The first chain letter ever written, 1891

Copy it word for word or you'll get hives all over your bottom or something along those lines.

Dear Margaret,

I trust you are well. Certainly, you must be better than my second cousin Annabelle’s friend’s husband’s uncle, who was crushed to death by a railway carriage on the eve of his wedding.

I had such a shock when I heard the news, and I thought the thing to do was to pass it along to nine friends via letter. Of course, now that you know such a thing is possible, if you do not write nine letters to nine more friends, you will never find true love. (I have already sent it to Agatha, Jane, Mary, and John, so you can’t send it to them.)

And do not say you already have a husband, for it isn’t sporting. Even if you’re not interested in finding true love, you still have to send this letter to nine people because otherwise you’ll be deathly sick with scarlet fever. Don’t ask why, it’s just the way things are.

Now that all that is out of the way, how are you? I am feeling better, although from time to time my ankle still gives me trouble. I should never have attempted to move that book on my own. Edward and I wondered if you might do us the honor of dining here next Wednesday. We are so curious to hear more about your time in London.

Yours threateningly,

Eliza

Analysis:

It may be difficult for some of our older readers to understand, but the chain letter is still alive and well. Now that email has made both getting a bunch of chain letters as a nine year-old and sending chain letters to every friend, relative, and customer service rep you’ve ever met before, chain letters have replaced letters from Nigerian businessmen as the single most popular email on the internet. It was not always so, however.

Chain letters, though not formally codified until the Victorian Era, have been around in some form or another for many hundreds of years. Some scholars believe the Bible was originally a sort of proto-chain letter. Indeed, some passages from both Old and New Testament would suggest so:

And yay, lest you be tempted to disheed my warnings: he who does not spread the Gospel of Christ to at least 10 new followers will be smote into the firey pits of hell. But if you do so, you will be rewarded with an eternity in paradise, and your crush will ask you out. (2 Tim 32:21-22)

Like so many of our modern-day conveniences, however, the chain letter was really standardized in the Victorian Era. It began, like Soccer and Rugby, in the great schools of England in the mid-19th century, when Etonian boys would send each other threatening letters warning that unless a younger student forwarded the secret code to ten friends, he would be turned into a Hindu. As the popularity of the “chain-mail letter” (so-called because each envelope was stamped with a picture of a knight) exploded, headmasters and politicians worried that their sons were not receiving the education required to be a man of the empire. So, it fell to them to create rules and regulations governing these letters. As soon as such a project was created, however, it fell into massive gridlock. After nearly 30 years of arguing, the only agreement reached was that the chain letter would have to be written on paper, not moss (as proposed by Gladstone). And so, it fell to the commoners to create the culture of the chain letter. Above, Ms. Eliza Fartherbother-Howe’s letter to her cousin is considered the first true chain letter. By combining both threats and promises of good fortune if the directions are followed, Mrs. Fartherbother-Howe created the artform we know and love today. Sadly, she was killed just two weeks later by the ghost of a boy who was teased in school because he had no face.

By the way, if you don’t forward this blog post to 20 people, your house will fall over and your best friend will steal your Game Boy. But if you send it to 20 people, Bill Gates will give you a hundred dollars, and your crush will ask you out.

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