the magic million target

The noun million in itself has something magic about it, and the belief exists that a special reward awaits the person who collects a million bus tickets, or a million used postage stamps, etc.—Cf. also ‘like a million dollars’ vs. ‘like thirty cents’.

The British author and newspaper columnist Keith Waterhouse (1929-2009) described this belief in The Mirror (London, England) of Monday 27th May 1985:

This really did happen to a friend of a friend of a friend a few days ago. His son came home from school with the announcement that he was helping to collect a million Mars bar wrappers which would finance a trip to Disneyland for a sick child.
The years rolled back—to 1936 when I was collecting a million bus tickets to send a sick child to Blackpool.
Never having been to Blackpool at the time, it did selfishly occur to me that if you could get there for a million bus tickets I wouldn’t mind muscling in on the act myself. I made discreet inquiries as to where you took your million bus tickets when you had collected them (I had already accrued about fifty, so I was practically half-way there). Nobody, I need hardly say, had the faintest idea.
[…] It is the million-bus-ticket yarn that is the all-time children’s favourite. It is handed down, embellished and updated, from one generation to the next like some Icelandic saga.
It says something for our over-maligned youngsters of the present day that their motive for collecting a million Mars bar wrappers or iced lolly sticks or whatever is invariably selfless. Often it is a kidney machine they imagine they are collecting for, sometimes an expensive operation in the United States for a child with a rare disease. It is never, ever, for a bag of money to squander on sweets and riotous living.
In all the years I have been hearing the million-bus-ticket myth in its many manifestations, I have never once come across a juvenile collector who questioned for an instant what anyone would want with a million bus tickets or milk bottle tops or why they were deliberately keeping a sick child at death’s door until this pointless Herculean labour was completed.
Nor have I heard of the magic million target ever being reached […].
As to the hold the story has on successive generations, it would be a flint-hearted child indeed who did not believe in the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow—which is what the million bus tickets, in essence, represent.
Child psychologists may have a more complex explanation but I am afraid their expert advice comes expensive. Send me a million copies of this column, however, and I will gladly secure it.

This belief in a special reward has been in circulation for many years, and not among children only—as exemplified by two extracts from the Kensington Post and West London Star (London, England):

1-: Of Friday 18th January 1952:


Some members of the staffs of a famous group of Kensington departmental stores are busy collecting as many bus tickets containing the figure seven in the serial number as they can.
In the latest issue of the stores’ staff magazine, a group of the stores’ staff ask for the tickets. They say they need a million tickets for which London Transport will exchange an invalid chair. They explain that they got together on the scheme after hearing of a 29-year-old girl who was knocked off her bicycle by a car and will never walk again.
But the people who are working so hard to get those elusive No 7 tickets are due for a big disappointment. London Transport tells the Kensington Post: “We know nothing about this scheme.”

2-: Of Friday 25th January 1952, in Around a Royal Borough, G. C. Pinnington’s column of comment on Kensington affairs:

The bus ticket hoax reported in last week’s Kensington Post, is one of a series of ingenious frauds perpetrated by persons unknown on a generous and unsuspecting public. In this case, the story was that if a million bus tickets, each bearing a figure seven in the serial number, were collected by a group of employees of a big store, they could be sent to London Transport in exchange for an invalid chair, which would be given free to a girl who badly needs it.
When I was very small indeed, I remember beginning a very similar collection—of tram tickets, in the serial numbers of which the last three figures were the same. I’m afraid they weren’t collected for the same high purpose as the bus tickets. It was popularly believed that if these tram tickets were sent off to the local football club, a season ticket for the grandstand would be sent in return free of charge. Where I proposed to get one million tram tickets from, I don’t remember, but I collected them with determination and enthusiasm for at least 48 hours.
If one stops to think that London Transport, if so charitably minded, would hardly hold up delivery of an invalid chair until a million tickets were collected, the hoax becomes obvious, but when it is for a good cause one doesn’t always stops to think.
The interesting point is that such things, like rumours and snowball or chain letters, have no beginning or end. No one ever starts them and they are never properly scotched. There is always someone else who hasn’t been caught before to spread the good news that for one hundred thousand farthings of the year 1865, the Bank of England will pay a million pounds.

