Quaint, Not Quick : Telegrams: Medium of Mementos

Times Staff Writer

It was shortly before Jacque Van Morgan’s high school graduation 48 years ago that a Western Union telegram arrived at her front door.

“I was tickled,” said Van Morgan, who then lived in her hometown of Romeo, Mich. “I had gotten letters and phone calls before, but I had never received a telegram.”

She opened the yellow envelope. Inside was a congratulatory message from her church group: “Sunshine and roses. Many, many, many more graduations.”

The same message could have been sent by mail or telephone, but it just would not have been the same. “It was wonderful,” said Van Morgan, now 71 and a retired nursery school teacher living in Los Angeles. “I can see the thrill behind it, the excitement.”

Swifter and more convenient forms of communication have made the delivery of a telegram an uncommon sight, but the telegram--usually carried by uniformed messenger and written in short, breathless sentences--spoke of urgency perhaps as no other form of communication in its day.


Symbols of Big News

Telegrams were received with a combination of eagerness and apprehension at doorsteps, at wedding receptions and in crucial scenes in Hollywood movies. They heralded births and business deals as well as deaths and illnesses.

The telegram speaks of past times and events--the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression and World War II. The technology that made the telegram possible put the Pony Express out of business and helped give rise to modern journalism by allowing the timely reporting of distant events.

Telegrams are still used today. When Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North testified in the televised Iran-Contra hearings last year, more than 150,000 telegrams poured into Washington.

For the most part, however, telegrams now are messages of last resort. Or they are sent because the rare delivery of a cable draws attention, like a Model T Ford turns heads as it putters down the road.

‘Fighting Technology’

“I’m sure there will be people who will always find a need for it,” Charles L. Lund, vice president of marketing for consumer communications at Western Union, said. “But it’s not what it once was. It’s fighting life style changes and advanced technology.”

It’s been a losing battle. Americans sent a record 199 million telegrams in 1929. By 1986, the annual figure had fallen to 2.8 million, Western Union records show.

A hand-delivered, 10-word telegram from Los Angeles to New York costs $23.90 and takes two to five hours to reach its destination. The same message delivered over the phone would take seconds and cost 36 cents for the first minute. It would cost the owner of a facsimile machine about 36 cents to transmit one page, and take less than 30 seconds.

Why send a telegram when you can telephone or send a document over a fax machine? Los Angeles attorney William Lew Tan asked. “A telegram is sort of an antique,” said Tan. “It’s an outmoded means of communications these days.”

From 1920 through 1950--the heyday of the telegram--fax machines, computers and overnight mail shipped by jet plane were unheard of. Most importantly, phones were not nearly as universal as they are today. In 1930, for example, 40.9% of U.S. households had a telephone, versus 92.5% last year, according to American Telephone & Telegraph.

“In our times, not everyone had a phone. We didn’t have a phone,” said Angie Hilaski, 71, who grew up in the coal-mining town of Trinidad, Colo., in the 1930s. “It was hard times. There was only one phone, that I recall, that was nearby. So you see, telegrams were very important in those times.”

‘Everything Automatic’

“Now people have two or three phones in their house,” said Hilaski, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Everything is computerized. Everything is automatic these days.”

Hilaski’s family traveled three miles to the nearest Western Union office, one of about 3,500 offices once maintained throughout the nation. Inside, senders took great pains to keep their messages short for a simple reason: “The shorter it was the less it cost,” Hilaski said.

The messages were very terse, recalls Samuel M. Ortega, 70, a retired teacher who lives in Los Angeles. They went something like: “‘I’m OK. STOP How are you? STOP I’ll be there July 14. STOP,”’ said Ortega. “You had to prepare everything before you went to the office.”

For those who did not want to compose their own messages, Western Union and its former competitor, Postal Telegraph, had greetings prepared for birthdays, Mother’s Day and other holidays.

To deliver telegrams, Western Union fielded a nationwide force of perhaps 4,000 messengers in olive-green uniforms. Groups of them sometimes gathered to deliver singing telegrams--the first of these was delivered to crooner Rudy Vallee on his birthday in 1933.

