19th century spam came by post, prefigured modern spam in so many ways

In the 19th century, the nascent advertising industry took notice of the fact that postmasters could send each other letters for free, and bribed them to forward packets of mail to one another to pass on to townspeople ("To Superintendent Sunday School OR ANY ONE INTERESTED IN MUSIC").

The nature of these paleospams is familiar to anyone who looks at spam today: multi-level marketing, home improvement, crapgadgets, the government owes you money and I know how to get it, cheap printing, we pay cash for scrap, etc etc. There's even an overseas con from "Rev HGC Hallock, PhD; 480 Chapoo Rd, Shanghai, China."

Like modern spam, the industry thrived by exploiting a zero-rated piece of public infrastructure.

The mid- to late-nineteenth century saw the beginnings of advertising agencies (most, at first, simply placing newspaper ads for their clients), of compiled mailing lists and pre-printed labels . . . and of junk mail fishing for fresh, new contacts. For a variety of reasons, the first junk mail (targeted mail, generic mail . . . take your pick) went to and through local postmasters. Small town postmasters knew anybody and everybody in town, knew their businesses, knew their interests, knew their foibles. Much such mail was addressed directly to the postmaster, asking him to pass it along to someone in town likely to be interested in the product. Other mail, addressed to "The Leading (Teacher / Grocer / Doctor / you name it)" in town also bore a side note to the postmaster asking him to re-direct it to somebody else likely to be interested, if appropriate.

Junk mail is nothing new [Dick Sheaff/Ephemera Society]

(via Super Punch)

Notable Replies

  1. If modern spam looked that good I wouldn’t filter it.


    Okay then!

  2. It seems pretty obvious that there was junk mail in earlier times because mail was pretty much the same then as now; why wouldn't it exist? I think what is more interesting (and more analogous to "spam") was junk telegrams. In 1864, a London dentist spammed numerous MPs with advertisements by telegram. Of course the beauty of it was that the spamming itself became newsworthy given the recipients and the dentists got free advertising in the newspaper articles condemning their actions.

  3. I immediately thought the same thing.. it hasn't stopped coming by post.

    Nowadays, the scummy ones just try very hard to look like an invoice, a government mailing, or a personalized handwritten message.

    I'm actually somewhat fond of the last category, the lengths they go to to try to look legitimately hand-addressed are adorable sometimes.

  4. tinder

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