Direct Marketing after the Rise of the Printing Press

Leaping forward approximately 275 years, on April 11, 1744, Benjamin Franklin fashioned the lucrative marketing vehicle known as the mail order catalogue, and propelled the 250 year evolution of direct marketing. Through his A Catalog of Choice and Valuable Books,[1]

Franklin sold books and other wares, bringing vitality to his position in 1775 as first postmaster general of the united colonies.  Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, which began publication and dissemination on December 28, 1732 and continued for 25 years, has been recognized by the Direct Marketing Association as the first in-house publication.

Although built to promote his printing business, the Almanack offered an information hungry populace both valuable content and entertainment—leading to sales of “as many as 10,000 copies a year, making it a bestseller of its day.”[2]  In fact, Franklin made sure his public remained hungry for information by placing his own magazine into the mailing list for every home in Pennsylvania.

As one would then expect, The Pennsylvania Gazette, a newspaper purchased by Franklin in 1729, “saw a boost in its circulation in 1737, when Franklin was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia.”[3] Apparently, Franklin included The Pennsylvania Gazette in mail routes “to be delivered with regular mail gaining a wider audience as well as increasing demand for paid advertising space.”[4]

Franklin kept his book-selling business booming by listing hundreds of the first and second hand titles he had for sale in the pages of the Gazette—but always in a marketing-savvy way. Never allowing the list to become boring to pore over, he juxtaposed unexpected titles such as:  Paradise Lost, Arraignment of lewd Women, Art of Money-Catching, Telemachus. Truly a man ahead of his time, Franklin might have enjoyed knowing the catch phrase of one today’s digital marketing giants: “We believe the biggest marketing sin is being boring.”[5] By the mid-1730s, the Pennsylvania Gazette was the most popular newspaper in the colony.[6]

One can hardly discuss pre-revolutionary war direct marketers without noting Samuel Adams’ talent for disseminating copy damning the abusive control of England over the colonists. Adams’ ardent editorials were published in Boston newspapers, making their way into the living rooms of a preponderance of homes.

In a clever, albeit not altogether transparent marketing move, Adams signed his editorials in both “his own name and in 11 other pseudonyms, to create the illusion that more people supported independence than opposed it.”[7] The purpose of Adams’ marketing was to pivot the colonists from seeing themselves as English subjects to believing themselves to be Americans.

In the clearest attempt at direct marketing for a cause, Adams took to the streets of Boston “six days each week, speaking face-to-face with anyone who would listen about the English crown’s wrongdoings.”[8] Engaging his audience directly about unfair taxation and abusive acts, Adams understood, was the most powerful and efficacious way to promote revolution.

When we think, today, about what it is that makes the best direct marketing successful, it is not only the fact that one is reaching a potential customer each time a marketing Email is opened, it is also the crafting of phrases or subject lines that grab the audience. “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” warned Franklin. “Give me liberty or give me death,” proclaimed Thomas Paine in his wildly popular pamphlet, Common Sense, (January 1776), arguing persuasively and passionately for why independence was necessary and sensible.  

“Join or Die,” wrote Franklin, in the wood-cut engraving of a snake in eight pieces that was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette (1754) as the first political branding graphic demonstrating an eternal truth of marketing: that a powerful graphic can make your product legendary. In moments, colonists understood that uniting would be the only way to attain freedom and wholeness. The image helped spur on a movement. Today, when we think of Apple, Coca-Cola, or Facebook, we remember the logo or image associated with each.

For much of the next hundred years, advertising and direct marketing did not advance very far. It was not until the late 19th century that major changes came to light. The 1880s saw the expansion of direct advertisement as manufacturing techniques developed efficaciously—increasing output and decreasing cost of consumer goods production. Bringing the goods to a wider audience became the job of railroad networks, and with the piqued interest of an amalgam of curious consumers with cash to spend, advertising agencies grew up to shape and capitalize on the  of direct marketing.

Now, with the increased circulation of magazine and newspapers, advertisements reached customers directly through these publications. The more money marketers made from the sale of magazine ad space, the more money was available for creating further publications of interest to the expanded audience at the end of the next railroad track.

Mail-order shopping of consumer goods entered a period of growth in the 1880s, when mail-order houses began to fiercely compete with local stores. Their marketing contest centered on three major issues—price, inventory, and assurances—the very factors that made mail-order houses successful.

Considered the first cataloguer of consumer goods, Aaron Montgomery Ward began his business with a one page catalogue marketed directly to consumers in 1872. Shortly thereafter, Richard Warren Sears followed, sending out his first direct mail flyers during the 1880s. Consumers were no longer shackled to the limited goods available at the local store. In fact, people no longer had to pay the higher prices of small town stores either just because suppliers’ large volume discounts were not available to small town vendors. Operating nationally through the postal services gave Sears the ability to undersell local store rivals through economy of scale.[9] Direct mail catalogs made “consumer choice” available and powerful. Consumers now had access to variety, volume, and lower pricing, regardless of where they called home.

In the 1890s, “Sears was able to sell high quality treadle sewing machines for between fifteen to twenty dollars, far less than the forty to sixty dollars that retail dealers charged for equivalent models.” Sears could offer such value because, unlike the local store, it sold thousands of sewing machines each week. Of course, there was a certain degree of faith required to order from a catalogue when it was far easier to return shoddy merchandise to the local store. Both Montgomery Ward and Sears offered potent promises: Montgomery Ward was among the first to offer a money-back guarantee, and Sears-Roebuck promised "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back”—a lasting marketing and ethical business commitment among many businesses to this day.[10]

Among the most successful catalogers of the early 20th century was Leon Leonwood Bean, who propelled L. L. Bean of Maine to success in 1913 when he mailed his first flyer advertising his Maine hunting boots. Bean used targeting to mail his flyers solely to consumers with hunting licenses. The purpose of the cataloguers’ thoughtful marketing technique was the same as the purpose of direct marketing through mail or Email today: to seamlessly connect the advertising message for one’s product to a prospective and targeted audience in order to receive on the spot or subsequent action. As Jim Kobs writes in Profitable Direct Marketing, “Direct marketing is really the straightest line between you—the advertiser—and the action you want those who receive your message to take.”


[1] Benjamin Franklin and Carl Van Doren, A catalogue of choice and valuable books: consisting of near 600 volumes in most faculties and sciences, viz. Divinity, history, law, mathematics, philosophy, physic, poetry, & c (Philadelphia: Meriden Gravure Company, 1948).

[2] "Pennsylvania Gazette," Benjamin Franklin History, accessed January 19, 2017,

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] DigitalMarketer, "We Believe," advertisement, We Believe, February 10, 2016, accessed January 13, 2017,

[6] "Pennsylvania Gazette," Benjamin Franklin History; J. A. Leo Lemay, The life of Benjamin Franklin, volume 2: printer and publisher, 1730-1747 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005

[7] Samantha Berkhead, "Four Revolutionary Lessons the American Revolution Can Teach Us About Online Marketing," HubShout, February 20, 2015, , accessed February 19, 2017,

[8] Ibid

[9] Economies of scale" refers to economic efficiency that results from carrying out a process (such as production or sales) on a larger and larger scale. The resulting economic efficiencies are usually measured in terms of the costs incurred as the scale of the relevant operation increases

[10] "Sears Roebuck and their Sewing Machines," International Sewing Machine Collectors Society, accessed February 05, 2017,