This is an information page for the Paper Chain Letter Archive (PCLA), originated and currently maintained by Daniel W. VanArsdale. Chain letters may be used to study social replication and abstract evolution. For example, any general procedure which attempts to establish phylogeny given noisily inherited character strings can be tested using the over 170 "dl" type luck chain letters in this archive. PCLA provides a common data base and means of reference for anyone who wishes to cite, link to, or display the text of a paper chain letter in the archive. The unconditional right to do so is hereby granted. If doing so, please cite the URL of this page, or the index page for the archive. 

Note: The author has no intent to embarrass anyone by displaying a chain letter with a person's name on it. Upon your request I will modify your name and address, or do the same for a deceased relative. Celebrity names are an exception since these may explain the appeal of a chain letter, nor should such a presence be considered as evidence that this person was actually involved with the letter. Names and addresses of all children and many adults have already been modified.

If you have any information on where we may obtain more paper chain letters please email. If you wish, I can copy and return to you the originals. Include the date you received the chain letter and its method of delivery, as by including the postmarked envelope if the letter came in the mail. If there are senders names on the letter please do not remove this information. As noted above, they can be modified in the archival version to protect privacy.

Here are sub-directories (folders) and files in directory /chain-letter/, all pertaining to paper chain letters. 

evolution.html  Chain Letter Evolution - an analysis and history of paper chain letters.
Table 1  A table in Chain Letter Evolution giving counts of chain letters in the archive by motivational category and 5 year periods.
bibliography.htm  An annotated bibliography on chain letters and pyramid schemes. Contains sources cited in Chain Letter Evolution.
glossary.htm  Definitions of terms used for paper chain letters in Chain Letter Evolution.
/e-archive/ A directory containing chain emails. Most are cited in Chain Letter Evolution. For an index click: !content-e.
/photo-archive/ A directory containing photographs about chain letters and their descriptions. For an index click: !content-ph.

/archive/ The Directory containing the texts of chain letters as individual html files (extension htm). Also contains the following files.
/archive/!content.html  A file containing the html file names of all items in the PCLA, each linking to the corresponding text.
/archive/!information.htm  THIS FILE.  Detailed information on the archive and file naming conventions.
/archive/!search.htm  A program for searching through the /chain-letter/ directory. Provided by FreeFind.


This section specifies what information is recorded  in the archive and the format of its presentation as an HTML document.  These details here and in the next section (File Naming) are not required to utilize the archive. However they can assist in searching and should be consulted by anyone preparing a file for the archive. There are four parts of a PCLA chain letter text file: (1) the on-page title, (2) the text of the letter, (3) documentation and (4) HTML Meta tags. Some chain letters have additional comments or explanations at the end. 

(1) The on-page title of the chain letter appears at the top of the displayed page and should include: (i) the motivational category of the letter, (ii) the type of the letter within its category, (iii) optionally, more detailed information about this particular letter and (iv) the country and year of circulation. Thus for chain letter le1995-03_dl_wk  its on-page title is: Luck chain letter. Death-Lottery type. "It does work." Kiss title. US, 1995.

(2) The text of the chain letter appears after the page title, between two HTML horizontal lines, and often in bold. Comments within the text field are rarely used, but if required are not in bold, and within square brackets. If the chain letter was originally produced by a standard typewriter its characters all have the same fixed width. For these letters, using a fixed width font allows one to reproduce the exact keystrokes of the letter. This not only provides the best possible documentation but is also useful for error checking. Errors in the original letters are preserved in the archive transcriptions. Each letter was double checked for keystroke accuracy, so very few new errors have been introduced. The original paper chain letters are kept on file and tagged with their PCLA filenames. Photocopies of originals are available on request.

(3) Documentation appears below the text, after the second horizontal line. It includes the following, if known.

(a) The medium: postcard / letter / photocopy / publication.  Was the initial text produced by: hand / typewriter / word processor / commercial printing?
(b) Method of distribution: mailed / placed somewhere / handed to. Where was it received? Who distributed it?  (c) Date of earliest known naive circulation of this exact letter. Method used to determine this: postmark / notes / associated documents. If the date of circulation is not known with certainty, what range of dates is estimated and how is this arrived at?
(d) Faithfulness of the archived text to the original source: keystrokes preserved (typewritten texts only) / lines preserved / paragraphs preserved / any editing?

