History of Direct Mail

The first example of direct mail dates back to the year 1000BC, when an Egyptian landowner wrote an advert on papyrus offering a reward of gold for the return of a missing slave. The advertisement was unearthed in Thebes and is now displayed in the British Museum.

Other ancient cultures who tried direct marketing include merchants from Babylon, who advertised their wares on stone tablets when they visited towns.

Printing press

It was to be more than 2,000 years before direct mail became a recognised concept. In 1440, the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton began printing pamphlets to order from his Westminster Abbey printing press from 1480.

William Caxton

Technology gradually improved to enable faster outputs and by the 18th century, catalogues of garden and seed products were being distributed around the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.

Mail order

In the 19th century, direct mail developed quickly when Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago invented mail order and direct marketing as we know it today. With the launch of his first catalogue, his mail order business was set up in 1872. Richard Warren Sears of Stewartville, Minnesota, mailed flyers to potential customers to sell watches in the 1880s.

Considered as the forerunners of modern direct marketing, both entrepreneurs revolutionised the way we purchase goods. Ward’s annual sales had hit $1 million by 1888, while Sears’ 1896 catalogue had around 500 pages and was mailed to 300,000 homes. Montgomery Ward & Co continued to trade until 1995 and Sears is now a famous department store and mail order business.

Computer technology

Computers were the next technological invention that affected direct mailing. Although web adverts, email and social media are still regarded as competitors to the direct mailing industry, they have co-existed since the 1950s, when computers were first introduced.

In the early days, the first computer adverts typically stressed the usefulness of a product and contained a basic image with plain text and a slogan. This changed in the 1970s, when full-colour adverts with bold graphics were designed to grab consumers’ attention and marketing was increasingly customised to appeal to specific target markets.

Although computers were viewed as a rival to direct mail, it became apparent that many businesses still felt direct marketing had a greater impact. In fact, when bank credit cards in their current form were launched in the 1960s, they were marketed through direct mail to promote the card’s virtues in a more personal way to customers. This practice continues today.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes between 1980 and 1990 enhanced the use of direct mail – the number of women in employment went up from 42% to 58% in this decade. With fewer women being able to go shopping during the working day, it made business sense to mail them so they could order the latest items when they had time after work.

Today, technological innovations have led to better creative tools, enabling marketing firms to design improved direct mail copy, with greater creativity and a better understanding of their target market.

Many of the world’s most successful companies and organisations – in particular, financial institutions – still use direct mail as their preferred form of advertising such as American Express, Macy’s, Citibank, Dell Inc, Victoria’s Secret, the Bank of America, Capital One and the Salvation Army, to name but a few.

American Express

Cavalier Mailing understands that when it comes to advertising, businesses have plenty of branding options, all of which are effective – but direct mailing is still one of the most powerful ways of advertising your business. Contact us and find out how we can help enhance brand awareness and generate ROI.