Dime Daffiness

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY June 15 1935

Dime Daffiness

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY June 15 1935

Dime Daffiness


A MAN once sold another man the Brooklyn bridge.

Which is as good an explanation as another of the send-a-dime chain-letter craze which recently, all over this continent, reached the pinnacle of daffiness.

For weeks, during April and May, from the Golden Gate to Hell’s Gate, from Sydney to Prince Rupert, people put dimes in letters, mailed them to other people, expecting other people, and more of them, to mail them dimes back. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the other people, or a lot of them, didn’t mail the dimes back, office made money.

But it was a great racket—while it lasted. How the thing began, or where or why, nobody knows. In April a “Prosperity” chain letter began making its rounds in Canada and the United States. The writer asked people to copy it and send it on within twenty-four hours to nine persons, whereupon “prosperity will come within nine days.” It was added that an American colonel “got $3,000 after five days,” and that a woman “won $9,000 in a

sweepstake,” but that poor Mrs.lost all, she broke

Evidently preferí ing to be like the American colonel rather than the pxjr woman who broke the chain and “lost all,” an astonishing lot of people copied the letter. Prime Ministers, priests and publicans got them by the score.

It was then that some bright genius saw his chance. If people could be induced to copy nine letters on the offchance that they might win a sweepstake or escape bad luck, why not induce them to put a dime in the letter, with the chance of getting a lot more letters back with a lot more dimes? Here, surely, was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Or at the end of a flock of them.

The thing was so simple. According to the “send-a-dime” statisticians:

“All you do is send back your dime and send on your letter to five others. They repeat the process, and after six more rounds of the same thing the letter is bound to be in the hands of 15,625 persons. Each of these will send dimes to you and you will therefore get $1,562.50.”

Not clear? Let us try again.

Early Birds Get the Dimes

A LETTER is received containing six names with the request that it be copied and sent on to five others, the person copying it adding his or her name at the bottom of the list and removing the top name. As a compensation to the person whose name is removed, a dime is sent. A little calculation will show that the person whose name is added to the bottom of the list will place it in the hands of five persons, each of whom in turn—assuming always that the chain is unbroken—will send it on to five others. Therefore, on the second round the name is repeated to twenty-five individuals, then to 125, and so on, thus:

Name at bottom of list to 5 people 5th position to........... 25 “ 4th position to........... 125 3rd position to........... 625 2nd position to.......... 3,125 Removal from list........15,625

The lunacy of the thing, of course, is that for everyone to get the promised $1,562.50, everybody else must hand out the same sum. Or, to put it another way, it only requires 15.625 persons to mail dime letters for the originator of the chain to get his or her $1,562.50, but for each of the 15,625 to get the same sum it would take 244,000,000 letters. Which is a lot of letters. Also a frightful lot of dimes.

From the very beginning, of course, this “send-a-dime” chain, like all similar chains, began breaking down. For a week or two in the beginning of May the post-offices of all Canadian cities were deluged with such mail, postmen burdened with it. Within three weeks things were back to normal, the only result being that a lot of people had parted with dimes, and that a few lucky people—the early birds— had more dimes than before.

It was different in the United States, or worse. In Springfield, Mo., players improved on the original daffiness. First, they raised the original ante from a dime to $3 and sometimes $5. Then, in an effort to ensure against the breaking of a chain by anyone, they sold chain letters instead of merely sending them out and trusting to luck. They even

called in notaries to attest that bona-fide sales had been made.

The Springfield variation worked famously for those who got in early. Promotion offices were opened ; in three of them $18,(XX) changed hands in a single day. The difficulty was that the next day all the prospective buyers had been used up. Whoever paid $5 to pick up a chain found it impossible to get anyone to do likewise. And the chain had to remain unbroken if the thing was to work.

Thus the early birds got all the cash. A taproom owner won $875; a grocery store manager, $4(X); a butcher, $400; a barber, $75. But for everybody who won $5, somebody lost $5. There was no new money; no real gold at the rainbow’s end.

A Recurring Craze

AT THE Dominion Post-Office headquarters in Ottawa, *■ chain letter experiences are nothing new. An old official who most obligingly searched through musty records, informed me that chain letters were as old as the jx>st-office itself. For the most part, he said, they are taken philosophically. The view of the Department is that they are just passing fads that spring up through the country jjeriodically, dying out quickly and without need for interference. Incidentally, the chain-letter craze means more post-office revenue.

Chain letter schemes may bo divided into two classes:

1. “Prayer” chains and “gtxxl luck” chains.

2. Chains requiring the sending of money.

The motives of the originators of the prayer

chains are fairly clear and bring little worry to the lx)st-office. Mostly, the authors of such letters may lx; endeavoring to unite many people in prayer for the attainment of some desirable end, such as the termination of a war there were many such during the Great War. Or they may be trying to recruit a body of opinion in supjxirt of some harmless movement, and resort to the chain as a cheap method of carrying on their propaganda.

It is different with the “good luck” chains. These letters generally inform the recipient that by copying the letter and passing it on to four or more

other persons he will earn g(x>d luck within a certain number of days, adding that if he fails to do this, thereby breaking the chain, he will experience bad luck. The post-office has never been able to discover what such people have in mind.

The astonishing thing is that so many people decide that their good or ill fortune depends upon what they do about these letters. No figures are available, of course, showing just how many people are superstitious, but the tenacity of the chain-letter fad. resurrected decade after decade, proves that they are legion.

One significant thing noted by the Post-Office Department is that chain letters invariably coincide with periods of stress, or with economic maladjustments. Thus the craze rose to noticeable heights in the nineties, reappeared just prior to the war, returned during the middle ot the war, has been growing—until this month’s collapse—since the depression.

Curiously enough, few complaints reach the Department against the chain letter. Officials themselves, viewing the matter complacently, worry only lest several chain schemes.

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carried on simultaneously, cripple postoffice machinery. They recall a case in Australia in the eighties, when the postoffice was completely paralyzed owing to a chain-letter scheme becoming too successful.

I In the end, so desperate did the situation ! become, the churches, newspapers and authorities had to combine to end it.

In the past, the only chain letters diverted to the Dead Letter Office were of the “prayer” variety. The Department always took the view that they were more or less I harmless, permitted delivery. In the case of ; the “prosperity” or “dime” craze, however, i officials were instructed to intercept all such letters detected, to confiscate their contents. The Department refuses to divulge the number of letters intercepted or the total sum of the dimes seized, but admits to a tidy amount. They came from all classes ol people—society leaders, business and professional men, teachers, farmers, workmen, people on relief.

In one curious respect the “dime” chain differed from the “prayei” and “good luck” chains. While the former were written mostly by women, seeming to indicate that the female sex were more prayerful or more superstitious, the latter were mostly written by men, seemingly proving them more avaricious.

Nobody was prosecuted by the Department, and nobody complained that their dimes were lost or asked them back. Perhaps on second thought they realized that Barnum was right and were a bit ashamed.