(e) Provider or seller, person holding source letter, person preparing the archived text file
(f)  Names of associated image files if any. Prior file names or other identifiers of the letter. Present PCLA filename.
(g) Optional supplementary information: associated notes / letters / published information / references / historical context.
(h) After the word "Sic:" errors in the original letter - this confirming that they were not introduced when transcribing to the archive. Many of letters that were transcribed earlier do not list such errors in the documentation. These are being added (12/2012).
(4) HTML Meta tags allow the author of a Web page to specify certain information about the page. The information in Meta tags is not displayed on the page itself. Some of these meta tags are not employed on every letter in the archive.
The title Meta tag appears in the title window of a browser when it links to the page. Some search engines also use the title for matching and ranking searches, or display it in search results. In the archive, the recent practice is to copy and paste the on-page title into the title Meta tag field.

The description Meta tag of a Web page is displayed by some search engines to provide a summary. Again, the on-page title may be used for this.

The keywords are used by some indexes and search engines to classify the page or match searches.  For most chain letter files I have simply used the category name and the words "chain letter" (e.g. "luck chain letter" - the first words of the page title). There is also a classification Meta tag; for this I have used "memetics, folklore."  Note: keywords have not been used in recent years (12/2012).

The author tag is the name of the person originating the WWW page. The archive currently uses "Daniel W. VanArsdale".


If file names for chain letters in the PCLA are sorted by name, they order by (1) category, (2) language and (3) date. They use only lower case letters, numbers and special characters that are compatible with HTML conventions, and should contain less than 40 characters.  According to an official HTML source, the only special characters that can always be safely used in a URL file name are

!  $  (  )  _  +  '  -
and that is the order in which these eight characters sort. Further conventions in naming PCLA files were chosen to facilitate writing and updating Chain Letter Evolution, especially tables that require the counting of letters with certain features. There should be a reluctance to change an established file name since there may be links to it not only internally but from other sites. The following abbreviations are used.

(1) The motivational category of a chain letter is designated by a single letter which is the first character in the file name.
a = Advocacy
c = Charity

h = Letter from Heaven (Himmelsbrief)
j = Parody (joke)
l = Luck
m = Money
r = Religion
w = World Record
x = Exchange

(2) The language of the chain letter  is designated by a one or two letter abbreviation that immediately follows the category designation. The language should be that of the original circulating letter, even if only a translation is present in the archive. Secondary languages in the source, or the language of a translation, should not be designated. In 2006, separate sub-directories within the /archive/ directory were established for chain letter texts in some foreign languages.
d = Dutch
e = English
f = French
g = German
h = Hungarian
ic = Icelandic
pl = Polish
pr = Portuguese
r = Russian
s = Spanish
t = Tagalog

(3) The circulation date is the earliest calendar date the letter can be verified to have naively circulated. It immediately follows the language designation, and has one of the three formats given below. If the letter was mailed, use the date from the postmark. For publications use the date of the publication, accurate to the day if available.  However if an accurate circulation date is given on an image of the letter, or in the article, use that. For distinguishing letters mailed close in time be sure to use the date accurate to the day, if available. This applied to publications also.
yyyy (to year)
yyyy-mm (to month)
yyyy-mm-dd (to day).
u = Appended directly to a prior year or month circulation date to mean the year or month is uncertain.

(4) Post-date tags. If more than one post-date tag is used they should appear in the order given here.
p = The chain letter is from a publication, and is not available in its original form. Lists are likely omitted, format may be lost, and there may be some  editing. The date given is the date of the publication.

p1 = Designates a newspaper item found using the database.
p2 = Designates a newspaper item found using the database

xx = A one or two character hoard designation. Chain letters from an accumulation received by the same person or institution may reveal additional information if examined as a group. We then affix a hoard designation directly to the end of the circulation date in the file name for each chain letter in the hoard. This allows quick identification of all the letters in the hoard. Each page for letters in the hoard has a link to the page for the earliest letter in the hoard, which documents what is know about the hoard.

