Friday, February 19, 2010

Dots, Dashes and Stops

My last post, about how communications technology affects the way we tell stories, has given me a great excuse to talk about one of my very favourite things: telegrams.

I'm fond of telegrams. I like old things that involve words.

I own a telegram, actually. My dad's old company sent it to my parents a few days after I was born, congratulating them (kind of a cool thing to own, right?), so it's 26 years old. I can't remember the last time I heard anyone mention a telegram, apart from me mentioning my one. And when he was growing up, my dad worked as a telegram boy in his local post office, and loved it, and wanted to do it for the rest of his life. He might have, except that someone intervened and he became an engineer (which he also loved).

In their time, telegrams were not just a form of communication, they were an art. As they were usually charged by the word, it was in the interest of the sender to keep them short. Robert Benchley's famous telegram to Harold Ross when he arrived in Venice was a masterpiece of brevity: Streets full of water. Please advise.

Will Rogers used to do the world's shortest pre-Twitter column, by sending a daily telegram that was syndicated all over the world. They can be found here and some of them are pretty good.

Then there's Mark Twain's 'Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated', which was delivered by telegram, Peter Sellers cabling his wife downstairs to ask her to bring him up a coffee [my mother and I, when we lived together, used to text each other rather than calling from room to room, which we felt was vulgar. Our house is *really* small], and the lovely telegram sent by a British biologist investigating platypus eggs: Monotremes Oviparous, Ovum Meroblastic. Indeed, and so say all of us.

JFK used to joke that he received a telegram from his father during his election campaign that said Dear Jack. Don't buy one more vote than necessary. I'll be damned if I pay for a landslide.

Some classic put-downs were delivered by telegram. I quite like this exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, even though I'm sure it's apocryphal. Shaw sent Churchill tickets to his opening night.
Shaw: Here are two tickets. Bring a friend, if you have one.
Churchill: Impossible to make it opening night. Will attend second night, if you have one.

And Dorothy Parker famously cabled a friend of hers who had just given birth (and who had been boring Dorothy senseless about her pregnancy) to say Congrats Mary - we all knew you had it in you.

When I first started college, I had only owned a mobile phone for a few months and I lived in hope that text messages would take over from telegrams when it came to providing short funny anecdotes like these.

Hasn't happened yet.

I was also hoping Twitter or Facebook might do it, but alas not yet. Either we're getting less funny, or our celebrities getting more crap, or maybe there is just such a massive volume of content being generated nowadays that anything funny gets lost. Whatever it is, I miss telegrams.


  1. Hi

    Oh thank you for sharing these fabulous telegrams - made my morning, they really did - witty and funny.
    Please do not talk to me about the dreaded txt messaging. Sorry but for me that's the worst thing mobile phones have introduced. TXT-ing. Pure laziness - grrrrr!


    Take care

  2. I enjoyed the stroll down memory lane. I have lots of telegrams. Ones I received on my wedding day and the ones I received the day each of my four children were born. Wonderful, precious memories. I didn't realize they didn't exist anymore, until I tried to send one to a niece for her wedding day. Ended up sending an email to the hotel! Not quite the same thing.

  3. I've never received a telegram - never sent one either. I wouldn't know how to!

  4. Kitty, I'm glad you liked the post - I mentioned telegrams in passing in the last post and went off on a huge tangent and realised my tangent was a whole other post :) I'm a bit of a text nut, I have to admit, but I never use txt spk. I occasionally say 'btw' instead of 'by the way', but really I should just train myself to stop using that phrase altogether. It's pretty redundant a lot of them time!

    Ann, I often tell myself that I really must print all of those emails and type up those text messages from special moments and events. It must be great to have telegrams to keep. I always liked the tradition of sending telegrams to weddings and I'm sorry to see it go. Email just isn't the same!

    Donna, I have no idea either. I'd just have to trust the professionals but there's so few of them. And technically I never received one either, the one I have was sent to my parents and I . . . misappropriated it on a visit home :)

  5. I love this topic...I think if expanded a bit it would make a great opinion piece for a paper.

  6. I'm a cat and I know what telegrams are! Yep. During Christmas, I watched a good movie, "It's A Wonderful Life" with my human Tommy (she thinks SHE's hilarious--she's not) Anyway, George gets a telegram from a classmate who wires him money--and I thought that was such a neat for humans to talk to each other--they don't seem to do that much anymore...I liked your post.

    I'm a cat and I know good when I read it!


  7. Thanks, Anonymous, I'll give that some thought.

    Noir, I haven't seen that movie (I know, shame on me. . .) but thanks for another example of a famous telegram :)


I love comments!