DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Introduction: Oh, Pioneers

By Ray Schultz

Copyright 2014

For Andrea

The consumer was prey who had to pray,” Copywriter Ed McLean

“`Who? Who’s got a steady job, a couple bucks nobody’s touched, who?’ David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross

Known for their beauty and even more for their vast ore deposits, the hills around Laramie, Wyoming were in 1865 the scene of regular knifings and garrotings. Then the Union Pacific Railroad was extended to Laramie, and westward from there: By 1875, trains were pulling in to refuel, and passengers were rushing into trackside restaurants to dine on dishes like minced liver on toast and calves tongue with tomato sauce. And there was one other sign of civilization: a lottery run by a man listed in the city directory as “Pattee, J.M., capitalist.”

Not that most townspeople were aware of the Lottery King. Having been run out of Omaha for swindling, Pattee had learned to operate by stealth. There would be no public drawings in Laramie, as there had been in Omaha. He would also pull back on advertising in newspapers. Why bother with that when there was a more hidden medium, one that would render him “hard to arrest for the deeds of the present, and harder to locate for the deeds of the past?”

That would be what is now called junk mail. This medium did not yet have a name, but it was the precursor of spam, and all other forms of instrusive advertising, and Pattee had mastered it. His circulars, 40,000 at a time, were printed by the Daily Sun, a newspaper located two doors down from his office, placed in hand-addressed envelopes, then loaded onto trains, some ending up “where the temperature is fifty degrees below zero, and little business has been transacted beyond sending to the general store for provisions,” as legend had it. Others went to places where “the golden scresent sinks beneath the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. and summer is eternal.”

The pieces were simple prize sheets. There was no way to tailor the copy by classifying people by their characteristics. Still, early junk mailers like Pattee had little trouble targeting their customers: They referred to them, simply, as “the fools.”

It was all they needed. For the real pioneers were grifters of whom little good can be said except that they were less likely than train robbers or other postal felons to be tattooed.

Chapter 1: Crooked Colonials

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 25: Harbors Of Missing Men

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.

Chapter 26: Black Mail

 

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 24: The Traveling Salesman

By Ray Schultz

Edward Proctor Jr. was a child of privilege. He’d gone to the Hackley School, a boarding school, in Tarrytown, New York after his father decided that the children of tenant farmers of Teaneck, where his family lived, were not suitable classmates.

Young Proctor hardly ever saw his father, who worked non-stop to build the business he had bought. But as side benefits accrued as the prosperity of the 1920s took hold. One summer, the family visited 40 states on a train tour of the U.S.; the following year, they went on a European trip.

Proctor later attended Cornell, and hoped to become a journalist. He was hired as an intern on the Bergen Record in Northern New Jersey in the summer of 1931. One day, when the regular reporter didn’t show up, Proctor was sent to cover the dedication ceremony for the George Washington Bridge. He found himself riding in an elevator in the superstructure of the bridge with New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was shocked to see Roosevelt seated in a wheelchair.

It was easy to forget that his education was being paid for by the mailing list business, and that there was a depression going on. But Proctor was reminded of it that fall when his father called him in for a talk.

The old man got right to the point. Business was so bad that he had to restructure and lay off several people. There was no choice but for Ed Jr. to leave school and come to work for the company. Another young man would have rebelled, but Proctor took it well. “Everything my father suggested I just automatically accepted–so different from the children today,” he said.

So Proctor became an apprentice in the mailing list business, just as his father had in 1899. He started keeping entries in the same old ledger that had come down with Charles Guild from Boston. And although he attended night courses at Columbia University, he traveled one week a month to the Midwest.

It was a grueling regimen. Brokers like Proctor looked through newspapers for mail order ads, then contacted the companies and asked if they would rent their lists. “They made endless calls to list owners. They trudged up countless fights of stairs to dingy offices to meet with publishers and merchandisers who wore green eyeshades,” wrote the copywriter Denison Hatch.

“The big argument was money,” said Proctor. “We’d say, ”Look at all you’re losing. Ten dollars a thousand was a lot of money during the Depression.”

One such candidate was American Products, the possessor of about 2 million names mostly of the gullible. In a typical ad, it said:

Here is a new way to make money—a way that offers a chance for big, quick profits. Men and women everywhere are making $6 to $10 a day in full time—$1.00 to $2.00 an hour in spare time—taking orders for Jiffy Glass Cleaner—a new pure, harmless liquid that instantly cleans glass surfaces without water, soap or chamois.

Proctor visited them. “I went and sat in office in Cincinnati, trying to persuade them,” Proctor said. “They took in other bids, but ours was bigger—we had users lined up.”

In time, Proctor also “pried loose a few subscriber lists,” starting with that of The Workbasket, a magazine for “little old ladies who knitted.” He rented it to the publisher of a sex manual that he remembered as “How to Sleep with Your Wife.”

Then there was the Dale Carnegie list. “It reached a total of about 65,000 names and back in 1937 that was a large list — probably the largest high grade list available at the time,” Proctor said..

Either way, there was rental business to be had. Liberty magazine mailed millions of pieces for its Presidential poll, which wrongly forecast that Alf Landon would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936–it was said to be the biggest direct mailing ever. And Lucky Strike mailed 12 million pieces for its Hit Parade that year.Capon Springs, which sold mineral water, sent this letter in 1933:

Dear friend:

Would you like to “feel years younger?”

