Back in the Day With Henry Cowen

By Ray Schultz

Return with us now to the year 1941. Franklin Roosevelt was President, Joe Louis was heavyweight king, Frank Sinatra was singing with Tommy Dorsey, and 21 year-old Henry Cowen was taking a one-time course at New York University: Direct mail copywriting.  

Not that Henry set out wanting to write junk mail copy (who ever did?). He had his eyes on a banking career. But he was a born writer, so he signed up for the course. Oddly,  the first question they asked was, “How’s your math?” 

“I didn’t know why they wanted to know that,” Henry said in an interview in 1996. But he found out. “Everything was based on the math,” he recalled. “We learned how to do the budgets and the test reports.”

I’m recalling all this because we recently passed Henry’s centennial; he died in 2011.  

Direct mail may not have been the career he wanted, but he was one of the best direct mail copywriters who ever lived, and here’s the proof: copy he wrote as a young man was still selling subs in the age of the internet. 

He was also, to me, one of the nicest guys who ever graced the business. 

The Early Days at Cowles

Henry got his first copywriting job in 1942 at Look magazine. To get it, though, he had to move to Des Moines, Iowa, a place where “the people were nice and the winters were terrible.” 

Conditions were primitive in the Cowles office in the Wallace Homestead building. “We had manual typewriters, no air conditioners and no offices,” Henry recalled. “We created little offices by using file cabinets. When the assistant sub manager traveled, I pushed his files over an inch or two to make his smaller and mine bigger.” 

Look, then five years old, was in a circulation war with Henry Luce’s Life. It had “a lot of single copy circulation, and subscriptions were just coming into their own,” Henry said.  

There were no computers in those days. Envelopes were inserted by hand. With Les Suhler and Max Ross as mentors, Henry wrote letters, studied response, served as art director and ordered mailing lists. “Les said, ‘Spread the list business around. Give everyone their fair share.’” So he did: To brokers like George Bryant, Lew Kleid, Walter Drey and Arthur Martin Karl.  

The state of mailing lists? “We could segment by geography and the age of the list—recency, frequency, that type of thing,” Henry said. “We were sophisticated in using our own names, so sophisticated we could tell whether a person had renewed once, twice, three, four, five or six times. Later, we brought in an industrial engineer and he said, ‘You’re going too far. You’re too segmented.’”

Outside lists came on labels, but the house list was on Speedomat plates, making it  difficult to change an address. Not to worry: “They explained that farmers didn’t move much, so that wasn’t a big problem,” Henry said.  

Look also used some telephone lists, typed directly from phone books by women working at home. “We took the world’s poorest mailing list and made it a good list,” Henry said. 

The basic Look letter was two pages, “nicely written,” and mailed in a No. 9 plain white business envelope. “But it wasn’t jazzy,” he added. There were no premiums and no brochures. (“I don’t believe in brochures to this day.”) But the mailings worked. The offer for new subs? “Sixteen issues for a buck.” 

“We had a different renewal series for each source, and we did a lot of advanced renewals,” Henry recalled.  They even sent hand-personalized mail. “We personalized the name with a brush and ink—in gold, red or blue,” he said. “And we tested them. Gold was best, next was red.” 

Look did sub mailings in “places where no-one was mailing: Hawaii, Guam, the Panama Canal Zone, Alaska.” It also sold subs in Mexico City, Caracas and pre-Castro Cuba. “We sent the letters in English, and got a good return, but then the advertising department decided it didn’t want that circulation,” he said.  

Look also sold subs to department store charge account customers.

“We had stores in just about town in the United States,” Henry explained. “In New York City, we would alternate between Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Gimbals’. The orders would come back to the stores, and they would do the billing, so the payups were 99% or better.”

Some of those pieces might look a little strange today. “One store in Ohio had a policy of not using dollar signs, so the mailing went out without dollar signs. They knew their customers” Henry said.  

Sweepstakes

In 1952, a circulation expert named Harold Mertz visited Des Moines and tried to sell Henry, now a DM veteran, on something called Publishers Clearing House. His idea? Multiple sub offers would be mailed in a single envelope.  

“I told him to save his money because people had tried that before,” Henry said. “Curtis had tried it, Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward had tried it in a way.” 

But Mertz was “smarter than they were,” Henry admitted. “He worked harder and made it work.” Indeed, in 1960, after 18 years at Look, Henry found himself working at PCH.

At that time, PCH was “still only doing $4 million worth of business,” Henry said. And early PCH letters did not have stamps or sweepstakes. 

