“COPY AND PASTE THIS TO 5 OF YOUR FRIENDS AND SOMETHING AMAZINGLY GOOD WILL HAPPEN IN 2 DAYS! SOME GIRL DIDN’T DO IT AND SHE DIED. OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE IT WORKS!” pretty annoying, right? Most of us are familiar with self propagating messages, also known as chain letters, from emails or facebook posts. But, this communication phenomena goes back to the 18th century mostly in handwritten letters and possibly even an oral form. The method has also been widely scorned for just as long. So I can understand some skepticism when I say chain letters are due for an analog revival, but hear me out.
Around 1795 a letter circulated England; it was known as the “letter from heaven.” It claimed to be written by Christ and promised blessings on whoever copied the text and passed it on to fellow believers. This basic form created the basis for luck letters in which participants prayed for those who sent the letter while distributing it to others who would pray for them.
In 1935 something amazing happened. The basic luck letter had been slowly evolving to better replicate itself. Luck was replaced with prosperity; an organized list of names and addresses was added; and finally someone changed the letter to explicitly ask for participants to send a dime to the person at the top of the chain. Americans, still reeling from the Great Depression, imagined an exponential chain of income. The “prosperity club” letter promised a $25,000 profit in todays money.
The fad took off. First in Denver before spreading to St. Louis and other cities. One billion (yup, with a B) chain letters were estimated to be sent that year. Post offices were clogged and the chain letter was declared a public nuisance that interfered with legitimate correspondence. Post masters and attorney generals vowed to prosecute whoever started the letter. But unlike other investment scams, like pyramid schemes, the prosperity club letter had no organized core. As chain letter archivist Dan VanArsdale writes, “Hope and fear, truth and error, charity and greed, anything that increases replication becomes part of the tradition. There is no master example or authority to set things aright.”
The craze died out as people realized they weren’t becoming suddenly rich. But the boom spawned dozens of mutations which continued throughout the pre-digital age. Like a successful virus, certain changes increased the ability for the letter to spread. Fantastic origin stories and specific examples of people who were rewarded or punished by the chain were added. One variation specifically targeted children, promising to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. However, by 1999 almost all paper chain letters had died out.
Which brings us to modern times. The US postal service has posted billion dollar losses for the last several quarters. Most post masters would beg to have their collection centers crammed with mail. Secondly, getting anything in the mail from someone you know isn’t necessarily seen as a nuisance anymore. Someone taking the time to actually send a letter in the mail is quaint or even sentimental. At least a hand addressed envelope is a nice break from bills and pizza coupons.
So I started some chain letters and sent them to friends. Granted, I’ve had an almost 0% return rates on similar art projects. But like the original “prosperity club” letter said in 1935 “have faith in your friends and this charm will not be broken”
I am indebted to Dan VanArsdale history and analysis for this article. Read more about chain letters Here.