In Praise of Telegrams, the Original Social Network

Contrary to current reports, the telegram may not be about to die. But that doesn't mean we can't mourn its loss.

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Harry McCracken /

A "Social Message" of 1931, as delivered by Western Union

When the media begins reporting that some once-pervasive piece of technology is finally, definitively dead, my instinct is always to be skeptical. Back in 2011, for instance, NBC Nightly News ran a segment that commemorated the closure of what it said was the world’s last typewriter factory. More than two years later, the typewriter is still very much with us.

So when I saw news stories this week stating that the world’s final telegram will be sent in India on July 14–169 years after Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message–I didn’t automatically assume that the world’s final telegram would be sent in India on July 14.

And indeed, there seem to be a number of companies still in the telegram business that don’t appear to be planning to go out of business next month, such as iTelegram and American Telegram. If their telegrams are any less authentic than the ones that India’s telecommunications company is about to stop handling, maybe someone out there can school me on the difference.

In a less technical sense, of course, the telegram has been dead for decades. I’ve never sent one, and I suspect that the odds are pretty high that you haven’t, either. By the time e-mail became common in the early 1990s, multiple other technologies–fax, overnight delivery, relatively affordable long-distance phone calls–had long since rendered telegrams an anachronism.

But there was a time when they were part of ordinary life–or, to be more accurate, out-of-the-ordinary life. Reading about their alleged imminent demise, I was moved to pull out my grandmother’s family albums, which include a number of vintage examples, all sent via Western Union (which discontinued its service in 2006, prompting an earlier round of death-of-the-telegram stories).

As a product of the middle of the 19th century, the telegram may be ancient history, but it’s also reminiscent of multiple current modes of electronic communications. The one at the top of this post even declares itself to be a “Social Message,” linking it in purpose to modern social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Like tweets, telegrams were terse by definition, since the sender paid by the word; like Facebook, they were often used to wish friends and relatives well on special occasions.

But telegrams were far less ephemeral than just about any modern communications method–getting one was a big enough deal that people kept them, which is the only reason I’m writing this article. The average modern social-network update doesn’t matter eight hours after it gets transmitted, let alone eight decades later.

The telegram at the top of this post and the one below–both with such evocative header art–were sent to my grandparents on the occasion of their wedding in 1931. Note that one was addressed to the Linton Hotel in Indianapolis and the other to the Lincoln Hotel. One of the Western Union reps who took a message by phone apparently misheard the name. I’m not sure which was right, but the good news is that both telegrams reached their recipients. E-mail may be swifter and cheaper than a telegram, but it’s also less forgiving: Get the address wrong, and it will get bounced back, not delivered.

[image] Western Union

In those days, telegrams only got as far as the nearest Western Union office by wire. Then they’d be printed and a messenger such as the gents below (circa 1940) would arrive at your doorstep, message in hand. Is it any wonder that receiving one tended to be a memorable event?

[image] Western Union messengers

American Stock Archive / Getty Images

This 1959 telegram was sent by my mother to her father on his birthday. You don’t need to be an expert scholar of defunct telegram terminology to figure out what the “SINGOGRAM” notation in the header means.

[image] Western Union

Here’s the most serious telegram of the bunch, also from 1959. It’s from an out-of-town rabbi who, despite the discouraging tone of his message, ended up officiating at my parents’ wedding. Turns out that there was a bit of drama over finding someone to do the job, a fact I might never have asked my mother about just now if this document didn’t survive.

Note that Rabbi Cronbach sent a plain-vanilla telegram without any splashy header–but it’s full of visual gravitas appropriate to the subject at hand. Telegrams were important in part because they looked important.

[image] Western Union

Starting in 1970, Western Union offered something called Mailgrams–basically, cheap telegrams that arrived via postal mail rather than being delivered by a guy in a snappy uniform.┬áIn 1980, my grandmother received one from Jimmy Carter‘s social secretary; it’s the most recent telegram of hers I have. I’m not sure whether she attended this signing ceremony–nor whether she would have entrusted even the White House with the closely-guarded secret that was her birth date, as requested in the message.

[image]  Mailgram

Note that this Mailgram, compared to its predecessors, isn’t handsome or significant-looking or, really, notable in any respect other than that it originated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If Western Union had preserved the special feel of earlier telegrams, they might still be popular today.

Oh, O.K., probably not. But thinking about these scraps of paper and what they meant to my family leaves me thinking that we’ve lost something. I may have never known telegrams in the first place, but that doesn’t mean I can’t miss them.