Before Chain Letters Swept the Internet, They Raised Funds for Orphans and Sent Messages From God
Recipe exchanges, poetry chains, photo challenges and other ostensibly comforting prompts are enjoying a resurgence amid the COVID-19 pandemic
The 900-plus chain letters in folklorist Daniel VanArsdale’s digital archive range from the conventional—an 1896 fundraiser for a Louisville orphanage and a 1982 note urging recipients to relay the contents onward or suffer devastating consequences—to the unexpected, including a 1917 missive detailing how potential draftees could obtain conscientious objector status, a 1940 postcard calling for those addressed to ship handkerchiefs to strangers, and a 1986 petition advocating the boycott of Proctor and Gamble products adorned in “satanic symbol[s].”
Defined broadly as messages designed to be passed on for alternatively self-serving, altruistic or nefarious purposes, chain letters have taken an array of forms over the centuries. Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the polarizing mode of communication is enjoying a renaissance, with individuals stuck at home forwarding recipe chains, inspirational quotes, photo challenges and other ostensibly comforting prompts to their friends and family.
Unlike luck chain letters—which promise “a big payoff” if sent on and a “curse … if you [don’t] comply,” according to folklorist and literary scholar Michael J. Preston—the missives currently circulating are largely non-threatening.
“Those aren’t the kind that are being perpetuated in this climate,” says Betty Belanus, an education specialist and curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “It’s more of a bolstering of the spirit, or appealing to something that everybody’s doing now, like cooking.”
Still, even seemingly benign chains come with a catch. As one popular recipe exchange warns, “Seldom does anyone drop out because we all need new ideas.” The implication is clear: Participation—while not required—is strongly suggested.
Before deleting (or forwarding) the next chain letter you receive, consider reading up on the medium’s surprisingly rich history. From ancient Egypt to the Great Depression and the rise of social media, this is the story behind the notes currently flooding your inbox.
Understanding chain letters
VanArsdale, the folklorist who compiled the Paper Chain Letter Archive and wrote an accompanying treatise on chain letter evolution, defines chain letters as writings that “explicitly” ask recipients to make or purchase copies for distribution. Oftentimes, this correspondence involves slightly modifying the original message, perhaps by updating a list of intended addressees.
Types of chain letters run the gamut from luck to protection, charity, religion, advocacy, money-generating schemes, parody and exchange. Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, also cites letters that test how quickly chains can “move through the system”—a kind of “social network[ing] experiment” that includes what VanArsdale dubs world record chain letters.
Examples of the aforementioned categories include a 1909 prayer chain promising “he who will write will also be delivered from all calamities” (luck, protection and religion); a 1903 postcard protesting the sale of cigarettes to minors (advocacy); an 1896 request for funds for “homes for needy boys” (charity); a 1945 “war stamp plan” suggesting those who maintain the chain will receive “approximately $101.25 in stamps” (money); a 1935 friendship quilt chain (exchange); a scatological 1935 parody; and a 1996 letter warning that “if you were to break the chain we would have to wait another nine years to be in [the] record book.”
Above all, chain mail strives to replicate. By preying on people’s fears (“A woman made fun of this [and] in 13 days her daughter went blind”), superstitions (“The one who breaks this chain will have bad luck”), beliefs (“Pray that the chain may not be broken”), desires (“Your joy will come in nine days”), morality (“[We know] that you are always willing to do all you can to help the worthy poor”), and sense of self (“Your action will help put the price gougers in their places”), these messages implore recipients not to break the chain.
Chain letters “pivot on an appeal to a sense of identity and natural self-interest,” writes communications expert Marjorie D. Kibby in the journal New Media Society. “They are formulated to trigger emotional responses and depend upon the reader’s inclination to do what serves their interests or the interests of the groups to which they belong.”
Variations on similar stories are widespread, with people “add[ing] their own little touches or maybe even just copy[ing] something wrong,” says Belanus.
Though subtle, these changes represent a form of “evolution” that inspired VanArsdale—a mathematician by training—to investigate the medium further.
As he explains, chain letters are “an assemblage of [certain] persistent devices.” Each individual element, from threats to promises and appeals to people’s sense of belonging (this letter “must go around the world” or “has been all over the world”), contributes “to the successful replication of letter.”
