Retro-Man The style and class of vintage telegrams

From the days of the earliest smoke signals and the wondrous lighthouse at Alexandria, people have been sending messages over long distances with the best technology they could devise. In 1791, a Frenchman named Claude Chappe, who had been experimenting with elaborate and noisy contraptions for transmitting messages, developed a system using synchronized clocks and a large wooden panel painted white on one side and black on the other. By showing one face or the other of the wooden panel in coordination with the moving hands of the clock, Chappe could encode a message into numbers which could be read by someone far away watching the panel through a telescope. Chappe and his brother, René, demonstrated this system over a distance of ten miles to a committee of government officials, transmitting a message chosen by a local doctor: “Si vous réuississez, vous serez bientôt couvert de gloire.” Chappe originally called his system the tachygraphe, from the Greek words for “fast writer,” but a friend persuaded him to name it the télégraphe — “far writer” — instead.

Chappe’s original apparatus was destroyed by an angry mob of French Revolutionaries in 1793, who suspected he was using it for espionage. But he recovered and devised an even better system using a movable pair of arms on a movable bar which could be put into any of 98 unique positions, each position corresponding to a letter, number, or coded word or phrase. An operator could move the arms by using a miniature version of the apparatus connected to the main one by an intricate system of pulleys and cables. Chappe’s optical semaphore telegraph impressed the new French government, and state telegraph towers were constructed in France beginning in 1794 for the communication of military and political intelligence. The commercial potential of the system was immediately apparent, and Chappe soon had many rivals in the development of other telegraph systems. Beset by competition, Chappe became paranoid and depressed, and in 1805 he committed suicide, jumping into the well outside the telegraph administration building in Paris.

Optical telegraph systems like Chappe’s were expensive to maintain, because they required numerous operators and towers built within view of each other on high ground all over the countryside. They were also quite limited in their capacity and didn’t work well after dark. The idea of using electricity as a medium for sending messages had been around since at least 1753, and the idea of using magnets had been around even longer, but despite the efforts of numerous experimenters, no one had ever figured out a practical way to make that work.

In the early/mid 1830s, two different groups of men, one in America and one in England, were simultaneously but independently attempting to build an electric telegraph system. The American group was led by an erstwhile portrait painter and dilettante named Samuel F. B. Morse; the English group by a dilettante named William Fothergill Cooke. Although Morse and Cooke had a powerful vision of what they wanted to achieve, neither man had the scientific background necessary to construct a working electrical telegraph system on his own, and each formed uneasy alliances with more qualified inventors. Cooke’s primary collaborator was Professor Charles Wheatstone, and together they built a system that used an array of electromagnetic needles which combined to point at letters on a printed grid. Morse worked with Alfred Vail, and they developed a system that used a code of long and short bursts of electricity that caused a stylus to emboss or draw dots and dashes on a strip of paper.

Government officials on both sides of the Atlantic were at first highly skeptical of the electric telegraph systems, which seemed like hocus-pocus to men who didn’t understand the scientific principles involved. But by 1845, after various successful demonstrations, its potential was finally becoming apparent, and electric telegraph companies were soon in operation. Before 1861 the fastest way to send a message from New York to California was to use the Pony Express, which took about ten days: with the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph lines, that distance could be spanned in an instant. 

Click on a thumbnail below to see one of the real vintage telegrams in the Retro-Gram collection.

There were numerous telegraph companies in the United States in those early years, among them the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, which began operations in 1851. The company had some success, and within five years the company had bought up some of its competitors. In acknowledgement of this consolidation, the firm changed its name in 1856 to The Western Union Telegraph Company. Western Union grew rapidly, and when its armies of uniformed messenger boys were first deployed in 1911, it became known as the premier American telegraph operator.

The full story of the technological innovations of the telegraph and the people behind them is a long and fascinating one, and amply documented elsewhere. Here at Retro-Gram, we’re just as interested in the messages themselves. The whole point of those elaborate systems, after all, was to deliver information and sentiments as quickly as possible. What form did those urgent messages take?

The word “telegram” was coined in 1852, when it first appeared in the Albany Evening Journal of April 6th. E. P. Smith, of Rochester, New York, wrote the following letter to the newspaper: “A friend desires us to give notice that he will ask leave … to introduce a new word…. It is telegram instead of telegraphic dispatch, or telegraphic communication.” Pedantic scholars opposed this horrible new word at first. To use proper Greek, the word should have been telegrapheme. But Americans preferred the catchier sound of telegram, and within a few years the new term had become standard.

In the early decades of telegraphy, telegrams were transcribed by hand onto blank forms directly by skilled telegraph operators, who could understand Morse code just by listening to the rapid clicking of the sounder. In 1914 the teletypewriter was invented, which meant that the incoming electric signal could be automatically decoded and typed onto a strip of ticker tape, which clerks then glued to a blank form for delivery. Eventually, incoming messages were automatically typed directly on the blank forms. Through the use of multiplexing, the machines could automatically receive, decode and print 8 telegrams simultaneously. The development of varioplexing in 1936 increased that number to 72.