Would you like to be “made over anew?”

Would you like your eliminative organs to function naturally, thoroughly, and of their own accord, without outside help?

Then drink water from the magic spring — the Fountain of Health — Capon Springs — “The most delicious water I have ever drunk.

The offer was 5 gallons of his water bottled and sealed at Capon Springs, West Virginia) for only $1.25 (regularly $3.25).

Also included in the envelope was a black-and-white brochure, titled “Things you will observe about Capon Springs Water,” which made these claims:

It leaves a clean taste in the mouth. Capon uncoats the tongue and checks pyorrhea.

It regulates the bowels. Capon restores their normal peristaltic action (the eliminative urge).”

Another good customer for mailing lists was Psychiana, the mail order religion run by Dr. Frank B. Robinson. I Talked with God. So Can You — It’s Easy, Dr. Robinson promised in his direct mail copy. You may learn to use this fathomless, pulsing, throbbing ocean of spiritual power just as you learn to use chemistry, physics or mathematics.

List brokers like Proctor were delighted with the sheer volume of names Robinson used. “Many mailing lists were prospected, with the highest conversion rates – 20 percent — coming from a lonely-hearts list and a list of inquirers interested in ‘the power of thought,’ wrote Martin Gross, a direct mail copywriter.

Gross continued, “The next list generated a return of 16 percent. These were mail order buyers of fish. (Always experimenting, Dr. Robinson had bought a very large list of these seafood lovers. He tested only 2,000; of those who responded, 16 percent bought the lessons. He expanded the test and the return was much like the first.)

“Other results included a Yoga list (14 percent), two astrological lists (12 percent and 11 percent), a Charles Atlas-like list (six percent) and a parents’ organization (six percent),” Gross continued. “No conversions at all were received from inquiries for a high-fashion list.”

When not on the road, young Proctor also adjusted to office lie. List brokers worked half a day on Saturday, and nobody was ever addressed by their first names. (“Everyone was Mr. or Miss,” Ed Proctor, Jr. said. “It was very formal in those days.”

Chapter 25: Harbors Of Missing Men

 

 

 

 

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 22: Air Mail Special

By Ray Schultz

Aviation was barely out of its infancy in 1928. But business people realized that planes could deliver mail. On Aug. 1, the Post Office reduced the air mail postage to five cents for a one-ounce letter. And at the stroke of midnight, 30,000 direct mail letters were delivered to the New York postal center by yacht designer Henry J. Gielow Inc.

The stamps had to be shipped from Washington to New York by air, and they were costly, given that a regular letter cost two cents. But Gielow figured that airmail would be noticed.

And it was: Gielow sold $450,000 worth of yachts in ten days to people who had probably never gotten a letter by air, according to the October 1928 issue Direct Mail Selling, a trade journal.

Others firms followed. On Aug. 14, the Reo Motor Car Co., sent 350,000 air mail letters in a nationwide drop weighing 7 1/2 tons. The postage bill was $17,500, but the mailing paid for itself. Druggists, hat manufacturers and varnish makers followed.

“Direct mail advertisers, like the Reo people, find that air mail gets the same preferential reading as a telegram,” the journal Direct Mail Selling noted. And delivery was fast, for mail planes flew “100 miles an hour at night as well as in the day time.”

Of course, there were less positive trends occuring down on earth—way down. A.J. Liebling, who wrote for the New Yorker for almost 30 years, was known for his articles on boxing, food, the press and World War II. But buried within his body of work are a few paragraphs on the mailing list business, contirbuted by Col. John R. Stingo, a racing writer and Broadway characte, over bottles of “Gambrinian amber” in a Times Square dive.

One tale concerns his stint early in the last century as credit man at Tex Rickard’s Northern gambling house in Goldfield, NV. (This was way before automated scoring systems.) “Many a man rife with money makes no outward flaunt,” the Colonel says. “His habiliments, even, may be poor. But, Joe, when it comes to rich men, I am equipped with a kind of radar. The houses I worked for collected on ninety-five percent of markers, an unchallenged record.”

These gifts came in handy when he went to work for the traveling evangelist Dr. Orlando Edgar Miller in the 1920s. As part of their routine, they asked congregants to include their addresses on the envelopes they dropped into the collection plate (the better to receive literature).

“The Doctor was not interested in the addresses of people with less than a buck,” the Colonel tells Libeling. “Such were requested to drop their coins in the velvet-lined collection box, where they wouldn’t jingle. The jingle has a bad effect on suggestible people who might otherwise give folding money.”

Though not trained in mailing lists, the Reverend had figured out how to suppress unwanted names. These were identified when his employees followed up with prospects. “If, as occasionally occurred, they encountered a scoffer who had invested a buck just to see what would happen, the name was scratched from the mailing list,” the Colonel relates.

Dr. Miller also pioneered list exchanges. “When we swapped towns with another big preacher, like Dr. Hall the hundred-dollar-Bible man, we sometimes swapped mailing lists,” the Colonel recalls. “But we would always keep out a few selected prospects, and so, I suspect, would the other prophet.”

The Miller list, a “mighty lever to place in the hands of a stock salesman,” was eventually used to peddle shares in a movie that bombed. Like Max Bialystok in “The Producers,” Dr. Miller drew jail time for the scheme. But he emerged unscathed and went back to his ecclesiastical dodge.

