On August 20, 1958, Lester and Irving Wunderman, Ed Ricotta, and Harry Kline hunkered down at the Hotel Winslow in New York and turned the U.S. Mail into one of the world’s most powerful marketing channels. The very first direct mail agency, Wunderman, Ricotta & Kline, helped launch the Columbia Record Club, the first customer rewards program (for American Express), and, ultimately, the ZIP Code. Lester Wunderman’s notion that direct marketing could rival advertising as a way to establish brands and super-charge sales also had a profound effect on the fortunes of the Post Office Department.
A mere half-century later the Internet has made all marketing direct, transforming how companies sell and even how they assess their core competencies. But direct mail, which started it all, played a huge role in the business model and organizational structure of what is now known as the U.S. Postal Service. “When advertisers started learning that the mail was a great way to sell products and services, mail volumes skyrocketed,” says Marty Emery, manager of public relations and Internet affairs at the National Postal Museum. “The birth of the mailing industry in large part came when volume started to exceed capacity.”
The Postal Museum, housed in Washington, DC’s old main Post Office near Capitol Hill, is now laying the groundwork for telling the complex and significant story of the mailing industry. It hired former Fulfillment Express President Karen McCormick as the project director who will reach out to the 12 segments it has identified as comprising the industry. A website is under construction, and the museum hopes to have a full-blown exhibit in place within the next two or three years.
On the occasion of the opening of such an exhibit, scores of printers, list brokers, direct mail agencies, and sorting equipment manufacturers will assume a place in the history of the nation. Allied with the Smithsonian Institution, the Postal Museum creates exhibits on par with the best museums in the world, drawing hundreds of thousands of people a year. In 2013, with the help of a $10 million private donation, the museum opened the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery to showcase gems from its collection of millions of stamps. It’s a state-of-the-art multimedia show, featuring interactive displays and a research room where philatelists can conduct digital searches and unearth historic materials from slide-out displays built into the walls.
“When it comes to the stamp portion of the museum, we’re at the top of our game right now,” says Museum Director Allen Kane, a 30-year veteran of USPS who served as its chief marketer. “One story we’ve never told is the story of the mailing industry. We didn’t know how to get our arms around it. Think about the magnitude of the topic; the number of the companies and people involved! But we finally sat down and figured out how to get the ball rolling.”
Yet, Kane and his staff need help. They’ve begun to work with groups such as the National Postal Policy Council and the Volume Mailers Group, but they want to make contact with individuals who are willing to share personal stories of how they contributed to the industry, and what the mail has meant to their lives. “We’re looking for content, we’re looking for the families who have contributed to the industry through multiple generations,” Kane says. “We’re looking for great stories to tell to the public.”
The Postal Museum is also looking for stuff. People who visit the museum want to see physical objects representative of the history of the industry that they can inspect and touch. The most exhaustive effort in constructing a museum exhibit is put in by curators who research, hunt for, and collect items that tell the story.
If you’re one of those people with a great tale to tell about the part you played in the story started by Lester Wunderman, contact Karen McCormick at [email protected]