chain letters


chain letters
   A relatively recent phenomenon, but one which already has its own traditional mixture of continuity and variation which makes it an interesting folkloric genre. The essence of a chain letter is that each recipient is required to copy it a number of times and forward those copies to others, thus making an ever-growing chain. Many examples do no more than this, but the more complex types include a list of names and addresses with instructions what to do. You should send something (money, a postcard, or whatever is dictated) to the person at the top of the list. Before forwarding it the required number of times, you should add your name to the bottom of the list of names and addresses given in the letter, and omit the top one. Depending on how many copies each recipient is instructed to make, everyone involved should receive a large number of letters in return as their name climbs to the top of the list, provided nobody breaks the chain. The earliest example so far found is handwritten on a postcard, postmarked 15 July 1916:
   Endless chain of prayer. O Lord we ask thee to bless our soldiers & sailors & keep them in the hollow of thine hand & bring them to rest with thee for thou art our refuge & helper in time of trouble & we would ask thee to give us peace in our time send thine help from above Amen. This is to be sent all over the world. Send it & see what will happen. It is said in olden times, that he who wrote it would be free from all misfortune send it to 7 persons & on the 7th day you will receive great joy. Do not send more than one a day. Commence when you receive this. Please do not break the chain.
   It is interesting to note the very real poignancy of a chain of prayer for soldiers and sailors in the midst of the slaughter of the First World War juxtaposed with the promise of good luck.
   Throughout its short history, the chain letter has attracted strong criticism. The promise of good fortune is often linked with the explicit threat of misfortune if one does not obey the instructions, and some people are upset by these threats. Indeed, many believe that chain letters are now actually illegal. Modern examples, mostly aimed at children and in an apparent effort to circumvent the worrying threat, appeal to the better nature of recipients by stressing the length of time the chain has been going, and saying that they hope to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The genre has also been utilized for political and pressure-group ends - Greenham Common Peace Camps and Nuclear Disarmament chain letters in 1986, for example, and likewise humorous spoofs circulate from time to time, including a feminist one which asked women to send their husband to the woman on the top of the list and in x days they would receive 149 men in return, and one of them at least must be better than the one they sent. In recent years, new communications technologies have been utilized and there are now the chain E-mail and chain fax.
   Folklore Society Library Cuttings Collection; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 67-8. For the 'Saviour's Letter' as an 18th century chain, see Davies, 1999a: 126-30.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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