings a school to my attention; a second his meats and groceries; a third his unparalleled landaus or other carriages; a fourth his hotel in Florida.; another his pickles and other things in which I have no more interest than I have in the man in the moon, yet every day I am compelled to listen for several minutes to their ranting, when I want to be off about my own business.”
The astute consumer could tell an advertising circular mile away, so even the most honest firms tried to disguise them. It started with type. People so distrusted the “type writer” at first that Richard Sears sent only handwritten letters. By the late 1890s it was accepted. Printers had perfected a process by which they could print thousands of letters so that each looked as if were individually typed. “Experts can scarcely tell it from genuine typewriting,” said one.
The arts of camouflage were also applied to the envelope. A new device, Belknap’s Rapid Addressing Machine, operated with stencils—it fed the names in a continuous roll, and printed them on the envelopes or periodicals. But these spotted addresses were fit only for magazines. “They give a circular away at once,” said Cramer. “All addressing in this office is done either by hand or on typewriters.”
Another giveaway was a cheap envelope and stamp. For a single cent in postage, a company could mail a letter in a so-called patent envelope, leaving one flap unopened for inspection by the post office. The drawback was that “after a man has seen one he is seldom fooled,” said Cramer.
No matter. Legitimate companies were now studying these developments, and trying to determine if they could use the medium.