Fear of Bad News

Most often, however, the sight of a Western Union messenger evoked dread.

“Your heart was always in your throat when you saw the Western Union man,” said Jane Gove, 70, who moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia 32 years ago and went to work as a cashier. “Most people were scared when you got one. It was always a relief when you saw it was a happy message.”

That aura of bad news is why Ortega said he hesitated to send a telegram to relatives such as his niece. “In her mind she would say: ‘Uncle Sam is dead.’

“But I think it was wonderful to have someone take time off to go to a Western Union office, write up a note and have someone deliver a message,” Ortega said. “I used to file them. I used to save them--like I saved my Christmas cards.”

Telegrams became part of popular culture and were incorporated into radio scripts, plays and literature. Ernest Hemingway’s terse writing style was partly a result, some authorities say, of his days as Paris correspondent to the Toronto Sun during World War I, when he cabled his stories.

Famous Film Scenes

Many a Hollywood movie scene featured the delivery or the sending of a telegram. In the 1943 film “The Human Comedy,” Mickey Rooney plays a Western Union boy who must deliver the news that a family’s only son has been killed in World War II. And in the classic “Citizen Kane,” Orson Wells’ character sends a telegram instructing his correspondent covering the Spanish-American war: “You provide the prose poem. I’ll provide the war.”

Telegrams arrived by the dozen at wedding receptions, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. “The delivery man would come by and bring 10 or 15 of them,” said Rabbi Bernard M. Cohen at Temple Solael in West Hills, remembering bar mitzvahs of 30 years ago.

“They would read them aloud at the party,” Cohen said. “The person who was the master of ceremonies would often insert a gag telegram himself that would say ‘Congratulations from the White House.’ It was an opportunity for levity.”

Telegrams have always proved a popular method for constituents to voice their opinions.

“People usually write and send a postcard,” said Linda Royster, assistant press secretary to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), whose office receives about five to 10 telegrams a day. “But when they are either very upset or happy, or they are feeling strongly about one thing or another, that’s when they feel the urgency of sending a telegram.”

Traditional Uses Fading

Still, the telegram is losing ground on Capitol Hill. “We are seeing an increasing number of companies who are sending us faxes,” said Royster. “Before, they would have sent a telegram.”

For decades, the discovery of a new comet or star would have astronomers firing off telegrams to the Cambridge, Mass., office of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which has recorded sightings of astronomical objects since 1919. The arrival of a telegram at the bureau’s office these days is as infrequent as total solar eclipse.

“When I started in the 1960s, I remember seeing those paper telegrams,” said bureau director Brian G. Marsden. “They were quite often delivered by a boy on a bicycle--but, of course, all that’s all changed. I suppose 80% of our stuff is coming in by computers nowadays.”

It was the messenger who lent the telegram much of its impact and unique quality, said Jack M. Nilles, a USC researcher who studies the impact of telecommunications and computers on organizations and society.

“I don’t think there is anything quite like it today,” Nilles said of the hand-delivered telegram. “Here is a messenger coming to see you.”

That’s very much in contrast to the rapid but faceless forms of communication now on the rise. The linking of computers and telephones, for example, allows groups of individuals to communicate and share information instantaneously or at their liking.

No Direct Contact

“You have a new subculture of people who may never meet face to face, but can have intensive social interaction,” Nilles said.

Now, most telegrams are delivered over the telephone by Western Union operators. Messenger service is limited to a few large cities, including Los Angeles. Telegrams now make up only about 5% of Western Union’s business.

It is the rarity of a telegram today that makes it appealing to many. Jeff Segall, a video productions supervisor at Southern California Gas Co., once sent a telegram to a wedding because he thought it was such a novelty.

“I think it’s just nostalgic,” said Segall. “Everyone, once in their life, wants to get a telegram. You keep it and throw out all the other cards . . . but you don’t need those types of things anymore.”