Chapter 23: A Loan To God

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 27: The Veteran’s List

By Ray Schultz

Having returned from the South Pacific, Ensign Ed Proctor, Jr. was recovering from an eye infection in a naval hospital in Georgia on July 13, 1945 when he got an urgent call from New Jersey: The family patriarch, Ed Proctor Sr., owner of the Guild Co. since 1920 and a mailing list broker since 1899, had, after playing with his grandson the prior evening, died in his sleep at age 68.

Proctor arranged leave, and rushed home. His father, he learned, had been under a terrible strain. “It was a struggle to get business,” Proctor said in a 1995 interview. “Everyone was in war work in those days, and you couldn’t get anyone to work for you.”

Discharged by the Navy, Guild resumed his old routine of commuting into Manhattan to the Guild Co. sweatbox on 8th Ave. and 31st St. “Talk about green-eye shades and arm garters,” said Tom Foster, founder of the Foster & Gallagher catalog, of the premises. “There were old wooden filing cases, and bare-bulb lights hanging form the ceiling.”

The office was the least of Proctor’s problems, though: A bigger one was that there were some tough new competitors. One was James Mosley, an advertising agent from Boston. Mosley lost $4,000 when a client went belly-up, and the only way he could recoup it was to rent out the company’s list.

Soon, Mosley was dealing in lists full-time, and keeping his hand in the copywriting game: “How to get 20,000 to 1-million new mail order customers in a hurry during 1945. We’ll help you select the CREAM,” he said in one ad in the Reporter of Direct Mail. “Mosley has the LISTS.”

His ads asking company owners to rent their lists out, were equally compelling. “You have hidden gold in your mailing lists! I’ll show you how to get it out. I’ve almost had writer’s cramp from signing 13,000 checks to folks like you for addressing empty envelopes for high-grade acceptable mass mail clients. Mosley sends the CHECKS!”

Another new competitor was Arthur Martin Karl, owner of Names Unlimited, whose ads in the Reporter of Direct Mail promised “Less Testing—Better Results.” Karl, who tortured tortured his employees by playing the cello every afternoon, supposedly rented more names for more clients than any other list broker, and persuaded more list owners to rent their names out. “He was a better pleader than I was,” Proctor conceded.

Then there was Herbert Ozda, a  tall, a charming opportunist known to  friends  as “Mr. O.”  Ozda and his wife, Irma Meyer, returned to New York after several years in California, and entered the mailing list business.

Ozda soon compiled the World War II veteran’s list, “the one big file you could get at that time.” It came out of the seven armed forces separation centers throughout the United States, according to Ozda’s son Robert Dunhill (who later changed the family name to the classier-sounding Dunhll). Ozda contacted clerks who had access to the rosters of incoming ships. Later, Dunhill would say, “It took a lot of phoning, and some of this,” rubbing his fingers together to indicate the passage of money.

That list pulled in maybe $100,000 a year, a fortune in 1946, and Ozda compiled many more like it: That year, he announced in an ad that he had “housewives, known donors, anything.”

And he advertised lists made to order. “You  have  to   listen  to  what   Mr.  O  is  saying   because  sometimes he sells things  we don’t have,” his wife told Florence Leighton, an employee who later made a name in her own right in the list business.

In 1966, Calvin Trillin wrote a 10,000-word article about the mailing list business for the New Yorker magazine that took a bemused air, observing that, like pork farmers, list brokers used “everything but the squeal.” In it, he documented one of Ozda’s techniques.

Not long ago, Herbert Ozda, the chairman of the Dunhill International List Company and one of the industry’s most aggressive compilers, happened to mention to a reporter a list of contributors to the United Jewish Appeal.

“But I just spoke to the U.J.A. yesterday,” the reporter said. “They told me they don’t rent their list to anyone. They don’t even trade it.”

“That’s right,” Ozda said.

“Then how did you get it?”

Ozda looked disappointed, as if he found it distressing that anyone could fail to see such an obvious bit of business strategy. Eventually, he said, “Well, the U.J.A. has dinners attended by the big contributors, right”

“So you subscribe to the Jewish press, and if it covers the dinner you get some of the names.”

Ozda smiled patiently and shook his head. “There are only twelve hundred hotels with banquet halls used for that kind of dinner. They all print programs for the dinner, and the bell captain gets a copy of the program, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, we have arrangements with nine hundred of the twelve hundred bell captains. Then we add to that information whatever is in the U.J.A. newsletters, and we subscribe to all the papers. We put together a list of eighteen thousand of the largest contributors. Of course, we don’t sell it as the U.J.A. list. We call it ‘Large Contributors to a Jewish Charity’ or something.”

Desperate to save his inheritance, Proctor put his rusty sales skills to work, and found to his relief that magazine publishers were ready to drop “a bunch of Number 10 envelopes into the mail.” And the cash started flowing in.

Newsweek alone ordered ten million names a year from him, and they “didn’t pay much attention to what I was giving them,” Proctor said. What is more, the direct mail manager of McCall’s and Redbook, F. Nixon (“Nix”) Merriam Jr., asked Proctor to get him the names of all Workbasket subscribers in the South.

“There’s a lot of deadbeats in the South,” Proctor warned. But that didn’t bother Merriam. “I want to extend the hand of friendship to every deadbeat in the South,” he said.

