The Netflix Before There Was Netflix

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that Netflix invented the rent-movies-by-mail business. But Hacking Netflix has unearthed a gem about a company called Video Mailbox that offered rent-by-mail — on VHS, no less — way back in 1987, long before little red envelopes clogged up our mailboxes.

There are striking similarities between Netflix and its apparent predecessor. Video Mailbox let you rent movies for a flat monthly fee ($29.95 – yikes!). It provided a pre-paid mailer to return movies. It offered 10,000 movies and users could manage a queue of their favorites.

There’s a Video Mailbox site dedicated to preserving the history of video mailbox (including this gem of a TV commercial and a color brochure explaining how it worked). And though the site doesn’t provide an official reason for the company’s demise, it was obviously an idea ahead of its technological time.

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