The Fuehrer’s Database

By Ray Schultz

Twitter received kudos this month when it said it would not assist in the creation of a Muslim registry. Of the nine companies queried, it was the only one to give a definite “no.”

Good for Twitter. But it made me wonder: Did a country ever use information technology to identify people by religion?

Sure it did. The Nazis utilized a metal punch-card sorting system to find Jews and send them to their deaths, Edwin Black writes in his 2001 book, IBM and the Holocaust.

In essence, the equipment leased to the Nazis by IBM’s German subsidiary, Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft (or Dehomag), was a state-of-the-art mailing list system for that time.

With Dehomag’s help, the Nazis conducted a census, asking pointed questions about religion and ancestry, Black alleges.

“What emerged,” Black continues, “was a profession-by-profession, city-by-city, and indeed a block-by-clock revelation of the Jewish presence.” Moreover, by cross-sorting the columns, the Nazis could “identify who among the Jews would be its first targets for confiscation, arrest, imprisonment, and ultimately expulsion.”

Another effort occurred a few years later when Germany was about to launch the war; they even went through old church records to find Jews whose families had converted to Christianity generations before.

Later, the punch-cards were used to code the demises of the victims, and record which ones had received “special handling” (usually, extermination in a gas chamber), Black claims.

“All Auschwitz name information, including workers still alive, deaths, and transferees, was continuously punched into the camp’s Hollerith system,” Black charges. “Tabulated totals were wired each day to the SS Economics Administration and other offices in Berlin to process cards and lists for each inmate transferred.”

It’s not clear how much guilt is shared by IBM/Demohag. But one thing is certain: Technology can result in monstrous ends, especially when misused by states in partnership with the private sector.

What Looked Good Then

 

By Ray Schultz

Think back to a hundred years ago. Woodrow Wilson was President, Jess Willard was heavyweight champ and a terrible world war was being fought in Europe (one that we’d soon be fighting, too). But business went on—especially B2B business. And there were new tools for targeting customers. We’ve mentioned this before, but here’s the Scientific American story that described the cutting-edge technology of the time—metal punch-cards. It may sound primitive now, but it lasted right into the 1960s, and probably even longer for some backwards companies. Here’s the report in its entirety, from the Nov. 18, 1916 issue:

 The Doom of the Hand-Picked Mailing List

Suppose you were at the head of the sales force of a large jobbing house, and in planning your fall campaign wanted a list of all dealers who had bought a thousand dollars last year and had paid promptly when due. And suppose your accounting department were sufficiently up to date to possess a card ledger. What would you do?

The chances are that you would get a clerk to plough through that card ledger and pick out all the cards on which the postings showed the conditions in question to have been met. Then a week later you would chase another man through the cards on a still-hunt for a class of smaller customers, and he would find several buyers of the first class who had been overlooked, and who had consequently been mortally insulted by the failure of your first flight of agents to call.

In addition to this inaccuracy, the compiling of handpicked lists from a card file consumes a lot of time. This appears to be of no great moment in the case cited, except in so far as the clerk’s time is money. But imagine a valued customer, in any line of trade, kept cooling his heels for a couple of hours while the index was examined, card by card, for a property meeting all of his rather complex requirements. His state of mind would probably be such as to indicate clearly to the seller the wisdom of the invention of a San Francisco man which has made obsolete the time-killing and patience-trying business of thumbing over the card index for information.

The theory of this device is simple enough. Each question which the cards are designed to answer about the names appearing on them is assigned a definite position; and in that position on each card appears a little round hole. As long as the hole stays there, the card answers the question by “No”; as the course of business reveals the fact that the answer should be “Yes,” the card is modified to make it so—the hole is removed.

The reader will laughingly ask how to remove a hole By his ingenious reply the inventor has at the same time solved the urgent problem of how to make the card speak up and tell its story. The way to remove a hole, he argues, is to swallow it up in a bigger one; and then of course the way to find whether it has been removed is to put something in it that would fit the original opening and see whether it still fits.

Let us look at a concrete instance to see how the thing works. We illustrate the card used by a large California land company in the classification of its inquiries. As in every case the holes are in uniformly spaced rows and columns. Beside each appears, in words or when necessary by key number, an indication of the information which it gives. In addition each hole carries a number corresponding to tits position. It is found convenient to group in the same row or column holes which give information in the same field; it is then frequently possible to use general headings which abbreviate the headings of the individual holes

 It is plain that with all the cards in a drawer punched in the same way, the entire collection may be locked in place by the insertion of a rod into one of the series of superposed holes thus provided. But if on any card one of the holes be enlarged, an effort to lock the cards by the use of this hole will leave that particular card free to move. This leads us to the modus operandi of the new file.

Initially all the holes are intact, all the questions answered “No.” As a posting is made or information developed which makes the correct answer “Yes, a long, narrow hand-punch is applied to the hole, joining it with the on immediately below it. Thus the card illustrated states that Mr. Roe has inquired for a small tract of improved land in San Joaquin County suitable for residence and dry farming. He will be especially interested in terms and school facilities, and has a friend in the neighborhood. He wants land suitable for poultry and small fruits.

The first time a small tract of improved land in San Joaquin County is placed in the hands of this concern the drawer containing these records of inquiries is placed upon a table. In the drawer front are holes corresponding to those in the cards. In the positions 12, 23, 33, metal rods are thrust right through the drawer from front to back, after which the drawer is turned upside down. Every card which has not had all three holes 12, 23, 33, extended by the slot punch will be locked in place by the three roads; every card which has these three slots, on the other hand, will at once slide down and project below the others. By rods through one or two of the bottom row of holes, which is there for just this purpose, the projecting cards are prevented from siding back when the drawer is righted. The rods which served to separate these cards from the body of the file are then withdrawn, and the selected cards may be removed one by one and examined.

It will be seen that any single item can be selected by using a single rod, or that any combination of items, however complicated, may be secured by using a quantity of rods. It is a simple matter, for instance, to pick out all inquiries who want to rent a large unimproved tract convenient to a school; all stock purchased within a given period for given departments from given manufacturers and retailing within a given price range; or to discover whether an employee exists who has a high record of sales and personal efficiency who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, who is a Catholic and single, who has a high school education and is familiar with the details of certain departments of the business. How long, under the old systems, would it take the president of the Steel Corporation, for instance, to find such an employee to send to South America? The punch holes would locate him or deny his existence in two minutes.

This appears to be the file without restriction. In the one drawer the records are responsive to alphabetical, chronological, geographical, numerical or topical selection without disarrangement, delay or confusion. The holes may occupy the entire card or they may be placed at the bottom of a larger ledger card, with space above for postings. And if you ask the file a foolish question, it refuses to answer—that is, it “throws a blank.” Thus if you try to locate all names living in Boston and in New York, the Boston rod locks all the New Yorkers, the New York rod locks all Bostonians, and both these lock all other cards. A similar result will follow any impossible classification which may be attempted.

Sacredly Confidential

By Ray Schultz

At what point, as William Dean Howells put it, does a businessman start “his evolution from grub to beetle?” It began for Charles Howard Guild on September 14, 1901, when William McKinley died of gunshot wounds and Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President.

There was no immediate impact on Guild, a failed Boston advertising agent who now brokered mailing lists, in the form of used letters, in New York. He worked mostly for patent medicine sellers and other commercial riffraff.

But Roosevelt expanded federal regulatory power, and went after the meat-packing industry; it was only a matter of time before he took on the medicine business. Ladies’ Home Journal had been denouncing it for a decade, and in 1905 Colliers magazine started a multi-part series on the evil by Samuel Hopkins Adams.

Americans, Adams wrote, would that year spend $75 million on patent medicines, and “swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud.”

Woe to the innocents who wrote to patent medicine firms, Adams continued in the fifth article in the series in 1906. “The reply will be marked, in conspicuous letters, ‘Strictly confidential,’ even in some cases, ‘Sacredly confidential.’” But these letters were sold through brokers, and packaged by disease.

“One of the largest of these letter-brokers is the Guild Company of 132 Nassau street, New York. Guild’s brochure, the ‘printable part,’ offered Dyspepsia Letters, Narcotic Letters, Heart Letters, Kidney Letters and Obesity Letters and Stomach Trouble and Deaf Letters,” Adams went on.

One can only imagine the alarm at 132 Nassau St, where Guild and his man-Friday Edward W. Proctor worked at this trade. Anthony Comstock’s office was down the block at 23 Nassau. Would the old vice crusader raid them?

He didn’t—the real danger was economic. Roosevelt had that year signed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring, among other things, that medicine sellers label their ingredients. Guild’s client Swamp Root now stated its potion contained “NINE PER CENT PURE GRAIN ALCOHOL” (a revelation for people who wondered why they felt better after drinking it) and that this was “Guaranteed by Dr. Kilmer & Co. under the Food and Drug Act, June 30th, 1906.”

Weaker patent medicine firms closed their doors, and others saw their mailing lists eviscerated. Another Guild client, the D.A. Williams Company, went from having 62,366 letters to rent between 1901 and 1906 (just like today’s mailers, the medicine companies relied on list rental revenue) to a mere 8,655 for the two-year period ending in 1909.

The Roosevelt administration then struck out at Guild’s other client base —the mail order newspapers. The post office ruled that they would be mailed at the publishing rate only to bona fide subscribers. But there were few of those. And now the papers had to stop sending free sample copies and listing the recipients as…subscribers. The Guild Co. took a hit: Revenue fell to $6,537 in 1906, and the loss was almost double that amount, thanks to the $10,000 bonus Guild paid himself.

***

The tree-lined town of Haworth, New Jersey consists of a church, a row of stores, and a gas station. Just west of this small town center stands a two-story house that in 1995 was home the Guild Co. Ed Proctor Jr., a thin-faced man of 89 who had just undergone open heart surgery, sat there one snowy afternoon and discussed his father.

“My father was the smartest guy who only got through 8th grade,” Proctor said. “He never finished high school, but he read incessantly, and he always went to the YMCA and other places for courses. He was a very religious man, very straight. He wouldn’t put with anything,”

If that were so, how could he work for the medicine pushers and mail order paper barons?

“You could advertise anything you wanted in those days—the FDA wasn’t there,” Proctor Jr. answered. “It was the same thing with publications. You could advertise any sort of circulation, go out and rent lists and send the papers for free.”

Proctor pointed to the only visible remnant of the founder: a photo standing on a cabinet. Guild is wearing a dark suit, a vest and a straw hat, and holding a cigar. A white dog stands between him and an air-cooled Franklin automobile. “That would have been in 1920,” said Ed Proctor Jr. “Mr. Guild must have been about 70 at that point.”

“Mr. Guild was a great salesman,” Proctor continued. “He’d go into someone’s office and say, ‘Break out your checkbook, I’ve got a million names for you.’ He’d bluster his way through., whereas my father was shy and retiring.” On the other hand, “Mr. Guild was a wild guy—my father was a settling influence. He would calm him down. Guild respected my father.”

Of course, Proctor knew (as did Guild) that legitimate firms were already mailing to niche audiences. In 1895, Horlicks’s Food Co., of Racine Wis., offered clergymen a sample pack of its new malted milk mix. The powder contained “nutritive extracts of malted cereals, combined with rich Wisconsin dairy milk—Hence its value to you as a preventive of exhaustion incident to close application to study, or a long discourse, (so trying to clergymen, both physically and mentally),” said the letter printed in green ink, in a facsimile of typewriting.

Then there were the giant mail order firms, like Sears, Roebuck. Could the Guild Co. win a better class of client?

It apparently did, and Proctor credited his father. “My father was the financial wizard or brains for that group,” he said. “That’s why Mr. Guild went broke in Boston—he had no grasp at all of finance. My father was the one who had to learn the business and make the contacts.”

In 1907, sales jumped to $21,826, and in 1909 they topped $41,000. Proctor was now making a very comfortable living, possibly as much as $5,000 a year. He married a secretary in the office, moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and in 1909 Edward Jr. was born.

Eventually, the Guild Co. offered letters from farmers, and from people had purchased dry goods and novelties. “Millions of original letters of every description we have for rent—all of which are recent,” it proclaimed in a 1916 trade ad. “They are letters received from advertising in leading publications by mail order houses. They can be rented at a nominal price.”

Just what did the company offer? Letters in some old business categories—and some new ones.

“They are letters received from advertising in leading publications by mail order houses,” the ad said. “They represent MEDICAL—DRY GOODS—AGENTS—NOVELTY—FARMING—INCUBATOR—TRUST—FOREIGN LANGUAGE—LETTERS, etc.

“Increase your business by direct advertising,” it urged.

On Nov. 11, 1918, the news came through that Germany had surrendered in the Great War. But Proctor had little time to celebrate. His client, the John C. Winston Co., had summoned him to Philadelphia, and he had to get there by train past celebrating mobs in the streets. “It was a wild day in his life,” said Edward Proctor Jr.

Winston, the largest Bible publisher in the country, had some lucrative sidelines. For example, it mailed a book titled, “Sexual Knowledge: What every young man and every young woman should know,” in a plain brown wrapper. And it had recently 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 office had shifted. Guild was spending more time at his home in Maine. He hunted and enjoyed his breakfasts of steak and fried potatoes. Proctor ran the office, although Guild’s wife Addie was listed as president.

“He was a jolly old fellow,” said Ed Proctor Jr., who accompanied his family to visit the Guilds in Maine. “He sure was rotund—he ate regularly.”

Maybe he ate too regularly. In 1920, Proctor Sr. came home one night and announced, “Mr. Guild died.” Several months later, Proctor bought the company for $100,000 that he borrowed from a bank. And he took over just as direct mail was entering its most prosperous decade.

Note: Edward Proctor sold the Guild Co. to Bob Dale in 1979, and it was sold, in turn, to Wayne Willereth and finally to Merit Direct. He continued working there, for clients like Walter Drake and Miles Kimball. He retired in 1999, and died in 2000.

 

Privacy in the 19th Century

By Ray Schultz

There’s one small error in the white paper, Privacy and Advertising Mail, by the UC Berkeley School of Law.

The paper quotes a 1917 editorial: “Mail solicitation of business by printed circular has become an intolerable annoyance, to which all are subjected whose addresses appear in the directory or the telephone books.”* And it states that this was “an unusually early instance of stated concerns about advertising mail.”

That’s not quite true. Critics were complaining about junk mail long before 1917. And they sometimes referred to what we now call the privacy issue.

In 1875, in a article titled, “Fancy Advertising,” The New York Times reported on a man whose letter and Post Office boxes were “daily ‘made the recipients’… of a lot of envelopes, which he is put to the trouble of opening, and which he finds contain only advertisements of articles that he does not want to buy, or of companies or professional persons that he does not wish to employ.”

That piece didn’t mention mailing lists, but the vice crusader Anthony Comstock touched on the subject in 1880, in his book Frauds Exposted, when writing about lotteries and other types of frauds. “Any person who ever wrote a letter to a lottery, or other advertised scheme, is liable to have a large circle of correspondents,” he wrote. “The name once obtained must go the round of the fraternity, and, when thus used, is either kept for a new scheme by the same fraud or else sold to another one of the brotherhood.”

Case in point: The use of boarding school catalogues. “At last the child reaches the school, and his or her name appears upon the roll and is printed in the catalogue,” Comstock wrote. “These catalogues are sought for by those who send circulars through the mails advertising obscene and unlawful wares.”

