We've only been calling it spam, officially, since about 1998, but unwanted communication has long found ways to infiltrate otherwise legitimate channels. Like dandelions in the sprawling field of mass media, spam messages will sprout wherever they can; And they tend to cluster around technological advances.
"This is something that has existed probably since the invention of the printing press," said Robert Anguizola, assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices. "If you can mass-produce a message and send it, you've got mail solicitations. That's been around forever."
Spam, as we now know it, refers to irrelevant messages sent to mass recipients online. Legally, its definition is narrower; culturally, more expansive. But it's always been the case that as communication gets more efficient and cheaper, we receive more unwanted messages.
More than a century ago, subway systems and automobiles revolutionized the United States Post Office Department's ability to carry bulk mail.
This was great news until people (including postal carriers) realized they didn't necessarily want all the stuff that was being sent. By 1906, Congress debated what to do about bulk mailings—including newspapers—that "swamped the mails" and bogged down efficiency, according to The New York Times that year.
In the 1950s, Congress tackled the question of "junk mail," material that could be delivered to people's houses without names or even specific addresses. Letter carriers received such mail in bulk, often from advertisers, with instructions to deliver one to each mailbox on a given postal route. (The practice was finally banned in 1955. The junk mail of today is required to give consumers the ability to opt out.)