What hath God wrought? Late last month, after more than 150 years, Western Union discontinued all telegram and commercial messaging services. Not just STOP but full stop.
The news traveled fast—the company posted the notice on its website—but
was long in coming. It's been clear since the 1950s that the telegram, that golden-sheaf harbinger of the Fates, that shadow-boxed plot point in a hundred noir films, would be doomed by other, faster forms of communication: the cheap long-distance telephone, fax, e-mail and, lately, thumb-straining SMS text messaging.
In the wireless world, the telegram has been assigned to largely ceremonial duty, a kind of grand gesture to acknowledge a birth, graduation, achievement, anniversary or opening night. Doting grandparents stuff. To the end, though, telegrams were pretty classy. I received my one and only in 2004 and promptly framed it.
When the news broke, I was surprised how many people posted messages of regret, wishing they had sent or received a telegram, sorry to see this cranky and impractical means of communication go. I wondered why. Technology has provided a blank slate that can contain our collective expression in all its logorrheic volume—endless gigabytes of e-mail memory, eternities of cellphone minutes, instant messaging. So what's the attraction of these expensive, day-late, compacted scripts?
Maybe it's because telegrams, unlike e-mail, always say something. Because of telegrams' by-the-word cost, they were almost always essential and momentous—"Mother died STOP." All the fat was boiled out of messages, like this to the White Star office in New York from an officer aboard the SS Carpathia: "Deeply regret advise your Titanic sunk this morning fifteenth after collision iceberg resulting serious loss life further particulars later." Or this from the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk: "Success four flights Thursday morning."
In their lean, life-changing language, telegrams had the quality of divine annunciations, as if God Himself spoke through Western Union. There was a time when the sight of a uniformed messenger would fill people with a kind of dread and awe. Indeed, Western Union was so concerned about its reputation as the bearer of heavy tidings that it instituted singing telegrams in 1933 to help brighten its image.
"The little scrap of paper charged the air like a set of crystals in a chemist's tube to a whispering pinch of salt," wrote Carl Sandburg in the poem "Telegram."
My mother was one of Western Union's archangels during WWII, delivering telegrams from the War Department to families, most of whom she knew well in her neighborhood of Turtle Creek, near Pittsburgh—a milieu of smokestack skies, black-draped pianos and covered mirrors. It was not an easy job. She found herself being avoided at social occasions where she once would have been welcomed. She remembered Mrs. Lippmann bursting through the door and running down the street crying, "Irving! Where is my Irving?" These things happened.
For all their worldwide, instantaneous bandwidth, the one thing modern electronic communications systems don't offer is a sense of occasion, of consequence. One hundred e-mails per day does not equal better information. It's just a snowdrift of words to be shoveled off the walk. Telegrams were sparingly used and sparingly written, but every word counted.
And, in the hands of experts, telegrams could be used like a scalpel. One of the most famous telegram exchanges pitted George Bernard Shaw against Winston Churchill. Shaw to Churchill: "Am reserving two tickets for you for my premiere. Come and bring a friend if you have any." Churchill to Shaw: "Impossible to be present for the first performance. Will attend the second if there is one."
A Hollywood favorite: Cary Grant, evasive about his age, intercepted a telegram to his agent from a reporter: "How old Cary Grant?" it read. Grant responded himself: "Old Cary Grant fine. How you?"
Dorothy Parker, on her honeymoon, to an editor nagging her for late work: "Too [expletive] busy, and vice versa."
Some have suggested that the telegram's economic wit is being revisited in SMS text messaging, which confines users to few words and a small screen. "Yo, dood, ttlly otrajus prty, LOL, IMTNG . . . . " I don't think so.
The telegram lives on in pop culture, from Felix Unger's suicide telegram to George Bailey's save-the-day dispatch in the final reel of "It's a Wonderful Life" (and the bales of telegrams Jimmy Stewart received in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"). Telegram gags were as reliable as seltzer bottles in Marx Brothers movies.
And, while it's not Western Union, there are still a few boutique operations that will dispatch telegram-like communiqués—you can order them online and they will arrive in the mail soon after. On this occasion I might send one to myself: BREVITY SOUL WIT STOP.