The worst chain letter I ever received wasn't just a letter: it contained a lump of sinister-looking batter and a recipe for something called "Amish friendship bread."
The giver was a friend of my grandmother's, so I felt compelled to dutifully tend the starter for the mandated 10 days, mix the dough (which, revoltingly, involved vanilla pudding mix), produce several anemic-looking sweetbreads that I ended up throwing out, and pass along plastic bags of the revolting slop to ten more hapless friends. Because not only would not doing so result in bad luck or the end of Friendship or something, but you risked actually killing the starter. This added a whole nother level of pressure to the proceedings.
There is no reason to think that the sweet, cinnamon-flavored bread has any connection to the Amish people, although the name is taken from them. According to Elizabeth Coblentz, a member of the Old Order Amish and the author of the syndicated column "The Amish Cook", true Amish Friendship Bread is "just sourdough bread that is passed around to the sick and needy". The recipe for Amish Cinnamon Bread may have first been posted to the internet in 1990, but the recipe itself is several decades old.
It's a tyrant, and the buck stops there.
Friendship Bread aside, what's the deal with chain-letters, anyway? Addressing the issue in Slate, Paul Collins discovered that
in 1888 that one of the earliest known chain letters came from a Methodist academy for women missionaries. Up to its eyes in debt, that summer the Chicago Training School hit upon the notion of the "peripatetic contribution box"-a missive which, in one founder's words, suggested that "each one receiving the letter would send us a dime and make three copies of the letter asking three friends to do the same thing." The chain letter had been born.
The first "warning," he finds, may date to the Spanish-American War, when a newspaper admonished, "Do not break the chain which will result in honoring the memory of the men who sacrificed their lives." Scams and Pyramids followed hard on patriotism's heels.
But what of the whole "bad luck" element? Collins doesn't discuss its antecedents, but the comprehensive website Chain-Letter Evolution has these theories about its antecedents: "Many ancient texts survive which provide diagrams, incantations or prayers that claim to benefit those who learn them. Some come close to our definition of a chain letter by urging that a personal copy be made." Some they cite are The Ancient Egyptian "Book of that which is in the Underworld," and some Buddhist sutras that exhorted believers to pass along messages. Even more similar were 14th Century "Letters from Heaven," which were said to come directly from God and which priests were warned to share with their congregations — or else. This practice continued in different forms until the 20th Century — and may have been secularized into the "bad luck" we know today.
Whatever the root, chain letters have only proliferated in the Internet age. And while they're a nuisance, I must confess I like having a little superstition interjected into the prosaic workday. Which is not to say I want any more "Friendship Bread": if my luck depends on instant pudding, well, I'm willing to risk it.