Business was now so good that Proctor joined his peers at the 1948 Direct Mail Advertising Association conference in Montreal. The old boys were together again at last—the promoters, the hustlers, the guys of whom it could be said, every day, “Today he met his new best friend.” Homer Buckley was there—it was like looking at a biblical figure—and so was Henry Hoke, not as celebrated as he should have been for his anti-Nazi campaign. Also present was O. E. McIntyre, formerly of Sears, who now owned a list compiling operation and service shop. Proctor claimed, decades later, that “they offered you a girl in your room.” Mosley gave a speech. “We must blaze new trails,” he said. “Only the beaten follow beaten paths.” “Mosley was verbose,” Proctor commented.

Chapter 28: Inside The Johnson Box

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 29: Gifts From Foreign Lands

By Ray Schultz

Max Sackheim, co-founder of the Book of the Month Club, had abandoned Cleveland in 1944. His son Sherman would return from the Army to learn that his parents had left for New York, just as he found they’d left for Cleveland when he came home from summer camp in 1927. Max Sackheim had gone back into the agency business, writing ads for paint sprayers and other such products.

One day, Sackheim opened an envelope and found a dollar in it. “I’ll bet you a dollar you won’t take my account,” it said. The letter was from David Margoles, who operated a company called Damar out of his car. Sackheim took the bet, and their first project was to sell a garlic crusher by mail. it sold millions, thanks not to wordsmithing but vision, said the copywriter Andi Emerson. But it was only the start.

“In my search for new products I tried to cover everything available in this country and abroad,” Marguiles said in an interview. “For instance, in Italy I found a garlic press, which became one of our successful items. This and the search for other gadgets led me to establish contacts with buying representatives in key spots internationally.”

That gave Marogles and Sackheim an idea: To start a continuity program modeled on the Book of the Month Club. They came up with the Around the World Shoppers Club, which offered Americans, who didn’t travel much at that time, A SURPRISE PACKAGE FROM A FOREIGN LAND EVERY MONTH!

It was marketed through a wave of junk mail that doubtless brought business for Ed Proctor and many other list peddlers. The copy described Notre Dame, rising majestically from its island in the Seine while bibliophiles browse among the bookstalls of the Left Bank and philosophical fishermen dangle their fishless lines in the shining waters. Also promised were knick-knacks from Merry England, Eternal Greece and “Sweden, the land of Ancient Vikings,” all intriguingly foreign in appearance. The cost: $20 for 12 monthly surprises.

Unfortunately, the club ran into trouble, lots of it, the company stated in a racist follow-up letter. One problem was late delivery: People around the world are not Americans. In India, for example, the clocks frequently do not tell the right time, the trains run when the engineers have finished their lunches, and there is little, if any, modern plumbing. And the natives simply have no concept of time as we do…

Then there was the problem of broken or poorly wrapped packages. Again, it was due to the fact that the foreign craftsmen do not always know how to package the beautiful things they make. We will just have to be patient until we can educate foreigners to package gifts properly!

“It’s a headache!” admitted Sallie Weir, Sackheim’s second wife. “You have to deal with all kinds of personalities. Our representatives have to negotiate in a dozen languages.”

Chapter 30: The Nervous Breakdown Saint

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 23: A Loan To God

By Ray Schultz

Louis Victor Eytinge had barely arrived in New York in 1923, having served 16 years for murder, when it was announced that he had married. The lucky woman, Pauline I. Diver, was a 43 year-old secretary for a publishing company, who had written for Postage and served as Eytinge’s “proxy” at conventions.

With her as his muse, Eytinge got right to work. Among his great direct mail letters was one for a combined cathedral and skyscraper in New York.

Have you ever heard of any one loaning money to God?

Yes—and having an actual 5 per cent interest paid, the loan being secured by mortgage? Not only would the investment be quite profitable and safe, but it can bring in tremendous happiness through contribution to the community welfare.”

No, you are not asked to contribute one copper cent. No one is begging you for a gift. We are trying to interest you in an investment—

A loan to God first, secured by income-earning property—but better still, an investment that will give vital happiness to your neighbors and more to yourself.

Mailed to 8,000 prospects, this letter raised $502,000. And Eytinge was lionized. But he had his disappointments. He wasn’t on the program at the DMMA convention in October 1923, and he was defensive about it. “Sure, I’ll be at St. Louis,” he wrote to a friend. “What’s the use of asking that question? If I’m not on the program, I’ll be where a chap can see the wheels go round.”

Soon, he left John Service, which had hired him right out of jail, to work for Franklin Printing, of Philadelphia. and this, too, failed to pan out. “I am too much of an individualist to fit in with any organization,” he admitted, then offered his services as a freelancer. “Quite modest fees will be asked of firms whose ideals can command my keenest enthusiasm—others not desired.”

Eytinge may have also been too much of an individualist for marriage. He and Diver separated barely five years after their wedding, although they lived in the same house. Months later, Eytinge was arrested for passing worthless checks in Pittsburgh. He blamed his wife—she had overdrawn the account, he ungallantly charged.

“You see, I am legally dead,” he explained. “Whenever a person is sentenced to life in prison he becomes dead in all legal respects. After my marriage Mrs. Eytinge and I agreed to a joint bank account, with the understanding I was to use her name on checks, since I was legally dead and could not enter a contract.”

