Dec 16 2014

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons: Building the Holiday Prank

Published by at 9:18 pm under Comedy,Crafts,Personal

Kara and I have a fairly longstanding tradition of sending bizarre holiday cards to our friends and family. This year, I wanted to do something a little different.

About a week ago, many of our family and friends (well, those for whom we had accurate addresses at the time) received an envelope like this in the mail:

The outer envelope.

The outer envelope.

Inside this envelope was a piece of lost mail that looked like it might have been addressed to them, or at least to their house:

The lost mailpiece.

The lost mailpiece.

The lost mail turned out to be a saccharine Christmas newsletter from the Stevenson family of Sandusky, Ohio, finally delivered after presumably floating through the postal system for the past 21 years:

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons!

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons!

Of course, it turns out that the Stevensons never really existed at all. For our “Christmas cards” this year, we set out to make the most believable piece of fake lost mail possible, and overall I’d say it was a success. Here’s how we did it.

The whole undertaking took an embarrassing amount of time and research. Kara and I put the newsletter together in late November using our Amiga 3000 and the incomparable PageStream desktop publishing software (which is still available for purchase). The anachronistic pieces of the newsletter–lists of toys and “hottest hunks”, exhibits at the Shedd aquarium that are no longer there, and so on–were the product of many hours spent reading catalogs and magazines of the time. The fonts used in the newsletter are all default fonts that shipped with PageStream; I borrowed the clip art from Aminet’s encyclopedic clip art archives. Moving the clip art from the internet to the Amiga was relatively easy since we have a CD-RW drive connected to the Amiga. Finally, the picture of the Stevenson family was converted from a photo that I shamelessly stole from a blogger family who happened to be about the right ages for our backstory. I’ve blurred them out in the image above to protect the innocent.

Thanks to PageStream’s native support for PostScript, once the newsletter was assembled, it was easy to print copies on our laser printer. But we knew that this wasn’t good enough, since laser printers were fabulously expensive in 1993. We were going to need a dot matrix printer to make the newsletter believable. I settled on an Epson ActionPrinter 3000, which is compatible with pretty much any application that can use a 24-pin printer, and which I was able to pick up on eBay for a song. After some hassles getting it set up (and digging the tractor paper out of the garage), we were ready to go.

The PrankStation.

The PrankStation.

Printing the 26 copies of the newsletter that we sent out took a total of about 3 hours, which served as a reminder of just how good we have it with printing today. The cat was terrified of the noise — she loves the sound the laser printer makes, so her fear was probably compounded by the psychological strain of being abandoned by her beloved printer. Once the newsletters were printed, we stacked and folded them, and I sanded the creases with carbide sandpaper to simulate aging so that some of the copies would crack along the folds when opened. I’d previously done an embarrassing amount of research on standard methods for simulated aging of paper, thinking that we would need to yellow the paper for it to be believable. In the process, I found out that most paper made in the past few decades is so low in lignin and acid that it doesn’t really yellow much at all on the scale of a few decades. So we ended up skipping that part entirely.

The inner white envelopes started as cheap #10 envelopes from Costco — we were careful to pick up envelopes with gummed flaps rather than self-sealing ones, since self-sealing envelopes were uncommon enough in the early ’90s that it would be something of an anachronism to use them. We addressed the envelopes properly, using the Stevenson family’s fake address in Sandusky, and then pretty much destroyed the parts of the envelope containing the addresses (and a few other spots) by rubbing them with wet fingers.

The stamp on the white envelope seemed to be the most convincing part of the hoax for most of our family, though it was also one of the easiest parts to pull off. I chose the Elvis stamp instead of a holiday issue because it was the best-selling stamp of 1993, and one of the most famous stamps of the last 30 years, so we were assured that nearly everyone who was alive in 1993 would recognize it. Thanks to being mercilessly hoarded by collectors, the value of this particular stamp is in the toilet, and I was able to purchase a pristine sheet of 40 stamps for $7.99, or about 30% less than face value. The postmark on the envelope is fake, of course, produced by a realistic-enough craft stamp that I inked by hand with an alcohol marker so that the cancellation lines would be imperfect.

Once the envelopes were stamped, they were creased and sanded, the latter mostly to wear the color off of the stamp in the spots where it had been creased.

The problem that remained unresolved for the longest was how to get these envelopes to our friends and family in a believable way. Obviously we couldn’t just drop illegible mail with cancelled stamps into a mailbox. One of my coworkers ended up solving this for me, by suggesting that we put the envelope inside another, properly addressed, envelope. We played around with several different sizes of envelope before settling on #11 envelopes, which are just larger than a standard envelope and are the size usually used to hold things like bills that come with reply envelopes. They’re pretty much impossible to buy in small quantities, but Amazon came to the rescue. We laser printed the addresses on the envelopes in a way that I hoped would look just non-spammy enough for people to open. I chose “Lost Item Recovery” for the return address for two reasons: first, because I thought most people would assume that the envelope had been recovered and forwarded on by the post office, and second, because it is different enough from the name of the office that actually does this (“Mail Recovery Center”) that I was unlikely to be indicted for mail fraud. The PO Box in Chicago is fictitious; I checked the address ranges for the ZIP code to make sure that it did not actually exist.

Lastly, Kara and I drove 3 hours away from home, applied metered postage to the outer envelopes, and posted the letters from an adjacent state — hey, if you commit this far to a prank, you have to see it all the way through. Then we waited for the mail to start arriving.

In the end, the reactions to the hoax were fantastic. We are likely enough suspects for this sort of thing that a few family members pretty much immediately texted or emailed us to say “hah hah, very funny.” Most of them believed that the letters were genuine, at least until they started talking to other family members, which is exactly what we were hoping for. Some of our friends embarked on ambitious searches to find the Stevensons, so I think I probably owe an apology to a few people named Stevenson for nuisance emails.

The best story came from one of Kara’s aunts, who took the letter to her local post office, where a staffer determined that it was genuine and even claimed that our fictitious Chicago return address was some kind of official postal facility. Never underestimate the bullshitting power of even a small-time local bureaucrat, I guess.

As far as we know, only Kara’s younger sister actually found the attribution we had put in the newsletter, hidden in Rascal’s Word Search:

It's not like we didn't try to tell people.

It’s not like we didn’t try to tell people.

Here you can download a PDF of the newsletter, but for best results download the original PageStream document and print on a dot matrix printer. 🙂

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