December 13, 2010

Two major waves in the history of junk mail

Here is the prevalence of the term "junk mail" in the NYT, starting with its first occurrence in 1954 (data are in 5-year blocks, plotted at the mid-year):

I'm not surprised by the upward trend, but I didn't expect to see two distinct periods. Usage of the term surges through the '50s and first half of the '60s, but even by the second half of the '60s the increase flattens out, and there's mostly a plateau through the first half of the '80s. Since the prevalence of the term reflects people's perceptions of how bad the problem is, it looks like they'd gotten more or less used to junk mail by then.

However, the second half of the '80s sees another surge upward that began to plateau somewhere around 2000. This is another case of "obviously not due to the internet," as it preceded the internet and email, and the post-internet world shows a shallower rise in usage of the term. Either senders of junk mail started ramping up the volume, which the post office likes because it increases their revenue, or despite a mild change in volume people just got more fed up with it.

I have no recollection of what junk mail was like during the first half of the '80s, and was not even alive before then, so I have no idea what distinguishes these two phases. Anyone out there care to clue us in to what the first wave of the junk mail deluge was like?


  1. I do remember seeing lots of advertisements for Columbia House and whatnot - 12 CDs for 1¢ up front and you had to buy so many more within the next year. It wasn't much like what it is today, nor do I recall our house getting so much as I do today - normally Wednesday is the day where my mailbox is full of flyers offering $50,000 of life insurance and a dozen coupon sheets for various fast food places and the like, yet there is no relevant actual mail.

  2. In the 60s (I was born in 1952) my parents got plenty of it -- flyers and catalogs and charitable solicitations. Often it was addressed to "Occupant" and there were jokes about this. Early computerized attempts to personalize letter salutations etc. were often crudely formatted and might involve ludicrous errors, as when the system confused some other set of characters with the recipient's name. Also, local merchants might bombard their customer lists with postcards or flyers -- these are junk mail by our standards, but there was often a crude pretext of personalization, as when the recipient's name might be added in human handwriting.

  3. I don't recall seeing quite as many coupons or especially coupon books prior to 1990 or so, so they may be a somewhat more recent development.

    You should check for any tie-ins between postal rates and junk mail references.


  4. Maybe it was because books like this one were pubished in the 80's:

  5. Agnostic,

    You're absolutely gonna love this Google tool; it's very similar to what you're doing with NY Times data except that it uses their book catalog:


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