The earliest mention that I have found of this belief dates from 1883:

– First, one H. C. Delevingne wrote the following, published in Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc. (London: Published […] by John Francis) of Saturday 26th February 1881:

Juvenile Pursuits.—“N. & Q.” generally finds room to register curious contemporary fashions. So it seems to me worth its while to note two singular pursuits to which juveniles are just now much addicted. The collection (1) of post-marks cut from old envelopes; (2) of used railway tickets, the difficulty of obtaining which much enhances their value in the eyes of the young virtuosi.

– Then, one Frederick E. Sawyer, from Brighton, in East Sussex, England, mentioned the magic million target in the following, published in Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc. (London: Published […] by John C. Francis) of Saturday 3rd November 1883:

Juvenile Pursuits.—Another curious fashion, not mentioned in the original note, is the collection of used postage stamps. I have known a score of persons collect them, but none ever gave an intelligent reason for so doing. Some thought the Post Office authorities would pay something for a million; others said that poor people, &c., could be got into hospitals, alms-houses, &c., by collecting a certain number of used stamps. The only practical answer was from one man, who said they were used to paper a “certain place” I need not further describe. As regards the hospitals, &c., I shall be glad of any information. The subject is almost worthy of attention of folk-lore students as involving a wide-spread delusion.

In The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford University Press, 1959), the English folklorists Iona Opie (1923-2017) and Peter Opie (1918-1982) wrote the following about the magic million target:

But the most unexpected feature of this legend is that it appears to be based on fact. Only a decade after the introduction of the prepaid postage stamp there really was, or so it seems, an urgent call for the collection of a million used stamps in order that a young lady in love might be saved from the whims of her father, a gentleman probably wealthy, and definitely eccentric.

Iona and Peter Opie then quote the following news item, published in The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 18th May 1850—news item deemed by these authors to be “either the tallest story which has appeared in the pages of that respected journal, or one of its most remarkable”:


Some time since, there appeared in the public journals a statement to the effect that a certain young lady, under age, was to be placed in a convent, by her father, if she did not procure, before the 30th of April last, one million of used postage stamps. This caused numerous persons to forward stamps for the purpose of securing her liberty. In March last, a lady, a member of one of the first families in Derbyshire, residing not many miles from Derby, mentioned the conditions to her friends, and in a short time the lady began to receive packages by post and railway from every quarter, which poured in in such numbers, that, in ten days, during last April, she received parcels containg [sic] millions of stamps. The walking postman, who was in the habit of delivering a few letters daily at the mansion where the lady resides, became so loaded with letters and packages containing Queen’s heads, that it was necessary to employ another man to assist him. On one morning between ninety and one hundred letters and packets arrived by post, and on another between 120 and 130. These were in addition to multitudes which arrived on other days. Boxes, bales, and packages also poured in by railway; and to such an extent that it became necessary to give public notice, by advertisements and printed circulars, that it was urgently desired no more stamps should be sent, as the young lady had procured the number she required. The accompanying Sketch gives some idea of the packages. One of them is a large wine-hamper; another, a large wine-cooler; next, a large clothes-basket. The two latter were used to put the smaller packets in as they arrived, being, altogether, many bushels. Next is a packet from a great mercantile house in London, and containing 240,000 Queen’s heads. There was, also, a tea-chest full, sent from another quarter. There were nine boxes between one and two feet long, a foot wide, and from four to ten inches deep; seven packages between one and two feet long, a foot wide, and about six inches deep. Smaller packets formed a heap two feet six inches long, one foot wide, and one foot six inches deep; and two baskets two feet long, one foot six inches wide, and one foot four inches deep were filled; besides which, many boxes full were not received, but sent back to the railway station. In addition to this accumulation, letters from all quarters arrived; many from persons of the highest rank, expressing the deepest sympathy and the most kindly feeling. Numbers of them stated that large collections of heads would still be sent if required.

EXTRAORDINARY ACCUMULATION OF POSTAGE STAMPS—illustration from The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 18th May 1850: