Receiving advertisements through the post can be a useful source of information, perhaps alerting the recipient to an exhibition, a sale or the opening of a restaurant. Although it is sometimes thought of as a nuisance – or "junk" mail – it nevertheless perseveres as a major advertising medium. Otherwise known as "direct mail", it has also become, particularly since the 1980s, a significant source of income for Royal Mail. Advertising through the mail in fact has a long history dating back more than 150 years to when it first become a phenomenon of Victorian consumerism. Postal reform made the post cheap, opening it up as an easy way for companies to reach new customers. This in turn created a huge demand for parcel deliveries, taken on at first by railway companies and private couriers and, later, by the Post Office when in 1883 the Parcel Post was launched.
Rowland Hill envisaged this when he first campaigned for postal reform in the 1830s, appealing to a commercial appetite for targeted postal advertising. In his famous "Post Office Reform" pamphlet of 1837, Hill predicted that the catalogues of merchants, manufacturers and shopkeepers would become a major class of the post. He also campaigned for a special rate for sending books, helping to enrich cultural life by creating a boom in literature sales. Soon, marketing strategies became more fine-tuned as, by the turn of the century, specialist advertising agencies controlled extensive classified lists with 100,000 or more households graded by rent. The Post Office was by then responsible for the distribution of all manner of advertisements and consumer goods on a massive scale.
This episode of The People's Post described what an extraordinary variety of objects travelled through the post as the public became acquainted with the freedom to send gifts and make purchases – everything from scorpions to fur coats found their way through British sorting halls. It also highlights how people reacted to these changes, sometimes marvelling at the novelties now within reach of even the most rural areas, at other times worrying about the wastefulness of mass advertising and indeed the health of postmen, whose loads had never been heavier.
For further reading see Gavin Fryer and Clive Akerman (Eds.), The Reform of the Post Office in the Victorian Era and its Impact on Economic and Social Activity: Documentary History 1837 to 1864 based on Sir Rowland Hill’s Journal and Ancillary Papers (2000). The British Postal Museum & Archive also holds many more documents relating to advertising and the parcel post in the Royal Mail Archive, such as the contemporary description of the launch of the parcel post found in St Martins-le-Grand: The Post Office Magazine, Vol. III (1893), pp. 283-288. Alison Bean's blog How to pack for the parcel post gives further information on this topic.
The man for the post
First parcels post
Postman delivering parcel
London - Chatham Parcel Coach