A young copywriter, Henry Hoke of Baltimore, visited Eytinge. “Behind the bars in a Pittsburgh jail, he told me he was lost in the outside world and had only recently written to the Arizona warden asking that he be taken back,” Hoke wrote. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about me, Henry. I feel at home here.’”

But Hoke helped spring him, and Eytinge pleaded nolo contendre to three charges of false pretense. The sentence: Probation and restitution.

Chapter 24: The Traveling Salesman

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 21, The Inertia Plan

By Ray Schultz

Copywriter Robert Collier did “not have a lot of pride”–he would sell anything, an acquaintance said. And he certainly displayed some cynicism in his letter offering Bruce Barton’s book, “The Man Nobody Knows,” which posited that if Jesus Christ returned to earth he would be an advertising man:

Jesus Christ ‘the founder of modern business?

Jesus a master of efficiency in organization, a born executive?

Jesus a sociable man, a cheerful, bright companion with a pat story on His lips…?

Jesus wording the best advertisements ever written?

This letter, and others like it, were accompanied by a brochure, asking: Was Jesus a Physical Weakling?

The painters have made Him look so—but He swung an adze and pushed a saw until He was thirty years old. He walked miles every day in the open air. He drove a crowd of hard-faced men out of the Temple.

Collier’s letter sold millions of books. But an upheaval was coming: the Great Depression. At that time, people viewed Jesus in a more traditional light: as minister to the poor and fallen.

Collier was a copywriting legend, even without cellestial help.“Collier was first guy that really sold merchandise by mail,” said the agency pioneer Robert Stone in 1997. “He came up with 10-day pre-trial guarantees, all things we use today. He was a merchandising genius. For example, he had a bunch of black raincoats that they couldn’t sell worth a damn. Who absolutely has to have a black raincoat? So he had a list of undertakers. and sold out entire stock. It was a lesson I never forgot.”

Stone met Collier at a conference in 1939.  “He wasn’t aloof , he was a loner,” Stone observed. “There’s a difference. He was a shy man.”

Collier came from a renowned family. He finally joined his uncle’s business, P.F. Collier & Son Co., publishers of Colliers magazine and books like Harvard Classics, the Five-Foot Shelf of Books. His uncle “had always told me he did not want me in the business until I could bring something to it they could get nowhere else,” Collier wrote.

Whlle Collier was selling books about Jesus, two hustlers were sitting in a cold-water flat in Greenwich Village, also thinking of ways to peddle books: Maxwell Sackheim and Harry Scherman. “We were young, poor, ambitious. — I think we began to plan, scheme and invent from the day we met,” Sackheim said.

Scheme was the right word. Their best ideas weren’t even theirs. The Boni Brothers, who owned a bookstore in the neighbodhood, came to Sackheim with the idea of publishing classics in leather. “Scherman and I each put up $100 or $150 and we were in the publishing business with copies of Romeo and Juliet,” Sackheim continued.

The Leather Library was nothing of the sort. The duo realized they’d go broke binding books in real leather, so they found a cheap substitute: imitation leather with ground cork backing, the kind used as a sweatband in men’s hats. They sold these editions in Woolworths, then by direct mail. But this turned out to be “absolutely impossible for the simple reason that the selling cost had to be charged against the sale of a single book,” Scherman said.

“The logic of it was that if the selling cost could be spread over a number of books that problem would be solved, just as in the case of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde , or Joseph Conrad, or any of the other sets being offered at that time — O. Henry, Zane Grey, Mark Twain, etc.,” he explained.

In other words, “you couldn’t sell a single volume profitably, but you could sell the set because the selling cost could be applied against the total number of volumes. Therefore our prospective customer had to buy over a period of time — something like a subscription.”

These boys, who also had a mail order agency called Sackheim & Scherman, sold their interest in the Library to Robert Haas, and with his help launched their next project in 1926: The Book of the Month Club. The scheme was that the editorial board would select a book, and the Club would arrange for suppliers with the publisher. Then the selection would be “sent to each subscriber without pre-notification…but with a review of book by one of the board members. The Subscriber could return it, and the charge would be cancelled.”

The first ad for the new enterprise ran in the April 25, 1926 issue of the New York Times, featuring pictures of the editorial committee, and this copy:

You Can Now Subscribe to the best new books—just as you do to a magazine

Please send me without cost, your Prospectus outlining the details of the Book-of-the-Month Plan of Reading. This request involves me in no obligation to subscribe to your service.

The best new book each month is selected by this committee and sent you regularly on approval.

There was only one problem: Not everyone liked the given selection every month.

“The first book of 1927 was the one I pick as the one with which we had the worst experience of all,” Scherman said. “It was probably as a result of that book we changed the system radically. That book was The Heart of Emerson’s Journals, edited by Bliss Perry. By that time, we must have had about 40,000 subscribers — and that book just came back by the carload. The country didn’t want The Heart of Emerson’s Journals; they did want any part of Emerson’s Journals…”

It soon became apparent that “no book could please everybody,” no matter who selected it, and that any fixed period subscription would be a mistake. Few subscribers accepted twelve books consecutively and earned the three extra books free.”

Scherman added: “We had plenty of trouble with returned books in those days ….it was probably around that time that we decided we’d have to be ever so much more liberal with the subscribers and allow them NOT to get books if they didn’t want them, and also for our own protection. There was nothing to be done with the books when they came back — they had to be scrapped. It was a great expense, and in that respect it was not a good system at all in the beginning.”

