J. Walter Thompson Mail Boy



420 Lexington Avenue 10170

Neighborhood: Midtown

Friday, June 22, 1956…one day out of Rice High School and just seventeen years old … the first day in what my yearbook identified as my career – advertising. And what more appropriate place to start? At the bottom of the (at-the-time), worlds’ biggest advertising agency, the mailroom of the J. Walter Thompson Company. JWT had billings of over $370 million and had a staff of 6,225 employees in 55 offices around the globe.

John Malone ran the mailroom then. A former drill sergeant, (he must have been!) he kept the cooperative student corps (from Drexel and Northeastern) who populated the mailroom on their toes. There were a few of us lucky “extras”, sneak-ins to the organization through “connections.” My dad was a waiter at the Essex House who happened to have been befriended by a JWT executive willing to help “Charlie’s kid break into the business.” He happened to be Norman Strouse, then recently anointed as the new President of JWT.

Those were glorious days. (I’ve been fortunate; almost all the days in my profession have been glorious). Everything unsealed I glanced at. Magazines for the deceased or departed I read while commuting or “between runs.” I read memos, memorized names and positions. After a summer of carting and observing, I decided advertising couldn’t be learned in a classroom, but had to be done. So I switched my intended CCNY degree from advertising to sociology. Far better to have a firm foundation in the study of people’s behavior.

And the money was good. At $40 bucks a week, I brought home $32 and gave $20 to my immigrant parents who sent most of it to help family in Europe. The rest was my spending money.

I can still hear the fans whirring and remember papers on desks having to be weighted down and the clank of the large Monroe calculators whirring through their computations. The long typewriter and calculator carriages were a hazard to rushing mail carts.

At noontime delivery of trays – the clattering of lunch carts through the 11th Floor Executive offices, a land of tiled floors and iron grilled office doors, (sort of Spanish courtyard architecture). It was a great deal for a mail boy – a free lunch and an hour worked – perfect for the evening college student. Incidentally, there were only male mail boys – equal opportunity still hadn’t been invented.

Then there were trips to 342 Madison Avenue, the “Annex”, and the not so secret passages through Grand Central Station to cut down on the delivery time and to keep you dry on the rainy days. Those were also the days of George Metesky (the Mad Bomber). There were building evacuations, and skirting Grand Central’s lockers and telephone booths – the bomber’s favorite depositories – were a cautious necessity. A disgruntled Con Edison employee, Metesky was eventually captured, found insane and institutionalized.

JWT wasn’t a fast track career, or a meteoric rise, but it provided a firm foundation and the chance to be convinced that the ad profession fit me well.

It would be a year before I would get my first desk, in the art files at JWT. It was crypt filled to overflowing with metal engravings affixed to wooden blocks. It was a quiet, cool place, great for cramming in some studying during the occasional slow times.

Five years later, my first business trip; three years until my first business luncheon. “Copying” was a dreaded task – the smell of Thermo-Fax and Verifax seemed to stay in your head – and on your hands – for at least half a day. The first “push the bottom” copy I recalled making came six years later.

All in all, the learning experience was rich – even if bogged down in the details. One could see the flow of creative work – its evolution from idea to finished product as you carried it through the physical process of sign-off. Rows and rows of penciled numbers took an ad from its preparation to its insertion. One really learned the county structure of the U.S. and the coverage pattern of TV stations doing area coverage maps for TV buys. Colored pencils and the inexhaustible supply of Hagstrom maps and acetate overlays were constant companions. It seemed that there was a lot less data to work with back then. But because the information was gathered, tabulated and analyzed by the same person, it might have resulted in genuine enrichment.

My fondest memories are of people – the forgotten names but well etched faces…the “get out of here, kid” big shots…the “look at this, kid” big shots…the “have you ever thought of doing it this way?” helping hand…the encouragers…the challengers…the critics…the applauders. Memories of hands helping, holding back, dissuading and praising. I even got to see the “gods”; Helen Resor, dragging a carton of husband Stanley’s forgotten umbrellas, briefcases and overshoes to the elevator, and Mr. Resor sitting in his large end office, in the hush, dignified, iron grilled 11th Floor of JWT. His door was always open, so everyone could see him and it sent a message of invitation.

The Resors were legendary. A Yale graduate, with several years at Procter & Collier, the at-the-time in house advertising agency for Procter & Gamble, Mr. Resor joined J. Walter Thompson’s Cincinnati office in 1908. In 1917, he married a JWY copywriter, Helen Lansdowne. Together they ascended the ranks of the agency, he eventually becoming CEO; she as his guardian and guide and very much a key player on the ad creation side of the house.

And I was privileged to have lived some of it.

On June 22, 2002, Peter Eder celebrated his 45th year in communications as Vice President at David X. Manners Company in Westport (a thought-leadership content and communications public relations firm).

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§ 2 Responses to “J. Walter Thompson Mail Boy”

  • Lillian Toll says:

    Reading this fascinating piece, I felt like I was living through it myself with such colorful descriptions. What a wonderful way for a young person to learn and advance. He seems to have achieved success and good fortune as a result of his experiences at JWT. Are there any females in the mail room these days?

  • Peter F. says:

    None … except for the mailroom supervisor … Marion Larder … who was about as popular as a prison guard. Dead mice would sometimes find their way into her desk drawers … not that they would scare her … but rather that she would begin an unsuccessful hunt to find the culprit

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