History of Direct Mail
Based on a chapter
from Effective Direct Advertising, (c) 1921.
THE HISTORY OF DIRECT ADVERTISING
It is the true office of history to represent the
events themselves together with the counsels, and to
leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the
liberty and faculty of every man's judgment.--BACON
Direct Advertising Used in Early Days of History.
1000 B. C. an Egyptian landowner wrote on a piece of
papyrus an advertisement for the return of a runaway
slave. This, so far as we can trace, is the first
example of direct advertising. The original was exhumed
from the ruins of Thebes and can now be seen in the
Though messages were imprinted upon
bricks and sent direct to the prospect, in Babylonian
days, direct advertising did not then grow to any
extent. The first reference to direct advertising about
the time of the birth of Christ is found in one of
Pliny's books in which, according to the translation, we
read, with reference to a poet : "He hired a house,
built an oratory, hired-forms, and dispersed
Writing was not a common art even among
the more highly educated in those early days, a fact
which naturally accounts for the slow development of
Invention of Printing Assisted in
Making It Popular.
From the invention of movable type by
Gutenberg (about 1434) to the present time the growth of
direct advertising has in many ways been concurrent with
the progress in printing, and we shall briefly touch
upon the historical "high spots" of this development as
a ground-work for the possibilities of the future.
William Caxton was the pioneer printer of England,
having set up his press in the year 1471 at Westminster
Abbey. About 1480 he printed the first English handbill,
a fore-runner of the "dodger" of to-day, the original of
which can be seen in the Bodleian library at Oxford,
The first American direct advertisement,
according to the Philadelphia Public Ledger, was a
pamphlet published in 1681 by William Penn, the front
cover of which is re-produced on page 3. Printers' Ink,
commenting upon this, said : "Excepting for its now
archaic language, some of the passages in this pamphlet
would seem to be a quotation from a modern land scheme."
Following its appearance in England, where it was
printed to stimulate emigration to Pennsylvania, this
pamphlet was almost immediately reprinted in Dutch at
Rotterdam and in German at Amsterdam.
advertiser that he was, Penn followed up his first piece
with seven other pieces between 1681 and 1690. He also
took a small portion of the first pamphlet and published
it as a "broadside."
The Forerunner of Modern-day
Following his arrival in
Pennsylvania Penn, in 1683, published a second pamphlet
entitled : "Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and
Governor of Pennsilvania in America, to the Committee of
the Free Society of Traders, of that Province, residing
This pamphlet is worthy of further comment.
It contained a map of Philadelphia and an advertisement
of Thomas Holme, who surveyed the city for Penn. What
land scheme is ever published nowadays without a map?'
Unworthy rumors having been spread abroad in England
about Penn's Woods, in 1687 Penn published
another-pamphlet, the purpose of which was to offset
these rumors. by quotations (testimonials or
endorsements) from "persons of good credit" (to quote
from the cover).
In England there appeared, in 1673, a
pamphlet entitled : "An Essay to Revive the Ancient
Education of Gentle-women in Religion, Manners and
Tongues," at the end of which there was an advertisement
for a boarding school. This school probably financed the
publication of the first "service" manual on record, as
the advertisement and the material appearing in the book
were closely allied.
Benjamin Franklin Founded First
Benjamin Franklin, of course, stands in
the forefront of early American printers, having been
apprenticed to his stepbrother James in 1718, later
going to Philadelphia, as every school child knows, and
entering another printing office there. In 1732 he founded Poor Richard's
Almanac, the prototype of the modern-day patent medicine
almanac. This publication was, in effect, the first
house organ in this country (see Section 56).
marriage of George III's eldest daughter (about 1780) a
curious handbill was given away in London, which was
printed upon both sides and, according to historians,
"looked like a tract." Its purpose, however, was to sell
a portable washing mill (machine).
In 1825 there was
established in London a burial society which distributed
handbills that rivaled the recent (1920) Frank A.
Campbell funeral parlor advertisements at their best.
Listen to one of its arguments :
opportunity now offers to any person of either sex, who
would wish to be buried in a genteel manner, by paying
one shilling entrance and twopence per week for the
benefit of the stock. Members to be free in six months.
The money to be paid at Mr. Middleton's at the sign of
"The First and Last," Stonecutter St., Fleet Market.
deceased to be furnished as follows : a strong elm
coffin, covered with superfine black, and finished with
two rows, all around, close drove, best black japanned
nails, and adorned with ornamental drop, a handsome
plate of inscription, angel above and flower beneath,
and four pair of, hand-some handles with wrought gripes;
the coffin to be well pitched, lined and ruffled with
fine crape; a handsome crape shroud, cap and pillow. For
use, a handsome velvet pall, three gentlemen's cloaks,
three crape hatbands, three hoods and scarfs and six
pair of gloves; two porters equipped to attend the
funeral, a man to attend the same with band and gloves,
also the burial fees paid, if not exceeding one guinea.
According to Henry Sampson's "A History of Advertising
from Earliest Times," from which the above is quoted,
this piece produced results, since we are told that more
than 1100 people joined in short order ! The Middleton
referred to was not only an undertaker but also a dealer
in wickerware, including baby cribs, a fact which
probably accounts for the "catch phrase" used--" The
First and Last."