Time Capsule: History of Chain Mail


The last posting inspired me to research and write about what has been referred to as “chain mail” – and its evolution from chain mail. Today’s chain email includes phrases like the classic genre of chain mail, as Pass this on for good luck, or some religious notation; but it also has evolved into other areas that include unscrupulous schemes and mass dissemination of misinformation, or just plain hoaxes.
The US Post Office was established officially as a government entity in 1775, the same year the US Army was officially established. But the earliest documented chain mail dates to 1795, a letter entitled Letter from Heaven, and although the actual date of that letter is uncertain, text of a letter with an established date was printed circa 1795.

In Chain Letter EvolutionDaniel W. VanArsdale writes:
Apocryphal letters claiming divine origin circulated for centuries in Europe. Around 1900 shorter and more secular letters appeared that demanded the reader distribute copies. Billions of these “luck chain letters” have circulated since then. … Using a sample of over 600 dated letters, predominant types are identified and analyzed for their replicative advantage. Key events in chain letter history are examined in detail, including the puzzling origin of money chain letters. A reconstruction of uncollected intermediate forms suggests that around 1932 a luck chain letter actually brought unexpected money in the mail to some who lived in small towns. In 1935 the first money chain letter appeared, the infamous “Send-a-Dime,” which was copied over a billion times worldwide within a few months. Newly discovered sources are used to argue that the unknown author of Send-a-Dime was a Denver woman motivated by charity. … Until the 1970’s most paper luck chain letters were copied by hand or typed. When photocopiers became more common there was some debate if one could use them for chain letters and still receive good luck. One chain letter innovator declared “may Xerox” in a footnote. … The Paper Chain Letter Archive provides overwhelming evidence that chain letters inherit text from their ancestors. From a “Luck of London” letter we read “It has been around the world four times” Over 50 years later we read on an Australian letter “It has been around the world nine times”. From a letter mailed in 1959 from Bloomsbury, New Jersey we read about money won but life lost in the Philippines, just as we do on the 1997 Australian letter. … For over 65 years, humorous texts have circulated from office to office and person to person. One such item, which w call “Play Golf,” lists the illustrious positions of several tycoons at the height of their careers in 1923; the same year that golfer Gene Sarazen won the PGA tournament. Sarazen died in 1999 at age 97.
Snopes also covers the fad of chain letters –
…Our modern world sees chains letters of a variety of descriptions circulated by surface mail, fax machines, and in e-mail. While folk cures and accompanying prayers have dropped from favor (as medical information and resources became easier to access, such intelligences became less vital), other sorts of “Send this to five of your friends!” mailings emerged to fill this gap.
Snopes puts chain letters into five categories: (1) Money-generating (aka pyramid or Ponzi schemes); (2) Luck-generation (or ill-luck avoidance); (3) Altruistic; (4) Something for nothing; (5) Humor. I can add another – Spammers looking for email addresses to hit.

A typical chain letter consists of a message that attempts to induce the recipient to make a number of copies of the letter and then pass them on to one or more new recipients. A chain letter can be considered a type of meme. Common methods used by chain letters include emotionally manipulative stories, get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, and the exploitation of superstitution to threaten the recipient with bad luck or even physical violence if he or she “breaks the chain” and refuses to adhere by the conditions set out by the letter. Chain letters are capable of evolution, generally improving their ability to convince their hosts to replicate them over time. … With the development of e-mail and the Internet, chain letters have become much more common and quick to spread than when they were transmitted purely by physical mail … Some e-mail providers prohibit users from sending chain e-mails in their terms of service. There have been Himmeslbriefe (“Heaven letters”) since at least the Middle Ages. And one could look to the Egyptian Book of the Dead as a meme that promised resurrection to those intombed with a copy. In the United States it is illegal to mail chain letters that involve pyramid schemes or other such financial inducements under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute, through Chain letters that ask for items of minor value such as business cards or recipes are not covered by this law. Chain letters have become popular in the MySpace community, many of which are in the form of MySpace bulletins. MySpace chain letters often have intimating hoaxes. Their popularity has surged on video sharing sites such as YouTube, via video comments.

And while chain letters and e-mails are usually just annoying, it also has a hidden agenda for some – making money by selling those addresses on the chain email and making even more money by insisting that the reader send to at least “ten friends”. Thus the importance of using the BCC mode when forwarding.
Almost every day I am bombarded by Spam and other devious or dangerous email. Recently an unscrupulous blogger who runs a “dating service” site (with no means to contact him at the site), tried to Spam LPJ comment section – something not acceptable, and thus the reason why I had to resort to moderating the comments, which before I did not require to do (except cleaning up some language that a particularly crude commentator had written – yet didn’t want to “censor” it either, because LPJ readers need to see the negative as well as the positive comments, and usually the writer reveals their bias and hypocrisy without me pointing it out.
So, if your comments are delayed, this is the reason, and as I have done so before, I apologize to scrupulous readers. Spammers and the bad hackers have ruined the pleasures of email and the Internet in general, and although I am for prosecuting those individuals – I am against general government regulation of the Internet. Cyberspace is, to me, the last bastion of freedom and liberties, especially under the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. But a line must be drawn between malicious and harmful practices and freedom of speech. And remember this, the law given above applies to folks who not just initiate scheme chain mail, but also who pass it on. This means that public outcry may lead to more prosecutions, and because you are one that passes them on – you may find yourself involved. Generally speaking, there is no real purpose or usefulness in chain mail – whatever medium or form it is disseminated.
While I encourage readers to send alerts to chain mail, to be published here under Myth Blaster, I highly discourage practicing the chain mail thing – and that is a major action that will make it go away. And if you have information that you think others should know, by all means, pass it on – but make sure it is backed up with factual sources. You do no benefit to anyone otherwise.
So, now you know one of my “pet peeves” is chain mail in whatever form it arrives in. And now you know the brief history of the social phenomenon called “chain mail” and the reason why there are websites in cyberspace totally dedicated to the subject of chain mail and hoaxes. I hope that Myth Blaster has provided some kind of service to educate and inform readers, we well as inspiring folks to spread the word that chain mail is “uncool” and too often malicious. Besides, why allow someone to make money with it and the possibility of getting Spam bombarded in your in box? I will never understand why there are those who create computer virus/worms and other malicious Internet phenomenon to people they don’t know or never did them any harm. It has created a computer security industry, as well as adding the cost of computing and other private and business operations. The law must be strict and unforgiving against the culprits who enjoy doing such things. And, as a side note – Snopes incorrect date (1888) of the first (dated) letter (1795) considered chain mail is an example why I do not rely solitary sources when doing research for my articles. There are a few who are objectively reliable, National Geographic and Encyclopedia Britannica, as two examples – because they have not been influenced by political correctness, although still may contain material that is considered consensus or opinionated.


 New York Times, 1968.

 1975.

 1944.

 1997.

 1959.

 1935.

 According to them the first “full-fledged” chain letter recorded is dated 1888, contradictory to Daniel W. VanArsdale’s paper on the subject; therefore the date provided by VanArsdale is the one that I have written in this chain mail history.

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