(5) Chain letter types are the broadest classification within motivational categories. Several types of English language luck chains are identified and named in Chain Letter Evolution (predominant, outliers). Exchange chain letters are typed by the object exchanged. Charity and advocacy chains are typed by the stated cause. The type designation, preceded by an underline, follows the circulation date (or post-date tags if present). Following are some abbreviations with the corresponding type linked to its definition in the glossary.
ap     = Ancient Prayer
bym  = Luck by Mail 
cogl   = Chain of Good Luck
d20   = Death20
dl      = Death-Lottery

Fl      = Flanders
Fl-pr  = Flanders-Prosperity

London =  Luck of London

gl      = Good Luck
ld      = Lottery-Death
pr     = Prosperity
rg     = Romance Game

(6)  Additional features are often encoded in the file name, preceded by an underline. These may be a certain title, postscript or other feature of luck chain letters, usually as examined in Chain Letter Evolution.
b = the "Belief" title
c = the "Car" testimonial
hap = "Copy it and see what happens" on the Ancient Prayer letters
j = "St. Jude"
k = the "Kiss" title
l =  the "Love" title or postscript
t = the "Trust" title
w = the "It Works" postscript

When present, numerical specifications of a chain letter are often encoded in the file name, and are also used in the annotated  bibliography.  The following abbreviations are used followed by numbers.
d = deadline in days or hours for sending copies
s = send
q = copy quota
n = the number of names in a list of prior senders
w = waiting period in days 

Some additional abbreviations for features in money, exchange and "world record" chain letters:
c = cents
cert = a "certified" money chain letter - payments authenticated

D = a US dollar

d = a US dime, 10 cents 
kids = a chain letter specialized to circulate among children.  
pc  = post card (exchange item)
pyr = Pyramid Scheme (money)
rec = recipe (exchange item)
ret = the letter asks for its return if you do not comply
sd  = Send-a-Dime (a type of money chain letter)
trgt = instructions are present on who to send copies to

Origin from a certain country, state or city may be indicated at the end of a filename. Some abbreviations now being used are:
e = England
au = Australia
ca = Canada
cal = California
fla = Florida
fr = France
ndak = North Dakota
sav = Savannah.

(7) Some special characters are used immediately after the abbreviation for a feature, or at the end of a filename, with the following meanings.
! (exclamation) = earliest collected appearance of preceding feature . If an earlier
                  example is subsequently collected it is designated by an exclamation,
                  and that on the previous example is retained and noted in its documentation.
+ (plus) = text has been added to the feature
- (minus sign) = text has been omitted from the feature
- (minus sign) = in other contexts, separates two related features
' (single quote) = the wording of the feature varies from the usual
_ (underline) = at the very end of a filename, there are omissions in a published text
_ (underline) = in other contexts, separates unrelated features

(k) = parentheses around a feature designation (e.g. title k) means that this feature
      does not appear on the letter, likely due to a recent deletion in its lineage.

(kcl) = parentheses may also designate the presence of features in the order they appear
        on the letter. Otherwise feature designations are ordered chronologically.

(8) An image file associated with a text file has the initial characters of its name the same as the text file name so the names will sort adjacent. The final characters in the image file name are "_image".

(9) Here are some PCLA file names with explanations of the characters in the name. We have left off the "htm" extension.

ce1889_martin_sdq10   A charity chain letter in English that was originated in 1889 by George Martin. It asks that you send a dime to Martin and states a quota of 10 copies of the solicitation to be mailed out.

je1935-05u_kick   A parody (joke) chain letter in English that circulated in May, 1935 (with some uncertainty about May). The letter was titled "Kick in the Ass Chain."

le1993-04_dl_w-(kcl)!   A luck chain letter in English that circulated in April, 1993. It is a death-lottery type with the "It Works" postscript, but this is missing a part (-). It contains the Kiss title, Car testimonial, and the Love title in that order on the letter (the Love title is transposed to a postscript). This is the earliest (!) appearance of this variation so far collected.

me1935-05-10br!_sd_note   A money chain letter in English that was postmarked on May 10, 1935.  It is from the "Bergrud hoard," a group of related letters received by Elma Bergrud in North Dakota in 1935. We have chosen this as the first ("!"), and hence after the text of the letter we document what is known about the hoard. This letter is a "Send-a-Dime" type, and contains a personal note.

xpr1995-08_pc_s1n4q6   An exchange chain letter in Portuguese.  Its circulation date is 8/1995 and it exchanges post cards. The recipient is asked to send 1 postcard to the top address in a list of names with 4 entries. In addition, the letter sets a quota of 6 such appeals to be sent out.


Like last year's flies, old chain letters are hard to find. We acknowledge here those who supplied one or more paper chain letters for this effort. Some special acknowledgments are also given in Chain Letter Evolution.