Comstock added that names could also be had by “buying old letters from other dealers for the sake of the names, or by sending circulars to postal clerks and others through the country, offering prizes for a list of the names of youth of both sexes twenty-one years of age, or by purchasing addressed envelopes of those who make a business of collecting names, and then addressing envelopes to supply parties doing business through the mails.”

Granted, Comstock was more upset over what people were being offered by mail than how: privacy was a secondary issue. And legislators failed to mention privacy when they banned lotteries from the mail in 1890. But the subject came up again in a whole new context.

Medical Privacy

In 1904, Ladies Home Journal reported on the letters sent by women to patent medicine advertisers.

“Not one in a thousand of these letters ever reaches the eye of the ‘doctor’ to whom they are addressed,” the article said. “There wouldn’t be hours enough in the day to read them even if he had the desire. On the contrary, these letters from women of a private and delicate nature are opened and read by young men and girls; they go through not fewer than eight different hands before they reach a reply; each in turn reads them, and if there is anything ‘spicy’, you will see the heads of two or three girls get together and enjoy (!) the ‘spice.’ Very often these ‘spicy bits’ are taken home and shown to the friends and families of these girls and men! Time and again have I seen this done: time and again have I been handed over a letter by one of the young fellows with the remark; “Read this: isn’t that rich/” only to read of the recital of some trouble into which a young girl has fallen, or some mother’s sacred story of her daughter’s fall!”

Worse, these “sacredly confidential” letters were offered through letter brokers—“clearing-houses where patent-medicine frauds and quack doctors exchange, sell, and rent letters,” wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in Collier’s magazine in 1906. (In effect, he was describing the early mailing list business).

This came to an end, too, but not because anyone objected to the misuse of personal information. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring that patent medicine advertisers list their ingredients and not make exaggerated claims. Many firms went out of business.

But the sale and trading of names survived, and it was duly noted—before 1917. In 1913, The Kansas City Star wrote, “It probably does not occur to (the average man) that by buying something by mail he has made his name a commodity in itself and become a target for commercial correspondents as long as he lives and probably long after a tombstone has been erected to him on some grassy hillside.”

 *Richard B. Kielbowicz, Origins of the Junk-Mail Controversy: A
Media Battle over Advertising and Postal Policy, 5(2) JOURNAL OF
POLICY HISTORY 248, 253 (1993).

Click here for a related article.

A Broker’s Education

By Ray Schultz

Painfully shy, so thin he was rejected for insurance policies, Edward W. Proctor did not look like a salesman. But his employer Charles Guild wanted him to sell, so he did, starting around 1903. This took him to outfits like the Swamp Root Co., maker of the Swamp Root kidney and bladder cure, in Binghamton, New York.

What the product was good for? “About one-and-a-half to two million a year,” the founder’s son Willis Sharpe Kilmer replied.

Proctor also visited the D.A. Williams Medical Company, seller of a “uthrethral balm” to Civil War veterans. “Exposure, miasma, bad food, hardships of every description—these and not the bullets are responsible for the extremely rapid death-rate among the veterans,” it said in a direct mail letter.

In short, Proctor was selling mailing lists in the format of the time: Letters from customers. Mailers simply copied the return addresses into ledgers or onto envelopes, noting pertinent information like what diseases the people were suffering from. And he handheld clients and wheedled them into selling Guild their letters for rental. For Guild, a failed advertising agent from Boston, was a letter broker—an early day list broker. However, he didn’t like the business, and was all too willing to dump it on his clerk.

In time, Proctor met rival brokers like Herbert H. Hull, who owned a million letters, and Frank B. Swett, who had even more. They were convivial fellows who cooperated with each other even as they competed and what Proctor couldn’t learn from Guild he learned from them. He commenced his education.

He learned (judging by reports from that time) that the value of a letter decreased as it got older.

He learned that a person who wrote out of curiosity was not as good a prospect as one who knew what he would receive.

He learned that the names of mail order buyers were better than those copied from directories or clipped from newspapers.