“Harold would write a letter like, ‘Dear Friend, it’s springtime,’” Henry said. “He wasn’t talking about the benefits or anything like that.” But the copy improved, thanks to Henry and a fellow copywriting legend named Marvin Barkley. 

At some point in the 60s, PCH finally started doing sweeps. But, as Henry put it, “We made a lot of mistakes.” For example, Reader’s Digest had a grand prize of $25,000. “People would say, ‘Do they really give that away?” So PCH offered a large number of small prizes—the highest was $10.

“It barely made a ripple,” Henry continued. “So we tried a $1,000 prize, and that did 25% better than $10. Then we got brave and went to $5,000, better yet, then to $25,000, then the sky’s the limit!” 

Founder Mertz was “a very smart guy, a very tough guy, a little hard for some people,” Henry said.

He added, “We didn’t even have a calculator in the office, but he could add up a column in the millions, 20 different numbers, zip zip zip. He was a genius at it.” 

Did Henry have any sample letters from the old days at Look and PCH? He got wary: He wasn’t about to share his trade secrets.  

“I still use some of those leads,” he said. “I bring them back every few years.”

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 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 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 20: Peace!

By Ray Schultz

Americans awoke on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918 to the sound of church bells and gunfire. Germany had surrendered and people ran into the streets, drunk on “100 percent-proof, government-bonded patriotism.” And where were our junk mail pioneers? Buckley was in Chicago, as pleased as he could be. Peace meant the paper quotas would be lifted.

Edward Proctor was at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey. But he had little time to celebrate. His client, the John C. Winston Co., had summoned him to Philadelphia, and now he had to get to the train station past mobs in the streets.

But he was happy to go, for Winston, the country’s largest Bible publisher, was the kind of client he wanted. Of course, Winston also sold a book titled, “Sexual Knowledge: What every young man and every young woman should know,” that it sent in a plain brown wrapper. But now it had hired an historian and a military analyst to write a book titled, “History of the World War.” Proctor had to help sell—by mail—a book that was not yet written. He went home that night with an order for several million names.

Meanwhile, the balance in the Guild office had shifted. Mr. Guild was spending more time at his home in Maine. He hunted and enjoyed his breakfasts of steak and fried potatoes. Proctor ran the place, although Guild’s wife Addie was listed as president.

Louis Victor Eytinge heard about the war’s end in his prison cell, where he was quietly hoping that outsiders would spring him. Private detective William J. Pinkerton argued that Eytinge was innocent of murder (“his criminal bent was not in that direction”). And a former warden said he had reformed.

“To my personal knowledge Eytinge’s money has paid for milk and eggs for men who were too sick to eat prison fare. Eytinge’s money has paid for sending paroled prisoners home to die. He has given men going out of prison money to start life on. He has paid transportation to employment, even across a Continent. In doing for others Eytinge has found himself.”

Eytinge wrote that “I am reasonably certain of coming east some time during the winter.” But he didn’t make it out that winter, nor the following summer. Instead, he ended up back in the “lunger’s yard” at the Arizona Penitentiary at Florence.

“YES—I’ve been sick,” he wrote. “That’s one of the reasons I gave up the editorial end of the old POSTAGE..I want and need WORK to keep me upspirited, to keep me grinning and growing. I’ve time schedules that will permit me to take THREE MORE CLIENTS—And no more.”

It was harder to stay upspirited as the years dragged on. But Gov. T.E. Campbell finally heeded the call of the advertising industry, and on the morning of Dec. 30, 1922, Eytinge, age 43, walked through the gate of Florence. He wasn’t exonerated—he apparently was paroled. But he was free. And he had a $6,000-a-year job waiting for him with John Service Inc., a producer of personalized mail campaigns, in New York.

“There’s a moral in the tale of Louis Victor Eytinge,” a man wrote to Postage. “It’s this: if a man in jail, suffering with a supposedly incurable disease and existing amidst surroundings that sap all initiative and inspiration, can win his freedom, win his health and win a place in the sun—what heights are not possible to you and me and the other man, out here in the open?” He concluded with an even more pertinent comment: “It vindicates your claim that ‘Anything that can be sold, can be sold by mail.’”

Chapter 21: The Inertia Plan

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 33: Rub The Buddha For Money

By Ray Schultz

The real threat in the list business was a device that took up an entire room, with wires and tubes sticking out of it, that needed to be constantly cooled. In his novel, The End Of The Battle, Evelyn Waugh, satirically described an early version of this machine being used in World War II. “It’s been flown in from America,” Mr. Oates, a bureaucrat explains to Captain Guy Crouchback, an officer desperately seeking a war assignment. “It took 560 man-hours to install. The mechanics came from America, too. There isn’t another like in the country.”