The first line of most telegrams was called the “check,”which told in highly abbreviated form where the telegram had come from, what class of service it was, and how many words it contained, among other things. Below the check was the name and address of the recipient. In America, completed incoming telegrams were carefully folded and placed into a window envelope, with the name and address of the recipient visible through the window. In most European countries there was no separate envelope: the telegram forms were designed to be folded and sealed with a stamp which kept the message hidden inside.

People sent telegrams by calling a telegraph office and dictating a message over the phone to an operator: the cost of the service was added to the customer’s phone bill. Customers could also appear in person at a telegraph office and write their message on a blank form, which would then be rendered into Morse code. Telegraph companies supplied pads of blank forms to business customers, and messenger boys would carry the forms to the telegraph office throughout the business day. Full-rate telegrams were hand-delivered by a company courier, but some cheaper services featured telegrams that were delivered by mail. In some European cities telegrams were also delivered via pneumatic tubes.

Telegram rates varied depending on the distance the message had to be sent, the speed with which it needed to be delivered, and its length. A ten-word telegram sent within a city cost as little as twenty cents in the 1920s. The same telegram sent from Chicago to New York City, for example, cost 60 cents. Most telegraph companies charged by the word, so customers had good reason to be as brief as possible. This gave telegram prose a snappy, brisk style, and the frequent omission of pronouns and articles often became almost poetically ambiguous. Telegrams were almost always brief, pointed, and momentous in a way unmatched by any other form of communication.

(Telegrams were so impressive, in fact, that some people believed they were capable of truly miraculous feats. There’s a story of a woman in Prussia in 1870 who appeared at her local telegraph office with a dish of food, and asked that it be telegraphed to her son who was a soldier fighting in the war against France. Although the operators assured her it was impossible to telegraph physical objects, she insisted that she had heard that soldiers had been ordered to the front by telegram, and if you could send soldiers into battle by telegram, she reasoned, you should be able to send sauerkraut.)

When simple poetic brevity wasn’t good enough, some people resorted to the use of code to make their telegrams as short -- and as cheap -- as possible. As early as 1845, independent entrepreneurs published books of codes for use in telegrams. The first codes were just numbered lists of words (A1645, for example, meant “alone” in one such code), but messages consisting entirely of numbers were prone to errors in transmission. Subsequent codes used Latin or nonsense words to replace entire phrases of English. People using the 500-page World-Wide Travellers’ Cipher Code book of 1901, for example, could send the message “Has the SS Massachusetts arrived, or have you heard of her being spoken? We feel uneasy at absence of news of her. Have other ships from same quarter arrived yet?” simply by transmitting the code words “Minder Retrim.” Because of the potential for confusion and error, most telegraph companies forbade the use of code in any but full-rate telegrams, and encouraged customers to pay extra for confirmation services.

Of course not all codes were intended simply to save money. Some very sensitive business was conducted via telegram, and some codes were designed to keep information secret. Commercial trade groups issued code books specific to their industries: The National Coal Association, for example, issued a telegram code book in 1918 in which the word “actor” means “3/4-inch gas lump.”

Politicians also had need for secure communication. Perhaps the most famous coded message of this kind was the Zimmermann telegram of January 19, 1917. A memo from the German Foreign Minister to his ambassador in Mexico, the telegram contained details of a proposed alliance against America which offered to return lands in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It was intercepted by British intelligence and published on March 1st, strengthening US public support for entry into World War I.

The height of the telegram age was probably the 1920s and ‘30s, when Western Union maintained a fleet of 14,000 uniformed messenger boys, on foot and on bicycle, and many thousands more of operators, clerks, and copyists. The company marketed its services heavily, offering specially printed multicolored decorative telegrams for various occasions designed by artists such as Norman Rockwell. They introduced the singing telegram in 1933, and offered booklets with pre-written sentimental messages that customers could order by number, as though from a menu. (Number 945, for example, was “May each white-capped crest on the ocean’s blue bear out my wish—happy voyage to you.”) Western Union promoted the telegram as a social tool with these words:

The American public in its readiness to accept that which is novel, smart, modern, accepts the telegram as socially correct—something to be expected when one has friends who are up with the times. Invitations to social functions, greetings on an anniversary, best wishes of the season—all are delivered by Western Union on specially designed blanks which add a high note of distinction.

But despite the best efforts of Western Union and other telegraph companies, the days of the telegram were numbered. Although the telegraph and the telephone had coexisted peacefully for decades, by the end of World War II, when improvements in telephone technology made direct dialing commonplace and long-distance service inexpensive, the golden age of the telegram was over. People continued to send telegrams for important personal occasions and urgent business throughout the 1950s, but telegraph use dropped off steadily. It is claimed that the last commercial Morse code message in North America was transmitted from a Globe Wireless station south of San Francisco on July 12, 1999. Western Union continued to hand-deliver telegrams until February of 1972, when the company began closing its local offices, but physical delivery of telegrams completely ceased in 2001.

For most people today telegrams are a memory, or something they saw in a movie or an old scrapbook. And although we have faster ways of sending information today, we don’t have a more stylish or a more exciting one.

Read The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage for more information on the history of telegraphy.
Our thanks to Sioux Feeney, the historian of The Western Union Company, for her assistance.

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