The origins of chain letters
Documents calling on readers to reproduce their contents have existed since ancient times, though VanArsdale points out that these early examples do not contain the “self-copying” directive and “fixed copy quota” seen in true chain letters. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for instance, promises that those who make a copy of a certain image “shall find it of great benefit to him both in heaven and on earth,” while the “man who knows not this picture shall never be able to repulse the serpent Neha-hra.” In Asia, printed prayers known as dharani encouraged eighth-century residents of Japan to expel “evil karma” by copying their text and placing them in pagodas. The ninth-century Diamond Sutra, meanwhile, pledged merit to those who “circulate[d] it widely.”
Iterations of another chain letter predecessor, the so-called “Letter from Heaven,” emerged during or prior to the medieval period. Marketed as messages from Jesus himself, these purportedly divine missives conveyed instructions (celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday, fast on five Fridays each year, do not gather vegetables on Sundays) and conferred protection on those who sent them to others. Some claimed “to have fallen from the heavens,” while others were said to be written in Jesus’ own blood, says VanArsdale.
An English version dated to 1795 lays down the law in stark terms, declaring, “[H]e that publisheth it to others, shall be blessed of me, and though his sins be in number as the stars of the sky, and he believe in this he shall be pardoned; and if he believe not in this writing, and this commandment, I will send my own plagues upon him, and consume both him and his children, and his cattle.”
European immigrants eventually brought the letters, known in German as Himmelsbriefs, to the United States, where superstitious soldiers donned them as protective charms in battle and families framed them in hopes of protecting property from fire, flood and other disasters, reported folklorist Don Yoder for Fine Books & Collections in 2009.
The rise of the modern chain letter
The first “full-fledged” chain letters—containing “within [their] text an explicit instruction to the reader to make copies of the mailing and put them into the hands of a specified number of new recipients,” according to Snopes’ David Mikkelson—date to 1888. Both are charity chain letters: One sought funds for a Methodist missionary training school in Chicago, while the other asked supporters to send a dime for the education of “the poor whites in the region of the Cumberlands, who have so long been neglected and whos[e] parents are unable to pay their tuition.”
As Colin Salter writes in 100 Letters That Changed the World, the Chicago Training School’s fundraiser proved so successful that its organizers decided their strategy warranted an entirely new name: the “peripatetic contribution box.” But the campaign wasn’t a universal success: One recipient responded in a manner likely to resonate with modern readers, writing, “To tell the plain truth, I am exasperated with this plan. I am a very busy woman, and this is the third benevolence I have been asked to help in this way.”
Chain letters peaked during the 20th century, when rising literacy rates, more reliable postal service and new technologies broadened both their reach and appeal. According to VanArsdale’s Chain Letter Evolution database, charity chains initially dominated the postal circuit, but luck- and money-generating letters gained considerable traction during the 1920s and ’30s.
Many early luck letters had religious overtones: An “ancient prayer” first circulated in the United States in 1906, for instance, professed to come from one Bishop Lawrence, who recommended it “be rewritten and sent to nine other persons.”
Luck letters proved especially popular in times of crisis. During World War I, Americans and Europeans alike adapted the 1906 prayer chain to better suit the times by adding devotional calls for peace or victory. In November 1917, the New York Times went so far as to decry these “endless chain letters” as a German plot designed to “clog the United States mails.” The newspaper further observed, “What indicates that all of the letters are part of the same plot is the fact that most of them are worded alike.” Similarly phrased luck chains remained popular during the inter-war period and into World War II, with letters claiming to stem from “an American officer in Flanders” and an officer stationed in London during the Blitz.
Perhaps the most infamous chain letter of the 20th century was the “Send-a-Dime” scheme, which took the American West by storm in the middle of the Great Depression. First spotted in spring 1935, these letters contained a list of five or six names and addresses. Recipients were asked to send ten cents (about $1.87 today) to the person in slot number one, remove this individual from the list, move the four remaining entries up one slot, write their own contact information in the newly vacated final space and pass the chain along to new participants.
“In turn when your name reaches the top of the list,” a 1935 chain notes, “you will receive 15,625 letters with donations amounting to $1,562.50.” (The math follows that five to the sixth power—the number of names on the list—equals 15,625.)
“Send-a-Dime” letters were an instant sensation. Local post offices reported record-breaking mail volume, and enterprising individuals started selling copies to buyers hoping to recoup their initial investment by circulating the notes widely and racing to the top of the list.
