To Tweet or Telegram?

Vintage Holiday Greeting s Telegram 

Who doesn’t want attention grabbing tweets that get noticed?

This time of year my twitter feed like everyone’s is bloated with short bursts of holiday cheer, each compact tweet competing for our short attention span by trying to cleverly condense celebratory thoughts into precise 280 characters.

But micro messaging is nothing new.

Brevity was the soul of telegraphy. Stop

Before Twitter with its limited characters forced us to pare down our pithy remarks into abbreviated, concise blasts, telegrams worked much the same way.

Telegram Happy Birthday 1953

If you wanted to make a big statement with a small message you had to distill your thoughts.

Because Western Union telegrams charged for their services by the number of words you  used, compressing a 6 word sentence into a 6 character word required certain skills in order to save money.

Much like a tweet, trying to craft the perfect telegram was a challenge  especialy during holidays when you wanted to stand out.

New Years was a popular time to send telegrams and Western Union offered suggestions to their patrons to help them craft a perfect New Years Greeting.

Vintage Selections For New years Greeting Telegram

Suggestions From Western Union for perfect New Years Greeting telegram. 1920 Booklet “Forms Suggested for Telegraph Messages”

Don’t Write- Telegraph

Though telegrams now seem antiquated and quaint, it’s easy to forget how astonishing and hi-tech they were when they first appeared in the 1850’s.

They miraculously made communication instantaneous. Telegrams annihilated distance and commanded your immediate attention.

Naturally, like most technological advances not everyone was thrilled.

In 1858  The New York Times called the telegraph “trivial and paltry” also “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.”  Apparently it was the fake news of its day!

Vintage postcard Western Union Messenger Boy

For more than 150 years, messages of joy, sorrow and success came in signature yellow envelopes hand delivered by a Western Union messenger often on a bicycle.  Initially, telegrams were sent primarily in times of emergency and the sight of a messenger approaching your home gave a feeling of foreboding.

1930s Western Union Telegram ad for Fathers Day

But by 1900’s  telegrams were used for sending all sorts of communication, particularly holidays, thanks to the time saving hi speed feature.  “Now the telegram is being used enthusiastically for purely social messages because of its warmly personal touch.” stated an article in a  1928  booklet  produced by Western Union for its customers.

“If you are alive to the need of making every minute count in this modern high speed age you will often have the occasion to avail yourself of the telegram.” In the fast paced modern world letter writing was just old fashioned.

Why write- telegram,  was their motto.

Western Union Blank Forms for telegrams

Telegrams reached their peak of popularity in the 1920’s through the 1930’s when it was cheaper to telegram than to place a long distant call. And the immediacy of it put snail mail to shame.

Pointing out the challenges of writing a short telegram Western Union acknowledged: “The composition of well worded concise and pertinent telegram could be a matter of some difficulty.”

Like Twitter, telegrams had its own language and acronyms to help minimize cost. The challenge of  a telegram was stuffing your most sophisticated thoughts and feelings into a few short sentences. The average telegram was about 10 words.

Punctuation marks were eliminated as were small words like “the” “a,” “we” and “I.”  People would save money by using the word “stop” instead of a period to end sentences because punctuation was extra while the 4 charater word was free.

Vintage Ad Western Union Telegram for Christmas

Because telegrams were now being sent for all holidays and social occasions Western Union produced several booklets through the years with help in succinct and clear wording.

Vintage Western Union Booklet 1920

Vintage Western Union Booklet 1920

How to Save Words

Naturally, there is a right way and a wrong way of wording telegrams,” a 1920 Western Union booklet explains.”The right way is economical, the wrong way, wasteful. If the telegram is packed full of unnecessary words, words which might be omitted without impairing the sense of the message, the sender has been guilty of economic waste.

Not only has he failed to add anything to his message, but he has slowed it up by increasing the time necessary to transmit it. He added to the volume of traffic from a personal and financial point of view, he has been wasteful because he has spent more for his telegram than was necessary.

In the other extreme, he may have omitted words necessary to the sense, thus sacrificing clearness in his eagerness to save a few cents.

Happy Holidays Stop Happy New Year to All Stop









  1. bernesemtdog

    “A telegram is forever.” Peggy Olsen; Mad Men

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great line from Peggy, which I can’t seem to recall her saying. But its quite true and God Bless my mother she saved every telegram she got, which means I now have them saved. Unlike a tweet, they are tangible and there is a pleasure that can be gotten from revisiting them again


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