01 February 2006

The Last Telegrams

Donald Sensing of One Hand Clapping recalls some of the roles that telegrams have played in his blogpost about the demise of Western Union's telegram service. (Wire transfers are now their primary business.)
Cheap long distance telephone service and email did telegrams in. Their passing is the demise of real Americana. For military members telegrams always had a measure of foreboding. In World War II the services notified next of kin of death and serious injuries by sending a telegram. This practice was gradually modified over the years so that by the time of 1991’s Gulf War the Army made death notifications in person but sent telegrams to notify kin of soldiers listed as Very Seriously Injured or Seriously Injured....

It used to be a custom, in the South, anyway, that brides and grooms would send a telegram to their parents the day after their wedding to thank them for the occasion. Sometimes the telegram would be sent from their honeymoon location. Cathy and I sent such a telegram.
I never heard of that custom, but I suppose it makes sense that private telegrams announced only the most important events: weddings and funerals. Be sure to read the first comment to Rev. Sensing's post, about the lengthy telegraph traffic into the town of Bedford, VA, in the wake of D-Day.

The last telegram I can recall sending was in China in 1988, when we sent a message to some fellow teachers from the porcelain-making town of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province during our Spring Festival trip to Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Jingdezhen during our year in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province. I wrote out the short message announcing our arrival date and time into the square blocks of the telegram form and handed it to the clerk. She then translated each Chinese character into its 4-digit telegraph code, charged us a small fee per character, and passed the message on to the stack awaiting the transmission clerk, who must have shown up for work that day because our friends were waiting for us when our train pulled into the station at drab, sooty Jingdezhen, where street vendors hawked porcelain factory seconds.

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