August 3: Idiot Letter Day

On this date in 1993, one of the most hilarious missives in the history of letter writing was sent to an American corporation. Before we look at the letter, let’s look at the history of how it came to be written.

In July of 1993, Paul Rosa received a piece of junk mail that changed his life. It was a brief letter from Pizza Hut’s delivery unit saying that they had not received an order from Rosa’s address in a long time. The letter from the Vice-president of Pizza Hut marketing reminded Rosa of the quality, variety, and value of Pizza Hut pizza. It might have been just another piece of junk mail, but one line in the letter resonated with Rosa. It said: “You see, you’re the kind of customer we’d like to see more often.” Rosa wrote back a letter to Pizza Hut asking “What kind of customer wouldn’t you like to see more often?”

This first letter started a letter-writing campaign that went on for months, covering more than 100 different corporations. Rosa’s mission statement was: Since American corporations are treating their customers like idiots, “while reaching for their wallets,” I am going to get even by writing them letters in which I act like an idiot.

The letters from Rosa’s “kamikaze consumer crusade” were published in his 1995 book Idiot Letters: One Man’s Relentless Assault on Corporate America.

The following is the letter that Rosa sent to Oil-Dri Corporation of America, the makers of Cat’s Pride Premium Cat Litter on August 3, 1993.

Dear Cat Lovers,

For the first ten years of my cat’s life, it was a living hell trying to get her to use her litter box . . . .

This all changed a few months ago when, at wits’ end, we tried Cat’s Pride on the suggestion of a friend (Max). Well, we were delighted, nay ecstatic, when Jesse – without hesitation – stepped into the litter box and “unloaded.” After ten years of treating her box like it was filled with glass chips, we finally found something she likes! And her attitude hasn’t changed! Since that day she has ventured to the basement on a daily basis to fulfill her duty. The increased cleaning chores on our part are quite acceptable, considering the time now saved from letting her in and out and in and out and …. I don’t know what’s in that stuff, but it has done the impossible: changed the lifestyle of a ten-year-old cat (70 to you and me)! Yippee!

The only thing I thought was a bit odd was the name “CAT’S PRIDE.” I can understand that your corporation would be proud of this cat litter, but a cat? When Jesse is heaving and straining in her box, I don’t think pride is one of her sentiments. In fact, I don’t think cats are proud of anything at all, ever! So, why did you choose this name? It seems wrong to suggest what cats are “feeling” without offering any proof. Isn’t that dishonest?

In conclusion, I am thrilled with your product – it’s a godsend – but must take exception to the misleading name. Would you be so kind as to get back to me on this subject matter? In the meantime, I’d be honored to recommend “Cat’s Pride” to my friends!

Feline Fine,

Paul C. Rosa

To their credit, the makers of Cat’s Pride answered Rosa’s letter and even sent along with some coupons.

Today’s Challenge: Going Postal

Letter writing is a lost art in an age of cellphones and email, but there are few more thoughtful ways to communicate with another person. Paul Rosa wrote to get his questions answered and to offer a suggestion to the company on its name. What question would you like to have answered by a business or corporation, or what suggestion would you like to provide? Look around you, ask questions, and then write a letter to get your answer and/or provide your suggestions. Write an idiot letter like Paul Rosa or a serious letter.

As a reminder, even humorous letters like Rosa’s follow a format. Here are the key parts of a letter:

1. Heading with your name and address

2. Date

3. Inside Address: name and address of the recipient of the letter

4. Salutation (“Dear Mr. Smith”)

5. Body of Letter

6. Complimentary Closing (“Sincerely”)

7. Your Signature

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. -Mark Twain

1 – Rosa, Paul. Idiot Letters: One Man’s Relentless Assault on Corporate America. New York: Doubleday, 1995

August 2:  Urgent Letter Day

Today is the anniversary of a letter that changed history. The letter, dated August 2, 1939, was written by physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard; it was addressed to the President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The letter’s content warned the president of the Nazi’s possible use of uranium for the development of atomic weapons.

The story behind this historic letter that led to the Manhattan Project begins in Germany, which prior to 1933 was a hotbed of scientific inquiry: Germany had been awarded 99 Nobel Prizes in science compared to the United States’ 6 Nobel Prizes. The rise of anti-semitism and of Adolf Hitler, however, caused many Jewish scientists to flee Germany.

The rising mushroom cloud from the Nagasaki "Fat Man" bomb, August 9, 1945One of those who fled was physicist Leo Szilard, who relocated to England. While sitting at a London traffic light in 1933, he had an epiphany: theoretically, the atom could be split, creating a chain reaction of enormous power.

Szilard’s idea moved from theory to fact in 1939 when German scientists successfully split an atom. The fact that German scientists now had the knowledge of the potentially destructive power of the atom in their hands alarmed Szilard.

Traditionally scientists around the world published their breakthroughs for all to see. Szilard was afraid that the German scientists were using this information to develop a bomb. His fears were heightened when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and stopped all exports of uranium ore from the occupied country.

He urged scientists outside of Germany to delay publication of their findings in fission-related areas, and he initiated a meeting with his former teacher Albert Einstein.

Einstein, like Szilard, was a Jew and had fled Germany during the rise of Hitler. By 1939 Einstein’s theory of relativity had made him an international celebrity — just the kind of name recognition that Szilard needed to get his alarm bell heard by world leaders.

Szilard met with Einstein in New York on July 30. Einstein dictated the letter to Szilard in German, and Szilard later translated it into a typed final draft for Einstein’s signature.

The letter’s opening read as follows:

Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.  (2)

Even Einstein’s signature, however, did not guarantee that the letter would get the attention it deserved. Einstein and Szilard entrusted the letter to Alexander Sachs, an unofficial advisor to F.D.R., but Roosevelt was preoccupied with the growing war in Europe, and Sachs was unable to get an appointment with him until October 1939.

To persuade Roosevelt, Sachs used a historical analogy. He told Roosevelt about an American inventor who met with the French emperor during the Napoleonic Wars. The inventor offered to build a fleet of steamships that could invade England regardless of the weather. Napoleon was incredulous, unable to think beyond ships with sails. He sent the American away. The shortsightedness, arrogance, and lack of imagination of Napoleon saved England and sealed Napoleon’s fate. It was a powerful analogy, and despite the fact that it took time for the Manhattan Project to get off the ground, it was the letter and Sach’s persuasiveness that led to the development of the atomic bomb that Harry Truman had dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Ironically, near the end of the war, the Allies discovered that the Germans were at least two years away from developing the bomb. Furthermore, both Szilard and Einstein objected to the United States’ use of the bomb. Even though Einstein did not work directly on the Manhattan Project, he called his decision to sign the letter to President Roosevelt the “one great mistake in my life” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Missives With a Mission

What are examples of the most urgent issues in today’s world, either at the local, national, or international levels?  If you were to select one urgent issue, what would it be, and how would you explain your reasoning behind why the issue is so urgent?  Select a single issue and write an open letter to the president or other official who has the power to act (See February 3: Open Letter Day). Explain in your letter what the issue is and why it is specifically an urgent issue that should be addressed immediately.  The purpose of your letter is to persuade the addressee and the general audience that your issue is, in fact, an urgent issue that needs to be addressed immediately. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others. –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1 – Gillon, Steven M. Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.