By Ray Schultz
The Depression year 1932 was not a good one for mailing list compilers or anyone else. “There has been a steady decline in lists of all kinds,” said E.J. Williams, age 72, in his apartment in the Waldorf-Astoria. “In 1929, we had far more millionaires, wealthy widows or paper hangars worth $2,000 or more.”
Williams, the owner of Boyd’s City Dispatch, had long experience in this business. Started by John T. Boyd in 1844, Boyd’s had delivered mail in New York and even had its own stamps, featuring the image of an eagle on a globe. Williams joined the firm as an errand boy, and traveled around the city on foot and on horse cars.
One Friday in May 1883, the delivery boys left for their first of two runs for the day. Waiting for them on Beekman Place were postal inspectors. The inspectors, armed and with full police powers, ordered the boys to turn over their mail bags: The post office had decided to protect its monopoly by shutting down independent delivery operations. Counting those seized from both Boyd’s and Hussey’s, another delivery company, the haul that day was 25,000 letters.
This should have been the end of Boyd’s. But the firm then known as Boyd’s City Despatch Addressing, Mailing & Delivery Agency had a side business. Around the time of the Civil War, a steamship line asked to use the Boyd’s address list to mail cruise solicitations. In time, Williams bought a half-interest in the firm for $150 during a downturn, and eventually owned it all. He changed course when he took over: He created mailing lists by copying names from public stock listings.
Foremost on the Boyd’s list were the 2,532 widows in the country said to be worth over $50,000. Williams also collected the names of “fat people, bald people, and sufferers from asthma or liver trouble.” But he was ethical up to a point. Though he had no problem renting the widow’s list to real estate agents or philanthropic fundraisers, he drew the line matrimonial agencies.
In 1923, Williams wrote a article, outlining some of his methods, and stated, frankly, “The hardest names to get are those of responsible persons with means.
“People worth up to a thousand dollars, and who are known to have a good standing because they pay their bills, are on what we call the general mail-order list,” he wrote. “They receive catalogs from mail order houses, and also announcements from dealers about such moderate-priced products as clothes, shoes and raincoats.” The types of solicitations improved as a person moved up the financial ladder. “The man who is supposed to be worth from $1,000 to $5,000 receives letters from jewelers concerning moderate-priced rings and watches,” Williams wrote.
“The cigars brought to his attention range in price form five to ten cents,” he continued. “His letters from an insurance company tell him of policies ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. If he receives letters from hotels or summer resorts, his information is about accommodations to be had for from three to five dollars per day.”
People at the $5,000 pinnacle received letters about “pianos, organs, high-class domestic furniture and rugs, and silverware. The insurance suggestions sent to a man in this class range from 10,000 to $15,000. He receives letters from hotels whose rates are from $5 to $25 a day. The cigars he hears about are priced at from ten to thirty cents.
“The preparation of any such list as this requires a great deal of expert investigation, covering public records of property holdings and stock lists,” Williams explained. “Facts which on their surface might indicate that a man is very well-to-do cannot always be relied upon.”
Here he took a slam at rivals R.L. Polk and Donnelley—Midwestern companies that compiled car registration lists. “To some extent, the kind of automobile a man owns might be accepted as an indication of his worth; but, on the other hand, a man may have bought a high-priced car second-hand.”
There was good reason for his boasting. Boyd’s, in little more than a year, had sold “150,000 lists containing 200-million names, at a price for each list ranging from one dollar and a half to six thousand dollars,” Williams said. Its millionaires’ list was ever popular, as were its doctors’ and lawyers’ lists (you could rent all 7,000 doctors for $17.50).
Williams admitted that business had suffered since 1929. But there was a bright side: With 11-million unemployed, there was a great pool of college graduates available for stuffing envelopes, Williams told the New York Times at the Waldorf.
Boyd’s competitor, R.L. Polk Co., was started by Ralph Lane Polk, a Civil War drummer boy who was present at Appomattox. A “stern and frugal man,” who had enlisted in the Union army at 16, Polk sold patent medicines door-to-door after the war, then was hired as a city directory enumerator for $2 a day.
City directories were the main listings of individuals in that pre-telephone age. In 1837, McCabe’s Directory of Detroit listed Andrew B. Calhoun, merchant tailor at 175 Jefferson av.; Denis Callaghan, laborer, on Wapping; and Barnaba Campau, gentleman, at 178 Jefferson.
In 1870, Polk started a directory of towns along the Detroit and Milwaukee railroad. And as the railroads pushed west, he published directories in many other towns, outpacing his competitors. Polk directories eventually became known as the “books with thousands of characters.”
Don’t think the Polk family was infallible: It should have moved into the telephone directory business, competing against Reuben H. Donnelley, but it didn’t. “That was probably the biggest single mistake my grandfather made,” the scion Stephen Polk said in a 1996 interview. “He decided there wasn’t much business in telephone books.”
But there was another business waiting, and Polk found it thanks to a lucky piece of geographic planning. Though he could have settled in Milwaukee, South Bend any other Midwestern town, the patriarch chose Detroit. And it was in that city that the automobile was mass produced.
“Alfred P. Sloan, who was the real founder of General Motors, knew my grandfather (Raph Lane Polk Jr.) socially,” Stephen Polk said. “He always complained that Henry Ford lied to him about how many cars he was selling across town. We were the largest directory company, managing all these slips of paper, and keeping track of millions of people. He said, “I can’t believe you can’t keep track of the autos being sold.”
So the Polks went into the automotive statistics business, and it was there that they found another lucrative sideline: In 1921, they bought regional companies that compiled mailing lists based on automobile registrations–in Des Moines, Newark and Cleveland. And they started sending brochures to local auto dealers, selling them on the benefits of direct mail.
Like E.J. Williams, R.L. Polk Jr. found one positive factor during the Depression. “Our city directories are ‘harbors of missing men,’” he wrote in an article. “In this day of change, when folks move about like checkers on a board, the directory alone probably holds the record through which they may be located.’”
There was, of course, one man for whom there was no hope at all, although he was hardly missing: Louis Victor Eytinge. “We got him a job,” wrote Henry Hoke, a copywriter who had run the Direct Mail Advertising Association and now published a magazine called The Reporter of Direct Mail. He. “He paid back his ‘obligations.’ But he was sometimes, ‘Jekyll.’ Sometimes ‘Hyde.’ His name gradually dropped out of the picture.
But Hoke kept up with him. “I last saw him in Chicago during the summer of 1938,” Hoke continued. “He was 59 years old then. The uncontrollable had been controlled by laws of nature. He was making good on a job. His genius for writing was still great. He asked me please not to give him any publicity. He smiled at his broken memories and the mess he had made out of the big promises of 1920. ‘Hyde’ was dead. ‘Jekyll’ just wanted to be left alone with what might have been.” Louis Victor Eytinge died a year later.