By Ray Schultz
Homer Buckley, said to be father of direct mail, was not proud of his offspring. It was, he charged, “an orphan medium of advertising abused and misused on all sides, with a stigma of cheapness attached to it.” And he would have known, for he had baeen sending it since 1902, while still an advertising clerk at the Marshall Fields department store:
“The development of this direct by mail solicitation fell into my hands,” he wrote. Sensing an opportunity, he left the store and with a partner, Merritt H. Dement, opened a lettershop, a firm for handling “the entire mechanical function of a mass mailing.”
Buckley, who had the face of an impish choir boy, was credited with inventing the term “direct mail,” although a British writer had used the phrase in 1897. In 1916, though, acting on an idea by Louis Victor Eytinge, he announced the start of the Direct Mail Advertising Association (the DMMA, later known as the DMA), and incorporated it the following year. And things rolled along until the night of April 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.
At first, Buckley saw the war as good for business. Salesmen would be drafted, and companies would replace “man power with mail power,” he exulted. But it wasn’t that simple. Men were drafted, all right, almost three million, and their names disappeared from mailing lists. Worse, the government started seizing trains for military use. In the fall of 1917, 180,000 railroad cars sat idle on sidings. Merchants blamed the Post Office.
Meanwhile, the public mood deteriorated, and it wasn’t helped by “the colossal waste of public money, the savage persecution of all opponents and critics of the war…the half-insane reviling of the enemy,” in H.L. Mencken’s words. Even the charities got combative with each other. “We have been advised to abandon these American families until after the war is over,” wrote the Caney Creek Community Center of Kentucky in a letter requesting donations for homes for the poor. “Is this consistent? None hesitates to affirm that each French baby ought to be and must be saved. Why is it not equally important that Lincoln’s people should be rescued?”
Still, business had to go on, and Buckley decided it was time for the DMMA to hold its first convention. It opened on Oct. 4, 1918 at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago.
Many guests had fortified themselves with spirits, if only to ward off the Spanish flu then kiliing people. Buckley greeted them. This was his show, and he was careful to project the right image. There would be no speeches in absentia by the convicted killer Louis Victor Eytinge.
Buckley had that morning received a threatening letter from the War Industries Board, an oversight agency run by the financier Bernard Baruch. “We understand that there is going to be a conference of direct mail advertisers on October 9th to 12th to consider the use of mail power to replace man power,” Dr. E.O. Merchant wrote, using Buckley’s phrase.
The Board didn’t approve. To save paper, it wanted to “greatly reduce, or entirely eliminate direct circulation advertising,” for the duration, Merchant wrote, adding this sidewise swipe: That direct mail letters created “an unfavorable impression in the minds of the persons to whom they are addressed.”
Buckley and his fellow leaders discussed the letter that night. An outright ban would put them all out of business, not that Merchant had that kind of power. What had the Board accomplished, anyway? The garment industry had shortened women’s skirt lengths to save fabric. Ha! Still, they had to respond. Could anything be said in their favor? Well, yes. For one, they supported the war effort by selling Liberty Loans by mail; Even the convict Louis Victor Eytinge wrote Liberty Loan copy.
The Liberty Loan provides what is perhaps the first opportunity the average man has had to definitely serve his country, said Harry T. Ramsdell, president of the Manufacturers and Traders National Bank of Buffalo, in a typical letter. If, as Ramsdell boasted, there was no sacrifice in a subscription to the Liberty Loan, there was even less for the banks or the mail houses: Liberty Loan mailings went out free under government frank.
Then there was Postage magazine’s campaign to send tobacco to the boys overseas. “Do you know what it means to find yourself at the end of a good, hard day’s work with nothing to smoke?” it asked in an ad. “Now think of Uncle Sam’s fighters in France, out there in the thick of things fighting your battles…Don’t let them go smoke-hungry.” Buckley had to know this poignant message wouldn’t sway anyone, nor would an honest review of the direct mail business, for even some practitioners had doubts about the uses to which it was put.
For example, the Boston copywriter E.M. Dunbar had refused to work for mail order liquor houses. “I am a writer of advertising, and sometimes I take a drink when I want to, but I don’t write booze advertisements,” he wrote. Dunbar, for his “soul’s safety,” did not want to be party to a tragedy like one that had occurred in Georgia, when a man drunk on mail order liquor shot his own brother to death.
If Chicago was home to the great mail order houses and New York the center of publishing, Kansas City was in the early 1900s the mail order liquor capital of the United States, home to over 100 firms selling mostly to dry counties.
They didn’t need Dunbar, not when they had writers like Elmer Davis, age 21, from Kansas City. Dear Friend: Did you ever wake up in the morning, head buzzing `round like a Kansas cyclone, a dark brown taste in your mouth, and a desire to lick the living daylights out of everything that got in your way? Davis wrote in one letter, or so he later claimed. Fortunately, Congress outlawed mail order liquor sales in 1917.
Buckley and company turned to their biggest dilemma: mail fraud. There were more brazen examples of it every day. Every time they opened an newspaper, it seemed, there was a story about some miscreant selling a cure for “weak manhood.” Worse, the papers regularly published statistics on how much money was stolen by mail—$183 million from 1909 to 1912.
The list of frauds was staggering:
- Promoting and sale of worthless mining or other stocks
- Inducing betting on fake horse races and athletic contests
- Fake land schemes
- Commission merchant swindles
- Selling worthless goods through misrepresentations.
- Obtaining commissions on fraudulent order
- Work at home schemes
- Failure to furnish goods ordered
- False correspondence school
- Sale of cheap books and dividing rods for locating minerals
- Phone guarantee of stocks and bonds
- Forged bills of lading
- Selling diplomas and requiring little or no study before granting them
- Fake trance mediums
- Green-goods swindles
- Sales of fake recipes
- Obtaining money to assist in securing fake inheritances
- Obtaining payments from relatives of deceased persons for goods supposed to have been ordered before death
- Selling interest in non-existing moving picture theaters
- Obtaining subscriptions for charitable institutions
- Fake employment bureaus
Some of these promotions are being used online today.
Anyone who had forgotten about fraud was reminded of it on Sept. 21, 1915, when Anthony Comstock died at age 71. The New York Times praised the old warrior for “the almost innumerable convictions of counterfeiters and green goods men,” and his fight against the Louisiana Lottery.
Some at the table must have thought it was hopeless. But Buckley rallied them, and after another sniifter of brandy or two, they drafted a response to the Board, pledging a “savings of 25% in the total tonnage of paper used.” This would be achieved by reducing paper size and limiting print runs. This document was submitted to the membership the next day, and the convention ended with a banquet on Friday night. E. St. Elmo Lewis, of Detroit, spoke on the subject of “Beating the Hun with Bigger Business.”