The following folklorists sent large groups of chain letters and assisted in other ways:  Michael J. Preston, William F. Hansen, Alan E. Mays, Paul Smith, Jean-Bruno Renard, Sandy Hobbs and Anna Guigne. Many old chain letters, including the Sebacher hoard of linen exchange post cards, were obtained from the James H. Patterson "Unmailable" Collection. Thirteen dated letters from the collection of Charles H. Bennett appear in the archive. Jim Fisher of Charleston, So. Carolina provided the ACL Railroad hoard and other old letters. Russ Hornbacher of Fessenden, North Dakota provided the Bergrud hoard of early money and exchange letters. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, responding to the author's request, provided a collection of dated letters. The Archives of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College sent two rare luck chain letters from the 1950's. Small collections were supplied by Paul Brittain, Ianina Tichtchenko, John Burkhardt, Don Zinger, Lael Johnson, Linda Zinn, Carol Petty and Wally Williams.

We also received one or more chain letters from: Robert & Norine Albers, C. Ronald Allman Sr, The John Bale Book Co., Julie Bandy, Alan L. Banks, Nick Barker, Christopher Barlau, J. Barré, Gary L. Bates, Robert Bezilla, Fletcher Bolsover, Terry Bowyer, Jan Boylen, William R. Brandel, Brentlinger's Emporium, James Burrill, Mrs. Gerarda Carlin, Mike Carter, Nita Choban, Daniel C. Cimo, Mrs. Phyllis Cloyd, Richard S. Collingbourne, Lynne Cooper, Lynn  Crosby, Neal Coulter, Brian Cutler, Duane DeSalvo, Randi Deshayne, Jerry Docteur, Robert Duncan, W. D. Edwards, Bonny Einstein, Paul G. Ewart, Mrs. Carmen Ezell, Patrick Feaster, Fern Fryer, E. Jeffrey Galloway, W. J. Gambino, Christophe Gautier, Sherry Huff, Robert C. Goss, Jere H. Greider, Linda Haas, Dorothy Hall, Jennifer Hamrick, Edgar Hanbeck, Al Hansen, Lu Helney, Steven D. Heltzel, Cindy Hines, Sue Hines, Brett Holman, Andrea Howlett, Barb Huber, Jim Hudson, Karen Jensen, John of Westmont, Richard E. Joiner, Raquela Jamilla-Fiatte, Sonia John, Greg Johnson, Leigh Johnson, Steve Jones, Natalia Kasprzak, Larry Kellogg, Michelle R. Keresi, Leo Kerschitz, KMO, Josh Knight, Mary Ann Kolb, George M. Kutlenios, Anita C. Lane, Leslie Levine, Jacinta Lodge, Susan L. Lord, Martin Lovelace, Helen Lynn, Ray MacWilliamson, Jeffrey Mazo, J. W., Rachel McCart, Jim McCrea, McDaniel, Dan McGuire, Taryn Manson, L. Mente, Dennis Merchant, Dorrit Mikkelsen, Joseph J. Milewski, Miner Enterprises, William C. Nichols, D. O. Odom, Alexander Okbai, G. Orcutt, Nellie Pennington, Dave Petersen, Wendell Peterson, Pearline Pratt, Cathy Preston, Theresa Preston, J. Primm, Linda Rawls, Jean Reherman, Lyle Rhodeback, Kevin Roden, John Rogers, Felix Romero, R. Rozborski, Rum Trail Antiques, Bullock Runge, Patricia Rushton, J & L Rutherford, Sherman P. Sackheim, Mary Sage, Jonathan Sartzer, Jeannine Savin, Savio, Robert L. Marshall Schuon, Schuyler, Susan Scott, Jim Shaw, Patty Shimp, Don Shimpkus, Sue Snow, Kathy Spencer, R. D. Spencer, Maria Stahl, John Stefanov, Jim Sterken, James Stilson, Richard Storch, Rev. Michael M. Strong, Elena Suponeva, John C. Swanson Jr., Mike Tice, Marie Todd, Bruce Tomlin, Lisa Townsend, George A. Trach, Andrew Tumber, Alan VanArsdale, Elizabeth C. VanArsdale, Robert VanArsdale, Sharon VanArsdale, Thomas Waldron, Rob Washburn, Maggy Wells, John Witkauskas, Charles Wommack, Linda Wood, Diane Wooduff, and Dale R. Worley.

Go to top of this document

Daniel W. VanArsdale:   email      Index Page

Contents of the Paper Chain Letter Archive          Chain Letter Evolution