History

The patriotic chain letter that almost broke the post office

In one viral chain letter, a Red Cross volunteer solicited so much money to give ice to hot troops that she overwhelmed her post office.
Logan Nye Avatar
chain letter chain mail
Left: Nathalie S. Laimbeer. (Library of Congress). Right: Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Anyone here remember chain emails? They would say things like, “Send this to five of your closest friends or you’ll have bad luck. If you don’t send it to anyone, you’ll get chlamydia. Send it to 10 friends, and Linda Hamilton will ask you to the Marine Corps Ball.”

I may be misremembering that last part.

But does anyone in the audience remember chain letters? Like, physical letters that encouraged you to copy them, send them to friends and often take another action besides? Because that used to be a thing. And it went for centuries before anyone invented the copy machine. So thousands of people had to hand-copy letters or else risk their crush falling in love with a rival.

And, in one beautiful case of a chain letter going viral, a Red Cross volunteer solicited so much money to give ice to hot troops that she overwhelmed her post office and her family, leading the family to beg newspapers to help them break that chain.

Wait, why did the troops need ice?

You know how your unit always needs something? But your command and the public don’t notice for years and years that everyone has to buy their own batteries for their NODs until there’s a war or a viral video of someone complaining about it?

Yeah, that’s sort of how it was for overheated troops in Cuba and ice – like frozen water.

Before the invention of refrigeration, Big Ice was a thing. A few massive corporations controlled most of the ice harvesting and transport in the world. Harvesters cut naturally occurring ice from ponds, streams, lakes, and more and then stored it in ice houses before shipping it to customers, typically south of wherever it was cut.

And finding shade, fanning yourself, or buying ice were the major ways of cooling yourself. So, imagine that you were a patriotic Massichutian who joined the Army right before the Spanish-American War. And you were sent to Cuba, which is much, much hotter than Massachusetts.

(Side note: I know it’s not Massichutians, but that reminds me of Lilliputian and I find it funny to think of Massachuesettsans as being whimsically small.)

The Red Cross decided to help these poor, tiny Patriots with ice, and it established an ice fund to make this happen.

And Nathalie Schenck overdoes it

Nathalie Schenck Laimbeer chain letter
Nathalie S. Laimbeer, from the Bain Newspaper Collection, Library of Congress.

One enterprising Red Cross volunteer came up with a great plan to help ice the troops. She wrote a chain letter that implored people to copy and forward it to four friends as well as send a dime as a donation to her for the ice fund.

This may not come as a shock to people jaded by social media who remember the Ice Bucket Challenge, but her chain letter went viral. Like, truly viral. And her local post office was quickly fielding 3,500 letters per day addressed to this 15-year-old girl.

The family had to reach out to newspapers and ask them to please, for the love of God, help them “break the chain” and end the donations and letters. One of the newspaper articles telling the story, buried on page 5, where it was sure to do a lot of good, said that over 9,000 letters had been delivered to the house on just July 12, 1898. The entire family was involved in helping work through all of the letters flowing in.

(The rough math on that is that, if each letter contained just one dime, the family received $900 that, accounting for inflation, would roughly equal $33,000 today. The family received enough money in one day that, in 2023, they could have bought an ice vending franchise and shipped it to Cuba.)

On the plus side: Money-where-your-mouth-is patriotism to actually benefit rank-and-file service members. But on the bad side: All of it physically routed through a teenager’s home. At least her grandfather was a retired banker, surely bankers of that time were trustworthy and capable of helping her handle all the money.

Of course, since you don’t receive this letter in your mailbox every couple of months, people did stop copying and forwarding the letters. But you can still send money to support the troops, if you like.