Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pass It On—Or Else

Why do otherwise healthy and rational human beings send me chain emails threatening my luck, my livelihood and my love life if I do not forward them on to eight to ten other soon-to-be-annoyed friends?

Who started all this nonsense, anyway? Well according to one website, Chain Letter Evolution by Daniel W. Van Arsdale, chain letters have been around for a long time. He amassed a collection of more than 600 letters from early times to today.

Early Chain Letters

The first chain letters were religiously oriented, claiming the end of the world: pass it on. These letters, which claimed divine origin, circulated in Europe.

Early European chain letter supposedly authored by Jesus.
Around 1900, shorter, secular letters appeared that demanded the reader distribute copies. Apparently, the Victorians had little to do. 

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 have been used to argue that the unknown author of Send-a-Dime was a Denver woman motivated by charity.

Chain Letter Approaches

Letters from heaven chain letters claimed to have been written by God or some divine representative. (The one pictured above claims to have been written by Jesus.) They often commanded Sabbath observance and promised the bearer magical protection from misfortune. They circulated in Europe and elsewhere for centuries and were reprinted during World War II. 

Luck chain letters preyed on superstition, promising good luck if the letter was copied and re-sent or bad luck if it was not. Early types started with a prayer or Bible verse. They may have developed from a requirement to distribute a prayer in a Roman Catholic Novena devotion. The oldest copy of this type of letter is from 1898.

Charity chain letters requested money or some item be sent to a fixed address, ostensibly for charitable, political or memorial purposes. An 1888 letter solicited dimes for the education of "the poor whites in the region of the Cumberlands." (Hope it worked.) This letter stated it was an adaptation of a previous solicitation, and asks that four copies be sent to friends. For compliance ". . . you will receive the blessing of Him who was ready to die for us." Recent charity chains do not ask for money. The Craig Shergold appeal requested get well cards for a dying child (since recovered), intending to break a Guinness world record that existed at the time. It was launched in September 1989 by fax, email and chain letters. By December 1990, a record 33,000,000 cards had been received. Despite efforts to stop the appeal, hundreds of millions continued to be sent. While common on the Internet, these types of letters are generally hoaxes.

In their modern form, chain petitions request their own reproduction, circulation and delivery of signatures. Earlier examples did less. A 1903 letter asked that recipients send their name and address to the "U.S. Moral Society" to be added to a petition to Congress to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to minors. The use of chain letters in political campaigns goes back at least to 1912 with a letter urging support for U.S. Senator James A. Reed (Missouri) for the Democratic nomination for President. Wonder how that went? Other chain petition causes included Czech independence (1949), nuclear disarmament (1985), protests of apartheid (1988), and a misinformed boycott of Proctor & Gamble (1986). (If you are old enough, you may recall that some people thought that the trident of Poseidon in the P&G logo was actually Satan’s pitchfork and the company was accused of supporting the Church of Satan.) 

Copy from 1935 Send-a-Dime chain letter. Courtesy: Chain Letter Evolution.
Money chain letters urge the recipient to send money to one or more prior senders, with the slim promise that the sender will likewise benefit in the future. Money chain letters originated in the United States in the spring of 1935 (coincidentally the height of the Great Depression) with the "Send-a-Dime" letter, also called "Prosperity Club." They continue as a pervasive nuisance to this day, both in paper and in email. Money chains and pyramid schemes violate Federal USPS and some state laws.

Exchange chain letters, which first appeared in 1935, asked that an item of small value, such as a recipe or postcard, be sent to one or more prior senders, promising that if the chain was not broken the sender would, in turn, receive many such items.

Human nature being what it is, parodies began springing up very early in the history of 20th century chain letters. Very soon after the first publicity (April 19, 1935) of the Send-a-Dime craze, parodies such as "Send-a-Pint" and the "Drop Dead Club" (shoot the first person on the list) appeared. The next known examples are the familiar "wife exchange" (1953) and "Fertilizer Club: "go to the top address on the list and crap on the front lawn" (1971).

Today, chain email runs the gamut on topics including reminding us how to behave (duty to friends, sobriety, safe sex), consumer warnings, friendship, hoaxes (virus warnings, charity, giveaways, false quotations), human rights alerts, humor (single jokes and lists, office humor items, stories), inspiration, good luck (often in sex or romance), missing children, money chains, number guessing tricks, parodies, patriotism, personality tests, petitions, poems, political commentary, prayer requests, protests, rumors, surveys, urban legends (warnings, humor) and much more.

Let's face it, most of us find chain letters incredibly aggravating and a waste of time. No one of sound mind should ever send one. Friends don't let friends forward chain letters. If you feel the same way, show your support by cutting and pasting this into your email and passing it on to eight friends. ;)

1 comment:

  1. I know what you mean, I have gotten lots of junk mail and those type of mail chains that I do not care if I break the chain or continue it, I just don't read them