The History of Direct Mail says the first recorded example of its kind in the world is a direct advertisement believed to be from an Egyptian landowner who advertised for the return of a lost slave. The papyrus is now exhibited in the British Museum in London and is said to date from around 1000 B.C.
In the prosperous city of Thebes the first advertising slogan appeared, the papyrus of slave Shem. In it, a seller of fabrics called Hapu, claimed he would give a reward (a whole piece of gold) to anyone who report the whereabouts of the slave Shem and return him to the store, where the most beautiful fabrics are woven for each person’s taste. In this subtle way he was advertising his product while drawing the attention.
But… what happened to the slave Shem, did they ever end up finding him and was he returned to his master? No, Shem managed to escape, he was never heard of again and according to other papyri, Hapu expanded his business with the coinage he managed to claim thanks to his brilliant advertising scheme.
The next time the world hears about direct marketing is with the Babylonians and their infamous brick mail. Babylonian merchants inscribed what they had for sale on materials like brick and stone and distributed them to potential buyers in neighbouring areas. These heavy items ultimately proved unwieldy and hard to circulate.
The concept of direct mail was slow to develop because the majority of the population was illiterate. As a rule, only the extremely wealthy or religious could read and write.
That changed in 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press. The Gutenberg Bible became wildly popular and led to a significant rise in literacy. It also signalled a new area of mass production.
William Caxton’s ‘Sarum Ordinal or Pye’, included the earliest surviving printed advertisement in English publishing history, the Sarum Ordinal, was a handbook for priests with details of feast days of English saints. The text had been written in the 11th Century and copied in the form of hand-written manuscripts. But the arrival of printing meant that the book could be reproduced much more readily and cheaply – and it is believed that there might have been hundreds of copies produced by Caxton’s press.
But the Sarum Ordinal also has another claim to fame. It was the subject of the first ever recorded book advert. Caxton was an entrepreneur as well as innovator and printed his own adverts urging people to call into his printing shop to buy their own copy.
The earliest UK direct marketing campaign that is credited with results was a pamphlet for a funeral parlour in London in 1825. This was one of the first documented “pre-pay” funeral systems in which prospective clients could pay for their funeral over a period of six months, in advance. This was apparently successful with over 1100 people taking him up on the offer.
The establishment of the Penny Post in 1840 allowed Pryce Pryce-Jones to develop a unique method of selling his wares in 1861. He distributed catalogues across the country showcasing his goods, allowing people to then order the items they wanted via post. He would then dispatch the goods via the railways system. This revolutionised shopping for families living in isolated rural areas to purchase wares as they may have found it difficult to go directly to the store to buy them.
While knowledge and promotional methods have certainly advanced since then, the basic idea hasn’t. The concept of trying to influence someone through the written word is still the basis of direct marketing today.