Sackheim came up with an idea: “Why can’t we notify subscribers of the book selected before shipping it to them, giving them an honest review of it and telling them the book would be sent to them unless within two weeks they returned a certain form notifying us NOT to send it, or to send some substitute selection which we would also describe in this advance form?”

Sackheim called it the “prenotification plan,” but it was also known as the “automatic shipment plan”and the “negative option” plan.

“The negative option plan was started with one thought in mind; that of removing resistance on the part of the prospect to order merchandise which he wanted but which through normal delay, inertia or whatever you want to call it, was put off until eventually the purchase was missed entirely,” Scherman wrote.

Sackheim added: “Originally, I called it the ‘inertia plan’ because it was thought at the time to be a sales incentive that relieved the subscriber of the job of ordering something he wanted but knew in his heart he would never order if left to his own devices. There was no feeling on our part whatever that inertia meant the dumping of books on unsuspecting people who were just too lazy or too preoccupied to return a card refusing the book offer.

“My dictionary gives this description of inertia — the tendency of a body to resist acceleration; the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest or of a body in motion to stay in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force. ”

This eventually drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. “Mainly the complaint declared that the “of-the-month” sales technique relied substantially on exploiting such human traits as procrastination and forgetfulness.”

The summer of 1928 was a hot one. Franklin Roosevelt, barely able to stand on crutches after being afflicted by polio, nominated Al Smith, the Happy Warrior as the Democratic candidate for President. Young Sherman Sackheim came home to New York from summer camp, but his parents had moved to Cleveland, Sackheim having sold  his interest in the Club to Scherman in 1928.

Sherman Sackheim had very mixed feelings about his father.

“To outsiders, he was personable—very short, 5 feet 2, knowledgeable, accommodating, generous,” he said. “He had a sense of humor, and an ego: He could look someone in eye who was 6 feet tall and simply dismiss him. He was a tyrant in his own way. Even in my childhood, he could be a tyrant, a dictator, the old school, and it wasn’t until I started my own agency in 1962 that he finally came around to recognize me not only as his son but as a person who had ability.”

Chapter 22: Air Mail Special

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 28: Inside The Johnson Box

By Ray Schultz

On May 2, 1941, Frank Johnson submitted six direct mail letters and a cover memo to Francis DeWitt Pratt, the circulation manager of Time Inc. Although he later called Pratt “a very bad judge of good copy,” the young copywriter wanted something from him.

“Here is a try at getting everything in one letter, the whole approached from the Rich, Beautiful Prose–or Archibald Mac Leish–angle, and ending on a note of Auchincloss,” Johnson wrote, describing his first letter:

 Dear Subscriber:

A Panzer Division raising dust clouds along the north coast of Africa…a brawny riveter earning overtime in the Newport News shipyards…a half-scared, half-thrilled youth on his first solo flight over Pensacola…the members of a Congressional Committee in Washington scrawling endless figures on foolscap as they struggle with the stiffest tax bill in U.S. history–

He went on to Number 2. “Probably a reaction from Number 1, and pretty frivolous for a sales talk. However, you’re supposed to gather that I can do these, too.”

Dear Subscriber:

Want to add two or three years to your LIFE?

Here are the years:

1941 1942 1943

He moved onto to Number 3, which he described as “The middle way. I like it.” It started by saying, simply, LIFE takes no bets…

The next one he described as “same idea, cut down to a page.” Johnson added that with one exception, these letters are purposely not serious in tone. This is because it’s 1941: and headlines, radio, and corner store talk are all pretty damn gloomy.

What did he want? “I shall burn joss sticks and paper prayers the week-end long, because I really want that job,” Johnson wrote. “More important, I’m now pretty sure I can handle it.” Pratt must have agreed, for Johnson was named circulation promotion manager of Life for a salary of $75 a week.

Born in 1912 in Cambridge, Ohio, Johnson graduated from Ohio State with a degree in economics in 1934, then headed for New York. His first job there was as a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual, but he quit when a woman whose claim he was investigating threw a poker at his head. Then he got himself hired by Time Inc as a CBOB (college boy-office boy) for $20 a week. “I remember walking in the door of Time and thinking, ‘Hey, I’m home,'” he said.

The CBOBs— liberal arts graduates from good schools–earned the business by sneaking a look at the internal mail they delivered, including that of founder Henry Luce, whose red pencils Johnson picked up as part of his job.

Expected as a CBOB to “get up or out,” Johnson moved up into the circulation department in 1938. Time Inc., built on direct mail, had several great writers and circulation experts on staff, like Bill Baring-Gould and Nick Samstag. Johnson, who was passionate about Kipling, Thurber and Twain, was soon accepted as one of them.

“Everybody there talked my language,” Johnson said. “We were all the same types. Super literate. We talked too much, and we drank too much. I could drink two martinis and come back to work and not go to sleep.”

Johnson wrote his first direct mail letter for Life in 1940, describing a contraption that sounded just like the Internet, provided by his daughter Judy Thoms:

Dear Subscriber:

Here is an artist’s approximation of a multiperimicrotelicona-rayoscope.

The one pictured is the only machine of its kind extant.

It was designed and built by a Prof. Dr. Zanathope Johnson, whom you can see.

For thirty years he secluded himself in a great hilltop-laboratory, planning, experimenting, building–for he was making a machine which would see everything of interest, all over the World!