“But what is it?”
 “An Electronic Personnel Selector.”
Mr. Oates demonstrated it. “Now here—“ he picked up a chit from his tray—“is a genuine enquiry. I’ve been asked to find an officer for special employment; under forty, with a university degree, who has lived in Italy and has Commando training—one, two, three, four, five—“ Whirr, click, click, click, click, click. “’Here we are. Now that is a remarkable coincidence.’”

“The card he held bore the name A/TY. Captain Crouchback, G, R.C.H., att H.O.O. HQ.”

This wasn’t as much of a joke as it seemed. In 1945, the New York Times revealed one of “the war’s top secrets,” a system that applied “electronic speeds for the first time to mathematical tasks hitherto too difficult and cumbersome for solution.”

That was the computer. At first, it was mostly used by the military. Only a few companies owned one—others had to rent timeshares, and work through the night at the mercy of unbathed technicians. But when used with a printer and mailing lists stored on tapes, the computer could spit out junk mail letters by the thousands.

John Stevenson bought one for $700,000 in 1958. “The computer didn’t create great growth or even save us a lot of money,” he said. “You had to go from low-paid help to more expensive help.” He admitted, though, that “If it wasn’t for the computer, I would have run the risk of being in jail. There were so many mistakes.”

But many hard-headed people didn’t get it. The DMMA, the brainchild of the convicted killer Victor Louis Eytinge, held a seminar on the computer in 1965, but “It wasn’t very well attended,” admitted Robert Delay, the wavy-haired Midwesterner who led the association from 1959 to 1984. “We ran it about three times, then we couldn’t afford to run it any longer, we didn’t have enough participants. The cost began to be picked up by computer manufacturers.”

Around this time, the Post Office introduced the Zip Code, the postal coding system that helped postmen sort mail and would allow businesses to hone their geographic targeting to a very fine level. It was a gift. But once again, junk mailers opposed it.

“The ZIP code was terribly important. we wouldn’t have had mail delivered otherwise,” DeLay said. “We had a series of meetings around the country to explain it. We lost a lot of members. Pete Hoke (son of the Nazi fighter Henry Hoke)) used to editorialize against it every week. It would kill all the vendors, it was too costly. And it meant that lettershops had to change to computerization. A few said they would never change, and of course they aren’t in business.”

Fueled by constant media coverage, the public was growing ever-more tired of junk mail. So in 1971, Delay and his part-time Washington person James Daly, formulated a brilliant PR stunt called the Mail Preference Service. Consumers could send their name in to opt out of receiving all direct mail. DMMA members had to subscribe to the service, which provided them with frequent updates. Later, this was extended to telemarketing with the Telephone Preference Service.

It took awhile to take off. DeLay was called to testify before Congress. Then-Congressman Ed Koch said, ‘Mr. DeLay, I understand that the biggest member of your association doesn’t use the Mail Preference Service.’ DeLay recalled, “I was gonna have to admit that was true, then a guy by the name of Gertz from Donnelley stood up and said, ‘Sir, if you don’t mind, I can answer that question. We decided at a board meeting last week that we were going to adhere to the Mail Preference Service.’

***

Ed Proctor, the veteran list broker whose father had started in 1899, labored on into his 90s, serving a few loyal clients from his office in Haworth, New Jersey, and enjoying lunches at his nearby club. But he was ousted shortly before he died in 2000, and by this time, new players had taken over, like Robert Castle, a man who wrote software and could discuss De Kooning as easily as he could lists. In 1974, Castle used the Freedom of Information Act to buy bought a list of 1.9 million people who had purchased Carson City silver dollars. It cost him only $515. Even better, “a truck pulled up with boxes that contained the magic words: ‘master tape,’” Castle said. “I had the only copy.”

Castle scored another coup in landing the list brokerage account of National Liberty, a mail order insurance company run by Arthur De Moss and staffed largely by religious missionaries. Castle helped sell many programs, including veteran’s insurance to policies for non-drinkers.

How would you verify that they didn’t drink?

“It was phony,” Castle laughed. “You couldn’t prove it.

Another upstart was Marty Lerner, an aeronautical engineer who had run a school called the Institute of Computer Technology. He found that colleges were desperate for names of high school students to whom they could send junk mail. So he started a company called American Student List, and made some money renting lists to them. He also did some commendable, pro bono work, using his database to locate missing children.

But a certain hubris crept in. The Educational Testing Service Inc., which tested college hopefuls, and the Student Union refused to rent him their own lists of names. Lerner sued in 1979, claiming anti-trust issues, and probably regretted it, for his deposition shed light on the tactics he used to create lists.”When you started your company, did you have any training at that time in computers?” the opposing lawyer asked in a deposition.

