Scams of the 1930’s

Jot 101 Everyone's best friend title 001In a previous Jot posted a couple of years ago we discussed various domestic topics dealt with by one of those agony aunts or uncles ( in this case an uncle) of the thirties who reckoned himself pretty up to date regarding the problems  besetting the average person on their journey from cradle to grave. Now we have found a more substantial guide (no date, but c 1940 and bound in that very ‘thirties material, Rexene) that seeks to offer over its 640 pages similar advice. It was called Everybody’s Best Friendand was edited by Harold Wheeler, Hon D.Litt. F. R. Hist.S, who was, it would seem, a respected  historian, the author of popular biographies of Nelson and Wellington, among other works.


Unfortunately, Wheeler does not reveal who the various contributors to Everybody’s Best Friend are, except in the final and most fascinating section, which is  entitled ‘ Pitfalls for the Unwary ‘. We are told that this was ‘compiled ‘( rather than edited ) by Major-General Sir Wyndham Childs, a distinguished war hero who became ‘Director of the Investigation Department’ of the popular magazine John Bull. This role suggests that Childs was a sort of investigative journalist, and though, as we shall see, some corporate frauds were exposed by him, most of the scams revealed by Childs and his team, were small scale domestic ‘ramps‘ visited by doorstep pests on naïve housewives.


Many of the ‘ shady characters ‘ were salesmen offering trashy ‘free gifts’, worthless ‘ bargains ‘, cruel hire-purchase schemes and other scams that are still being perpetrated today. ‘.Childs also includes examples of individuals who gained access to homes by posing as ‘ officials ‘, such as sanitary inspectors, in order to filch objects while the householder is elsewhere in the building. Then there was the ‘bogus gardener ‘familiar to householders today who offers to dig your garden (or perhaps in the modern day version of the scam, to lay tarmac or fix your roof ) but who demands money before the job is completed. In Childs’ example some ‘gardeners ‘ asked for money to buy  rose trees that were  going cheap, but on receiving the cash sped off never to be seen again.


Some scams seem to have died out for various reasons. Housewives are no longer persuaded to buy ‘fat chickens at bargain prices’ which turn out to be ‘ stuffed with old newspapers’. Hawkers no longer ask a householder for a deposit on a set of encyclopaedias ( Childs calls them ‘ instructional books for children ‘) or on a new ‘ wireless ‘ that never appears. A swindler posing as an ‘ex-Service man ‘ is unlikely today  to call on a householder offering to repair boots and shoes at a ‘ low rate’. However, one trick mentioned by Childs, where a caller announces that the householder’s son has won £30 (the equivalent of around £700 today) in a football competition, but whose prize cannot be drawn until ‘ the arrears of subscription are paid ‘ has its equivalent today in one or two similar scams, including the Nigerian ‘prince’ who offers the victim a share in his inheritance in return for an upfront payment.


Of the larger-scale scams outlined by Childs several are still being practiced eighty years later. Newspapers still advertise for ‘home-workers ‘to address envelopes or stuff them. Those who received circulars inviting them to participate in a home-working scheme asked Childs how their addresses had been obtained. Childs’ response was to ‘state and provethat addresses are sold at a price of about 10s. per thousand by one firm to another.‘ This practice has continued ever since. Although today algorithms are used online to target potential customers, lists are still purchased  by firms from various retail sources ( and possibly from the NHS, which always denies this trade) in order to identify possible customers. Plus ca change


Other corporate scams outlined by Childs include bogus agents for film companies who charge hopeful voice artistes or child stars sometimes substantial fees for ‘ tests ‘to assess their potential. As Childs points out, in an overcrowded profession these tests are deemed unnecessary by real film companies: ‘a producer who needs a man or woman to portray a particular character can have his choice of fifty or a hundred experienced artistes at a moment’s notice’.  Childs also warns against pyramid –selling, which back in 1940 was known as ‘snowballs ‘and was ( as it is now) perfectly legal.


Finally, we should end our account of this military ‘man of the people ‘and his crusade against fraudsters with two ‘ literary ‘ scams that have persisted almost unaltered to this day. The first involves setting lyrics to music for a price. Today, as far as Jot 101 knows, poems are no longer set to music, but hopeful poets still send their ‘ poems ‘ to vanity press publishers for inclusion in an ‘ anthology ‘, a copy of which is offered for sale at an exorbitant price.


The second literary scam, which is still perpetrated today, although it has moved online, is one in which a ‘publisher‘offers to review your book for a fee. Today that fee may be as much as $100. The books for review are then farmed out to reviewers who usually have no literary gifts and indeed are often semi-literate. The reviewers are promised money for reviewing a certain number of books with the proviso that certain rules must be followed if the money is to be paid. In the example given by Childs, hopeful reviewers are invited to join a ‘ Faculty of Criticism ‘, which will result in them earning £4 to £5 a week, which as Childs points out, was a higher rate of pay than most professional critics would expect to earn at that time.

Today the Internet is awash with these sorts of scams, but who knew that they went back eighty odd years ?  [R.M.Healey]


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