He learned, too, that some of the most coveted names were those of sick people rejected for life insurance policies; treatments could be sold to these unfortunates.

More valuable still were those of Lydia Estes Pinkham, of Lynn, Mass. Her Vegetable Compound, an herbal concoction with an 18% alcohol content, was guaranteed to “ease women through the Change of Life, dissolve and expel tumors from the uterus, and cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints, all Ovarian troubles, Inflammation and Ulceration, Falling and Displacements, and the consequent spinal Weakness.”

Pinkham’s “mild Quaker face” appeared not only on bottles of the compound, but in all circulars and newspaper ads. “Many small newspaper offices possessed no cut of a woman’s face except that of Lydia’s maternal countenance, which occasionally was shifted from an advertising to a news column to do double duty as Queen Victoria,” wrote historian James Harvey Young.

Every ad for the Vegetable Compound invited readers to “Write to Mrs. Pinkham at Lynn, Mass., and she will advise you,” and millions of women did. But Pinkham insisted that the letters were “opened by a woman, read only by a woman, seen only by a woman,” and she wouldn’t rent them—to anyone. “They can’t be bought,” a broker said. “The old girl won’t even answer a letter about them. I don’t know what sort of a plant she has at Lynn and it doesn’t matter much, as her files are worth more than the plant.”

Rubbish, said another; Pinkham’s advertisements are “so wide in their scope…that hardly a woman can read them without feeling that she is a sufferer… they are practically worthless after written.” (Little did they know that Lydia was dead, and had been since 1883—the company was run by her children).

The tone of Proctor’s talks with these brokers (and with Guild) can be inferred from an 1890s newspaper account, in which a young man meets a letter broker on a train.

“I am a dealer in old letters, and am now on my way home with a check for $250 in my pocket which is all velvet,” the broker said. “This check I received for the use, for one month, of 10,000 letters, of which I am the owner.”

The older man was happy to explain the business.

“You, in the course, of your life, have written in reply to some advertisement, asking information in regard to the article advertised, or sent a request for a sample to be forwarded, and enclosed the necessary price, otherwise you have been different from most persons.

“The letters received in answer to such advertisements have a distinct market value among parties who deal in novelties. They are better in every way than lists made up from directories, representing, as they do, interested parties, or, in other words, persons who, attracted by the catchy wording of advertisements will be still more liable to bite after reading lengthy circulars with arguments as to why they should purchase.”

The broker went to his compartment, and returned with samples. “For these letters I pay at the rate of from $30 to $50 per thousand, and thus become the sole proprietor of them,” he said. “I have my customers, to whom I rent them at the uniform price of $50 per thousand for the first month’s use. They find them very valuable in sending out their circulars, and on their return these letters become a part of my stock in trade, being re-let at constantly decreasing prices, according to the number of parties through whose hands they have passed, until they remain marketable for many years at so low a figure as $3 per thousand for 30 day’s use.”

But these were not as valuable as his medical letters.

“I have got a number of hundred thousand of such as these, which we call ‘the blooming sucker variety,’ and for which I pay as high as $75 to $100 per thousand,” the broker continued. “These I let to my medical customers for, say, $125 per thousand for the first thirty days, reducing the price afterward.”

What good were these letters to a patent medicine seller? The broker explained it. “Did you ever go fishing more than once to a pond where you had spent a whole day trying to get a bite? Oh, no, you always go where you have been able to fill your basket before, and it is just the same in fishing for men.”

“Why, my dear boy, some of these medical practitioners in special diseases will not sell their letters for love or money. Why? Because after they have worked the fools under one name for all the money they can get out of them, the doctors then address a letter to the innocents under another name, saying they have learned that he (the patient) had been under the treatment of those unmitigated quacks, giving his former name, and telling why they condoled with him for such a misfortune, and wishing that he could have come under their treatment, which could but prove successful. Nine times out of ten they catch the gudgeon, not only the second, but even the third time.”