Within weeks, however, the craze had petered out. In early May of 1935, the U.S. Post Office Department declared “Send-a-Dime” letters a violation of its regulations; a few days later, residents of Springfield, Missouri—home to a short-lived chain-letter industry—realized that “almost everybody had a letter to sell, thus draining the buyer market dry,” according to the Associated Press.
Grocery store manager Guy Harpool told the AP that he had earned more than $400 (nearly $7,500 today) through a higher-stakes version of the chain letter. Still, he added, “The only way you can get anything out of the chains is to stay with them. … When some one gets one with your name on it and can’t pass it, you have to get out and help them sell it. Boy, it’s a full-time job.”
Unlike Harpool, the vast majority of people who passed on “Send-a-Dime” letters failed to turn a significant profit. As the Hartford Courant observed, “In these hard-boiled days, … the likelihood of receiving the promised reward or even a considerable part of it simply doesn’t exist.”
With the invention of the photocopier in 1959, reproducing chain letters became easier than ever before. Office workers covertly used their communal copiers to pass on not only letters, but jokes, recipes, personal documents and even scans of body parts, says Preston, the folklorist credited with coining the term “Xerox-Lore”—a nod to the technology’s burgeoning role in cultural transmission.
In the days of paper chain mail, many luck letters were relayed anonymously, with people tucking messages under strangers’ windshield wipers or in residential mailboxes. Some senders probably assumed anonymity under the mistaken belief that all chain letters were illegal. But luck letters “are not, as long as threats are not visible on the outside of the envelope,” says VanArsdale.
Money chain letters, on the other hand, are indeed illegal, though many explicitly state otherwise. Per the U.S. Postal Service, correspondence requesting “money or other items of value and promis[ing] a substantial return” constitutes a form of gambling that violates the postal code. More importantly, the agency warns, “[A] chain letter is simply a bad investment. … The few dollars you may get will probably not be as much as you spend making and mailing copies.”
Another significant chain letter from the pre-internet period was the “Circle of Gold,” which functioned similarly to the “Send-a-Dime” letters of the Great Depression. Circulated in 1978, these notes instructed people to send $50 (roughly $200 today) to an individual at the top of a list of 12. After making two copies of the letter, crossing the first slot holder’s name out, shifting the list up and adding one’s own contact information, recipients were urged to sell their updated versions for $50 each. If the chain remained unbroken, participants stood to make more than $100,000 ($393,000 today)—though of course few, if any, did.
The “Circle of Gold” was particularly effective because it relied on hand-to-hand delivery, thereby avoiding illegal use of the postal service. According to a New York Times article headlined “A ‘Gold’ Chain Letter Has Come Full Circle, With Trail of Victims,” the fraudulent scheme emerged in California and “quickly spread” along the East and West Coasts, reaching readers in Chicago, New York City, Nashville, Santa Fe and even Hawaii.
The internet chain letter
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, email and social media further revolutionized chain letters’ form and purpose. As Bijan Stephen wrote for the Verge in 2018, migration to the internet saw chains shift from “get-rich-quick scheming or harvesting [information] from suckers to something more playful.” In a 2015 article for Vice, Alexandra Hayward noted that forwarded chains had become “more ridiculous, obscene, and laughable.”
Thanks to the internet, sending chain letters to friends and family is incredibly simple. “You just pick the friends you think might actually do it … and send it off with just a few strokes of the keyboard,” says Belanus, “so it’s just exponentially a lot wider of a phenomenon, and it can go around the world a lot faster than it ever did before.”
Today, chain letters are no longer anonymous. In fact, wrote Belanus for Folklife magazine earlier this year, personalized opening statements are a major component of effective email or social media chains, reminding readers that those who fail to comply are “letting countless nameless [individuals] down,” as well as “some altruistic person in your own sphere.”
Choosing to continue an email chain is a “participatory event that heightens a feeling of community,” explains Kibby in New Media Society. Now, with social-distancing measures leaving many isolated from their friends and family, such virtual connections are more appealing than ever.
“These are ways that we can both expand our world and also reinforce who we are, who our community is,” says Heidelbaugh of the National Postal Museum. “And you certainly want that in times of crisis, [when] you want to know that you have a support network.”
When Belanus emailed out a recipe exchange in April, she received responses from several friends who told her they refused to participate in chain letters on principle. These same individuals, however, partly fulfilled the chain’s directions by sending her recipes and life updates of their own.
“Even if the chain got broken,” says Belanus, the exchange afforded her the opportunity to reconnect with friends—and add an array of new culinary experiences to her to-do list.