In 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Time proclaimed in a direct mail letter that now the news is happening to us. Draftable despite his poor eyesight, Johnson entered the Army Air Force, and was sent to Wright Field in Ohio, where he put out the Air Surgeon’s Bulletin. Johnson would ruefully say, “I’m the guy who lost the war. I never got out of the country.”

After the war, Johnson returned to Time Inc., which had kept him on partial salary during his service hitch. Given postwar inflation, “It was a good time to write direct mail because you just kept saying ‘Buy now, or the price is going to double pretty soon,” he said.

In an interview in 1999, Johnson examined several letters from that period to determine authorship. One was the Cold War piece known simply as “The Crumple Letter,” from the fall of 1949. It was crumpled, as if someone had rolled it up in a ball.

Dear American:

This is the way this letter might look (after it had been fished out of the wastebasket and somewhat smoothed) if I had sent it to Andrei Vishinsky or Maurice Thorez or Ana Pauker.

For this is an invitation to subscribe to TIME–and Communists have as little respect for honest journalism as they have opportunity to read it.”

 “I think I had something to do with that,” Johnson said. “We had one that was burnt on the edges, too. And we had a hell of a time with that. In the first place, we had a hard time setting it on fire. Finally, it took blowtorches. And the blowtorches tended to set the whole damned file on fire. People complained when they opened it because soot would fall out [of the envelope]. But boy, it was fun to do.”

Then there was the 1951 letter for Life addressed to all the Johnsons in the United States (an amazing feat given that Time could not yet deduplicate its subscriber lists). Johnson wrote:

Dear Reader Johnson:

You’re one in a million. And you and 999,000 other Johnsons in the U.S. can proudly boast a flourishing family tree.

“Time Inc. was making money like crazy, so we never asked what anything would cost,” Johnson said. “We used to look back at what we had done and say, ‘My God, we were damned fools.'”

Johnson wrote in hand on a yellow legal pad, using a soft-lead Eberhard wingtip pencil. “I was the world’s slowest,” he said. “I’ve been known to stare at blank paper for days before I wrote a word. I’d write ‘Dear Subscriber,’ then scratch that out and write “Dear Reader,” then scratch that our and try ‘Subscriber’ again.”

When not writing himself, Johnson hired and trained writers. One of his finds was Bill Jayme, a war veteran and Princeton graduate who was “terribly articulate and very insulting to practically everybody,” as Johnson put it.

Jayme quickly made an impression with one of his first letters, “Cool Friday,” celebrating the 15th anniversary of Life magazine:

It was a cool Friday in November.

Plymouth offered their newest model for $510—in an ad that also reminded you that you could tune in on Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour any Thursday from 9 to 10.

Loyalists and Rebels were fighting in the outskirts of Madrid—while many U.S. citizens were preparing to celebrate two Thanksgivings. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were at the Shubert, ambling through “Idiot’s Delight”—and a few doors down the street, a pillow-padded Helen Hayes was appearing as “Victoria Regina.”

Jayme later said the piece originated “out of my brain. Life was having a birthday, and we needed a letter to use as a hook to get people to subscribe. I went down to the public library and sat there with a lot of bums in the reading room, with my head sunk in this viewer, and rolled these scrolls about what was going on, like the price of the car, taking notes on the ads—sort of setting the scene.”

“It was leisurely, something you can read aloud after dinner,” he said. “It conveyed warmth and it conveyed charm. We tried to reward the reader for his reading time.”

In 1954, Johnson himself  started moonlighting for American Heritage, a start-up run by former LIFE editors Joe Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joe Thorndyke, and soon was involved in all aspects of their direct  mail operation. For instance, he wrote to his bosses that “I am still as skeptical as a virgin on a troop ship” about a plan to use the Changing Times list.”

In a 1956 letter, Johnson observed that The ability to read intelligently is not a common attribute. It is a delicate subject, for with it go a lot of implications about education and culture and background–things we traditionally soft-pedal in this country, especially if we suspect we’ve acquired ’em.

It was during this period that Johnson invented what is called the Johnson Box, although he later denied ownership. But friends said he did deserve credit. The purpose of the box, Jayme said, was to summarize the letter, “just as 19th century English writers like Dickens would say at the top, ‘Chapter 10, in which Mr. McGruder discovers Emily in a Compromising Position with the Director’s Son.'”

In one letter, Johnson stuffed these headlines into the famous box:

SECRETARY OF WAR’S SON HANGED FOR MUTINY

“MUSHROOM CLOUD” KILLS 30,000 OFF U.S. COAST

ENEMY TROOPS INVADE VERMONT

ELDER STATESMAN WEDS EX-MURDER SUSPECT

In an interview in 1999, Johnson offered his secrets of direct mail success.

“All you’re trying to do with any letter is to keep somebody from throwing it out,” he said. “You tell funny stories, you put in funny pictures, you do any goddamned thing you can to keep them reading. One of my rules is never end a sentence at the bottom of a page, so you had to turn the page. I’m teaching you a lot of tricks.”

Johnson added that he always put in “a couple of indented paragraphs on pages two and three that told a funny story or said something outrageous, so that if you were beginning to skim through the letter, they would catch your attention.” He admonished, “I don’t believe exclamation marks.”

Follow-up letters were another challenge. “You send a four-page letter and you don’t get anything, then you follow it up with something quite different–shorter, different pictures. ‘As you recall, we wrote you two weeks ago,’ or words to that effect. What’s exciting, of course, is when you a write a piece of direct mail and mail it and it works.”

