Of Bricks and Vick’s: Not-So-First-Class Mail

By | October 16, 2015

For years, my bank has been trying to get me to “go paperless,” not so much to save a tree, methinks, but to save them printing and mailing costs. But, you know, there could be worse things then sending a bank statement through the mail; I could be trying to send an actual bank through the mail. Which is what W.H. Coltharp famously did.

Coltharp was a businessman in the town of Vernal, Ut., and in 1916, upon receiving permission to construct a new building in town—a portion of which would be used for a bank—he decided that he wanted to use bricks made in Salt Lake City, 120 miles away as the crow, if not the brick, flies. It being the 1910s, shipping options were decidedly limited, and to ship the 80,000 bricks (some sources say it was more like 15,000) would cost four times what the bricks themselves cost. What to do…what to do?

Three years earlier, the United States Post Office had launched its Parcel Post service for sending packages from one place to another. (Before that, the Post Office only handled letters.) Parcel Post was an affordable way for rural folk—of which there were many in 1913—to send and receive packages, and quickly became a phenomenally useful and popular service.

It also helped Coltharp solve his problem. He would mail the bricks to himself via Parcel Post. Each package could weigh no more than 50 pounds, so Coltharp wrapped each brick individually, packaged them in crates that weighed no more than that upper limit, and sent out 40 of them at a time—basically shipping a ton of bricks each day for many days. But while Coltharp was shipping bricks, postmasters were sh***ing bricks. Since there was no direct route from Salt Lake City to Vernal, the bricks had to be sent by railroad to Colorado, transferred onto another railroad, then sent by freight wagon to Vernal. And, by postal law at the time, packages had to be handed over the counter. Oy.

Telegrammed the Vernal postmaster to Washington: “Some S.O.B. is trying to ship a whole building through the U.S. mail.”

Actually, it wasn’t the whole building, just the exterior bricks, but still… The bank, when finally constructed, was nicknamed “The Parcel Post Bank” and it still stands today. If I owned a UPS Store or FedEx Office franchise, I would make it a point to locate it in that building, just for the irony.

Needless to say, the Post Office changed their rules after Coltharp’s stunt, limiting customers to 200 pounds a day.

No doubt everyone involved in the brickscapade was feeling exceedingly sore by the end of it, although I bet a lot of people got a really good workout, and could have used some healing and soothing salve. To do so, they would probably have turned to products made by the Vick’s Chemical Company, and the Post Office would later have the founder of that company to thank (and the rest of us curse, depending upon your point of view) for something else that started arriving en masse through the mail.

Lunsford Richardson was born in Selma, N. Car., in 1854. After college, he taught Latin at a local academy for a bit, and soon bought a drugstore in Selma, where he became a pharmacist. After a short time, he sold that drugstore and relocated to Greensboro, where he bought the Porter and Tate Drug Store. (The “Porter” was the uncle of William Sydney Porter, who would achieve fame as the writer O. Henry. Ironically, there is no irony in that.)

Anyway, whilst beavering away in Greensboro, Richardson began concocting various menthol-based ointments, initially for babies with croup, but eventually he compiled a portfolio of 21 ointments and salves, which he collectively called “Vick’s Family Remedies,” taking the name “Vick’s” from, it is said, his brother-in-law Dr. Joshua Vick, who helped him get started in business, as well as an advertisement for a product called Vick’s Seeds.

In 1891, Richardson compounded a menthol-based ointment initially called Vick’s Croup and Pneumonia Salve, later renamed Vick’s Magic Croup Salve, and, in 1912, at the insistence of his son Smith Richardson who had become active in the business, Vick’s VapoRub. That was the magic formula, or at least the magic name, and after a major flu outbreak in 1918, sales of VapoRub went through the roof.

Richardson was not only a pharmacist but also a marketing dynamo, availing himself of virtually all the media channels available in the 1910s. He gave free samples to druggists, he ran coupons in newspapers, and he advertised on billboards. (In 1925, six years after Richardson’s death, the company published a children’s book about two elves that treat a sick child; three guesses what product plays a very large role.)

One other marketing strategy that Richardson pioneered was sending free samples to renters of Post Office boxes. He didn’t have access to a mailing list, and postal regulations required the name of a recipient in order for mail to be delivered. What to do…what to do? Aha! Address each sample simply to “Boxholder.” Much later, this would become “Occupant,” “Resident,” or the like. (I once got a promotional flyer addressed to “Smart Shopper at…” I sent it back marked “Addressee Unknown.”)

Anyway, Richardson is thus often considered “the father of junk mail.”

Richardson is probably also lucky that samples of Vick’s VapoRub weighed much less than bricks. The Post Office bristles at the term “junk mail”—but had used much stronger language for Coltharp’s bank mailing.

 

References:

John Hollenhorst, “Vernal bank built by bricks sent through the mail—partly true,” KSL-TV, November 19, 2014, http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=32424611.

“Lunsford Richardson, Inventor of VapoRub and Junk Mail,” NC Cultural Resources Blog, December 30, 2014, http://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2014-12-30/lunsford-richardson-inventor-vaporub-and-junk-mail.

“The Bank That Was Sent Through the Post Office,” Stamps of Distinction, July 11, 2008, http://www.stampsofdistinction.com/2008/07/bank-that-was-sent-through-post-office.html.

Jimmy Tomlin, “The Father of Vick’s,” Our State North Carolina, December 3, 2012, http://www.ourstate.com/lunsford-richardson.

“Lunsford Richardson,” Wikipedia, last modified November 19, 2014, retrieved September 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunsford_Richardson.

“Vicks,” Wikipedia, last modified August 28, 2014, retrieved September 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vicks.

 

Share this post