“No.”

“Or the direct mail business?”

“No.”

“Or marketing of any sort?”

“No.”

Lerner’s credentials having been established, the lawyer moved on to the delicate subject of where he got the names of college-bound high school seniors.

“The largest source is the motor vehicle bureaus throughout the country,” Lerner said..

“Are there any other sources?”

“Schools,   school   directories   and   lists   that   guidance counselors may have.”

He refused to be more specific, and the lawyer said, “Let the record show that he is refusing to give the names of sources.”

Lerner then conceded that he also obtained names from school ring companies, and from students themselves.

The conversation turned to the fact that Motor Vehicle files have little real information on them.

“There is nothing you can get from a motor vehicle department other than the name and address,” Lerner said. ”That’s the only thing they supply us.”

“You don’t try to find out which of those students intend to go to college, and which do not?

“No, we don’t want to find out anything about them.”

“Did   you ever   at any   time consider   putting on   your advertising brochure a statement to the effect that these were not all the names of high school students?”

“No, I never considered doing that.”

“Or giving any indication in your circulars and brochures that many of these people were simply people of the right age?”

“No, I never considered doing that.”

“And the reason you refer to this as a list of high school seniors is that you feel you had leeway to puff, is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Did you tell the Securities and Exchange commission that your list was a list of high school seniors?”

“Possibly.”

“Were you puffing them, too?”

“No, I don’t think I was puffing them.”

“Have you ever tried to ascertain whether or not   HS students have to legal capacity to consent to their use of names?

“No, I never did.”

“You never looked into that?”

“No.”

The lawyer asked if it was true that some of the Student Union’s names had ended up on Lerner’s list without permission.

“I believe we were supplied with a tape,” Lerner said. “That tape was probably taken and selected with our own file, so that the names could be merged in and de-duplicated.”

“Is it a fact that if some other (fitm) were to request a list by that category, he would get those Student Union names?”

“Ultimately, that’s what did happen.”

“Did you know that these names would become part of your

general list?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Isn’t that against the rules?”

“Well, I don’t know what you’re referring to by rules right at the present time.”

Lerner qualiied his answer by saying it was a mistake.

Despite the fact that this lawsuit went nowhere, Lerner prospered as the 1980s went on, and so did a host of other list peddlers—people who took a 20% commission as broker on list rentals and 10% as manager, and prospered as the business boomed. One of them, Jack Oldstein, expressed it perfectly on a promotional button he sent to clients in 1983: “Rub the Buddha for money.”

Chapter 34: Junk Mail Babylon

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail Chapter 2: Of Honesty And Virtue

By Ray Schultz

J. Holbrook was an “ear biter,” a name given to postal law agents after one bit off another man’s ear. He spent the early years of his career catching postmasters who pilfered envelopes, and there was plenty of this work to do. “So keen was the scent of the robber, that, like an animated ‘divining rod,’ he could indicate unerringly the existence of gold, or its equivalent beneath the paper surface soil,” he wrote of one such thief.

But Holbrook’s mandate broadened in the 1840s, as the “ear biter” name faded away: He now investigated the growing number of con men who used the post office as their message service. One was a young legal clerk who had stopped not only studying but also obeying the law.

Referred to by Holbrook as “George,” this party needed money. So he turned to The Law Register, a directory of every attorney in the United States. Then he checked off the names of rural lawyers, and those who had no business with his firm, and copied these names. To this list he sent neatly written copies of the following letter:

“Sir: I have received a package of papers for you from Liverpool, England, with six shillings charges thereon — on receipt of which amount the parcel will be sent to you by such conveyance as you may direct. Yours, respectfully, William H. Jolliet.”

Some lawyers saw through the ruse (“let me know if you remain jolly yet”) , but others probably paid without thinking about it, believing that a rich relative in England had died and left them money (a common fantasy at that time).

Complaints about this came to Holbrook’s attention. And he was waiting at the Brooklyn post office one night when George came to pick up his mail. The clerk gave George the letters addressed to “Jolliet;” Then Holbrook put the arm on him.

The young man was prepared. George claimed he was working for “Jolliet,” a man he said he met only on horse cars, and he gave Holbrook a copy of the mailing list. But he was too clever by half. Holbrook visited George’s law firm the next day, and compared the names on George’s list against those checked off in the Law Register. They were identical. The youth confessed, and Holbrook hoped that “the rare talents which he possesses, will be yet be found arry’d on the side of honesty and virtue.” He could have said the same thing of the medium used by George.

Chapter 3: ‘We Accidentally Met With Your Address…’

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