As for graphics, he advised, “Get a cute little girl and a cute puppy, and figure out how to run them both, and you’ve got a winner there.”

Chapter 29: Gifts From Foreign Lands

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail Chapter 30: The Nervous Breakdown Saint

By Ray Schultz

Another headache for Max Sackheim was that younger people were coming into the business who din’t need his help. John Stevenson, a tall Englishman with a mustache and an impish griin, started his career on Fleet Street in 1933 writing mail order copy for the Daily Herald. A year later, he moved to Australia and wrote book promotions for the Melbourne Herald, a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s father Sir Keith Murdoch.

The young rogue’s next stop was the United States. Stevenson worked for the New York Post and Doubleday. And in 1948, with a modest capital outlay, he bought a company called Greystone Press in a bankruptcy auction.

Eventually, that firm sent 50 million pieces of junk mail a year, selling everything from children’s books to handyman and medical book series. Did Stevenson have the books in the warehouse when he tested book club ideas? No. “We would send a survey letter, maybe offer them the first book, he said in 1997. “We’d say, ‘We’re thinking of offering this.’ It had to be worded very

The direct mail was a dumb as it could be. “We did rebus puzzles,” Stevenson said. “Now it would require no skill — a rebus is picture arithmetic, like ‘Cat plus rat minus hat equals…’ Other publishers thought it was an undignified way of selling books.”

Then there was use of the word “free,” as in, “Free! Send for Volume 1, no obligation.” This drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission.

“They wanted an immediate explanation with the headline that there was a commitment — if there was a commitment. Of course, you could cancel, but they don’t like the inertia factor at all. So we tightened the offers.”

One night, Stevenson was driving home with the copywriter Paul Michael. “I asked, ‘How is it that no matter how good it is, you can only get 2% of the people to respond?’“ Stevenson said. “It was like a man standing on a corner giving away $20 bills, and nobody would accept them because there was something wrong. Paul came in with a publisher’s letter, which later became known as the lift letter. It was folded over, and said: ‘If you have decided already not to accept this offer, please read this letter from the publisher or editor. I can’t understand…’ That kind of note.”

That was a breakthrough, but it was still a primitive business. “We only had their purchase and payment history,” Sttevenson said. “You couldn’t cross-sell. We kept every club separate.”

At its peak, Greystone pulled in $25 million a year, with minimal profit. “We were scrabbling around 10%,” Stevenson said. Then he moved from continuities into book clubs, because the average contiuity carried “the seeds of its own destruction. If you have a 20-volume set, it’s over after you ship the 20th volume. The partial answer is to publish annual yearbooks, but that’s not the same as a club where you can continue and continue and continue.”

Another newcomer was Andi Emerson, a tall, beautiful woman with red hair and freckles, who could have passed for Katherine Hepburn. Having been trained to write copy during a hellish weekend in a hotel room (“You’re not a good copywriter, but you can write mail order copy,” her teacher told her), she went to work for Eugene Schwartz, the author of direct mail headlines such as, “She Fled the Table When the Doctor Said, ‘Cut Her Open.’ Schwartz ran a mail order business, selling everything from weight reduction pills to “A wire nail THAT CUTS THROUGH ARMOR PLATE!” Schwartz and his stunning wife Barbara were socialites, known for buyng art and donating it to museums. One night, a fellow socialite asked him, “Do you work for a lliving?”

Schwartz closed that business to write copy full-time, and Emerson founded an agency, but included her husband Ken Weeks’ name on the door because “you couldn’t have women and you couldn’t have Jews,” she said. It was called Emerson-Weeks. One day, she was visited by Father Bernard Dazzi, a Franciscan in need of a direct mail writer.

“Father, I’m not Catholic,” Emerson protested. “I’m Protestant if anything, but I’m really an agnostic. My assistant is Mormon, and my art director is Jewish.”

“Great,” the Franciscan said. “I’m sick and tired of being ripped off by Catholics.”

Emerson took the job, and quickly condluded that they needed a saint. They found one they called “the Nervous Breakdown Saint.”

People suffering from jagged nerves and emotional disturbances may not be award that a loveable girl saint has been granted unique power to help them in their affliction. She is Irish-born St. Dympha, the ‘Lile of Eire’ whose feast occurs on May 11. This is her story.

Finally, Emerson met John Caples, the copywriter who wrote a famous mail order ad in the 1920s: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started To Play…” And she formed the John Caples Creative Awards, which drew crowds of drunken copywriters from the UK and Europe. A typical awards ceremony would find some of them laying under tables.

Of course, The most threatening rival to Sackheim was much closer to home. Sackheim had hired Lester Wunderman, a whiz kid who had sold a book titled “I was Hitler’s Doctor.” But Wunderman irritated him: He would return from visiting clients without any copy. Sackheim, who carried transparent pads and wrote ads in front of his customers, would ask, “Did you tell the clients jokes?”

No he didn’t. Wunderman was more more interesed in vision and strategy—he “verbally put his arm around the prospect,” Emerson said. “You ha to hire him.” Wunderman helped launched the Columbia Record Club and the American Express credit card while working for Sackheim. Then he decided to leave and take whatever clients he could. He and Sackheim ended up court.

Chapter 31: Eros