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.
Postmasters in those days were allowed to send and receive Post Office business mail for free; many a PM took advantage by engaging in some other occupation on the side using the free mail privilege. Not really kosher, but Washington largely looked the other way. Knowing this, some early junk mailers made it clear on the outer envelope that the PM was welcome to sign up as a local company agent and do some business with and for them.
I’ve been on the lookout for such envelopes for a decade or two, planning a long article or perhaps a book one day. (Like many of us, I have a long list of maybe-someday projects, few of which will likely ever see the light of day. The real fun of collecting is, as they say, in the search.) Here are but a few such covers, which demonstrate a range of the approaches taken by the junk mailers of the day, some legitimate firms simply exploring the possibilities of direct mail, others seemingly hucksters through and through.
This one more or less orders the postmaster around . . .
Imagine The postal inspectors’ or TSA’s reaction to a cover addressed in this fashion today! . . .
An ambulance chaser, of sorts . . .
Instructs the postmaster that if two such envelopes arrive, please hand to two different teachers . . .
These folks were a bit less particular . . . just “give it to someone.”
An unused envelope with pre-printed generic address . . .
A mailed folder . . .
Even the Chinese got into the act! . . .