DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 18: Selling in America

By Ray Schultz

By day, Eytinge ran the gang that cleaned the prison yard. At night, he wrote articles and edited copy. His editor’s photo in Postage showed him in a suit with tie and vest, seated next to a desk. And trapped inside, he imagined scenes that he could not have seen.

“Secretary W.H. Loomis Jr., of the Southwestern Blau-Gas Company, Kansas City, shook his head. He felt the pressure of the rising tide of electric lighting systems designed for farm use, although he had nothing to fear from the natural gas, acetylene or gasoline systems.”

And there was no way Eytinge had witnessed this (at least not recently):

“He was standing on the platform of a trolley, with some half dozen other smokers, when he noticed a newcomer step forward and deliver a sounding whack on the back of one of the men in the group. Accompanying the slap went a hearty ‘Bill, you old rascal, how’s things?’”

Eytinge also imagined women’s clothing, comparing it to direct mail design: “She dresses with variety because the changes make her more attractive, more alluring, more certain of ‘landing her prospect’—the winning of a mate,” he wrote. “And she dresses according to program and purpose, never wearing a décolleté gown riding after hounds.”

As often happened with Eytinge, this success didn’t last.

“For several months the issues of this magazine have been mailed from two weeks to a month behind schedule,” Publisher Lewis Hovey wrote when the September issue of Postage failed to appear. “Every month these ‘intentions’ to get it out ‘on time’ were the best, but one thing and another has interfered and it has been impossible to ‘catch up.’

In December, Hovey announced that Eytinge was stepping down. “It is needless for me to say that Postage has not been a success financially,” he wrote.

But people then took up Eytinge’s other idea: To “unite in hearty harmony and for paramount permanency.” Homer J. Buckley, who owned a direct mail print house, founded the Direct Mail Advertising Association (now the Direct Marketing Association). Those who joined automatically got a subscription to Postage.

***

Eytinge wasn’t the only tortured wordsmith to enter the junk mail business. Another was Sherwood Anderson, Ohio’s Roof-Fix Man. A one-time Chicago copywriter who turned to selling paint and fix-it items by mail, Anderson thought that “most people who buy house paint are, like the people who are sold anything else, at bottom probably yaps,” and he showed it in its copy, which was filled with stock advertising phrases like “guaranteed,” “We will send you absolutely free” and “Write for it today,” according to “Sherwood Anderson: An American Career,” by John E. Bassett. “Let me tell you, Free, how to cure your roof troubles for keeps,” he wrote in one direct mail circular, Bassett reports.

Anderson’s own printer accused him of cynicism. “The truth is, that, as you wrote, you were thinking of someone else,” he said one night as they walked around Elyria, Ohio, Anderson recalled. “I know how it was. You imagined some man getting the paint circular in the mail. He is a man you never saw and never will see. Now you tell me this. At bottom you are not so proud of this business you are in.”

Anderson agreed that his writing talent could be put to better use. “Already for several years I had been doing what I was doing when I wrote the circular,” he remembered. “I had been using the words of our human speech, really to deceive men.

“It was quite true that in writing anything…for example a paint circular…the object sought was some sort of entrance into the confidence of the other man and so, even in such a crude approach to the art of writing, you thought, not of the thing about which you were presumed to be talking, but of the man addressed. ‘Now how can I win his confidence’ you thought and this led inevitably to the secret of watching men.”

Facing an existential crisis, Anderson disappeared in 1912, turning up days later in a Cleveland drug store, his “clothes bedraggled and his appearance unkempt.” He left his family and returned to a job as an ad copywriter in Chicago. And when he returned to his “shabby little hole” every night, he did what he had started doing in Ohio: He wrote fiction.

His first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, about “a sort of minor captain of industry,” was published in 1916 with the help of Theodore Dreiser. His second, Marching Men, appeared a year later. But neither was a success.

One night, desperate, Anderson wrote a story titled Hands. “Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down,” it started. He finished it in one sitting, then wept. It was the first of several stories about “the defeated figures of an old American individualistic small town life.”

In April 1919, four years after starting this sequence, Anderson entered his room with the result: a yellow-cloth book titled, “Winesburg, Ohio”–an American classic, and an instant sensation. He soon was friends with Gertrude Stein and his book was said to influence Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos.

But he needed money, so he asked his publisher: “Do I have to go back to advertising? I’ll have go back there, begin again to write of tooth paste, of kidney pills, of how to keep your hair from falling out.”

He didn’t, and that’s just as well, for he had a sour view of his old trade. “In America no one buys anything,” he concluded. “In America everything, even art, is sold to people.”

Chapter 19: The Great War

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