Not Just Last Century’s Tweets or E-mail

I’m the curator of this other blog, Stuff Found in Library Books. I say curator because this isn’t a collection of things I created, but rather things I found, in old library books, kept, took pictures of, and post on tumblr.

I recently posted a piece about a very fragile Western Union Telegram blank from the second decade of the last century. To find out a little more about how telegrams worked, I consulted this charming little booklet from 1928, How To Write Telegrams Properly. Because I’ve never sent a telegram.

Some have, for a while, complained about what tweets, e-mail, and SMS messages have wrought upon the language. How informal they are making English, and how people who use them are not learning how to use proper English. Or at least complete English.

But wasn’t that also true of the telegram? Western Union charged by the word, especially for standard day telegrams. So, it was important to keep messages short and concise. Because, as the booklet notes, “the telegram stands for speed and the public is accustomed to telegraphic brevity.”

All sorts of shortcuts were used in telegrams. Titles were shortened or eliminated. Addresses were as well. Punctuation was eliminated or replaced by words (easier to telegraph than actual punctuation marks — “stop” came to be used as a universal word for a period, even in non-English telegrams). Even telegram senders were encouraged to edit out pronouns and articles, as in this example:

Let us take an ordinary, every-day message:

“We received your very fine letter and your telegram this morning stop on the morning after you left us there were so many things to be done that all we could do was to pack up and get a taxi in time for the train we are leaving now.”

This would do quite well for a letter, but for telegraphic purposes it can be greatly simplified:

“Received your very fine letter and Telegram this morning so many things to be done morning after you left all we could do was pack and get taxi for train are leaving now.”

The original message contained 49 words. 14 words are deleted in the second example without any sacrifice of clearness.

And further simplifying things, Nelson Ross takes the example of a war correspondent who is sending the first report of a battle to his editors, reducing it from relatively clear English to something resembling Orwell’s Newspeak:

For example, a press correspondent might ,first write this dispatch:

“The enemy has not yet been met or even seen on account of the entanglements thrown up during the night,” etc.

Revised for the cable, this dispatch might read:

“Enemy unmet unseen account entanglements upthrown night.”

An interesting question — did telegraph lingo make any permanent changes to the English language? Or to English usage? It would be something worth exploring. I would think not, or perhaps only very subtly and on the edges. That suggests people are capable of holding different language usages — conversational, formal, telegram, IM, tweet — in their minds at the same time. I suspect there’s no evidence, or very little, that the brevity needed in telegraphy carried over into formal business correspondence. But I await to be shown conclusively.

While I knew money could be sent by wire (after all, this is all Western Union does any more), I did not know that messages could be sent to travelers on trains (this being 1928, few people are flying anywhere), so long as you knew the train and a station where that train would stop. “Telegraph clerks generally will be found to be courteous in aiding you to determine the progress of the train and station where it most likely can be intercepted,” Ross wrote. That must have been quite a task.

Companies also sent out mass telegrams — Mailchimp! — as long as all the addresses are provided. “The largest number of copies ever filed at one time by a single concern is said to have been more than 200,000 telegrams. They were sent from New York City. Such an avalanche of messages would put considerable strain upon the facilities of the world’s metropolis, but fortunately several hours notice had been given and operators were held for emergency duty.” Several hours notice. That probably required a lot of man — and woman — power.

Were there any spam telegrams? Telegrams from stranded Nigerian princes asking help to retrieve family fortunes?

The telegram, however, was not simply the e-mail or the tweet or it’s era. Western Union had services in the 1920s that anticipated, Uber, and Expedia. (FTD has long been a successful concern.)

In addition to the regular money order service, the telegraph companies maintain what is known as a telegraphic shopping service. As now organized, this service permits of the purchase by telegraph of any standardized article from a locomotive to a paper or pins. The person wishing to make the purchase has merely to call at the telegraph office, specify the article he wishes to have bought, and pay the cost, plus a small charge for the service. Directions will then be telegraphed to the point at which the purchase is to be made, and an employee will buy the article desired. It delivery is to be made in the city where the article is purchased, it will be forwarded by messenger. If delivery is to be made at a distant point, it will be sent by parcel post or express.

The service is utilized by the public in a variety of ways. For example on Mother’s Day a person in San Francisco purchased an automobile drive for his mother who was in New York. The telegraph company in New York merely called up a taxi company and directed them to send a car to a certain address at a definite time and take the party specified for a three hour drive.

Through the cooperation of florists throughout the country, flowers may be ordered by telegraph and delivered in virtually any city or town in the United States. Flowers also maybe ordered by cable for delivery in the larger cities of Europe. Candies, books and cigars, etc., may be ordered in a similar manner, though the florists are somewhat more highly organized.

Railway tickets also may be ordered by telegraph. In this case the telegraph company official acts as agent, making the purchase of the ticket and delivering it to the person specified, who usually is a minor or an aged person.

I don’t know how successful the shopping services, outside of FTD, were. I don’t recall ever seeing them used by anyone in an old movie or radio show (where real life meets popular culture). Perhaps in the bigger cities, like New York, Detroit, Chicago, or San Francisco. Maybe one could send a telegram order to a local Chinese restaurant and get chop suey delivered. (“Gee, Eunice, Grub Hub is swell!”)

But they show what the technology could do. And what people could conceive of a technology doing.

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