Communications and Correspondence:  SMS, telephones, cellphones, email, Instant Messaging, Skype, Twitter and Facebook…these days we have so many dozens of ways to communicate. We seem to forget that not too long ago, none of this stuff existed, and that if we lived 30 or 40 years ago, we’d be stuck back where our grandparents and great-grandparents were, communications-wise, over seventy years ago.  So, how did people communicate before our modern mumbo-jumbo?

Letters,  Yep. Snail-mail, as we like to call it today, was the main method of communications back when our grandparents were our age. These days, most people have never written a letter. I don’t mean typing an email, I mean actually writing a letter. With a piece of paper, a pen, a stamp and an envelope.  Then take it to the corner postbox and drop it in.  This was how it was done back in the “old days”.  “But it’s so slooow!” you wail.

It is today, sure. But back then it was remarkably fast, even by the standards of the day. Post was delivered a lot more frequently back in the old days than it is today. These days, it’s distributed and sent out once a day. Back in the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s and the 1930s, post was collected and delivered a lot more frequently. In the Victorian era, post was gathered several times a day. The first post was done in the morning. Then at noon, then in the afternoon, then around dinnertime and then the “last post” in the late evening, before midnight, before it all started again the next day.

Telegrams.  Telegrams seem funny to most people these days. How could anyone seriously hope to send a message that read something like:   “Coming into town Monday”  “Meet me at station 2:30”   “OOXX to Mary”

Starting in the 1840s and not finally ending until the very early 21st century, telegrams have been one of the longest serving forms of communication in the world. To understand why telegrams were so popular, you have to understand what it meant to communicate any other way.

Communicating by mail was cheap, but it took a long time to get a reply, but, you could write whatever you liked in your letter. Telephones were very fast, but a long-distance phone-call was very expensive…assuming you were lucky enough to OWN a telephone, most people didn’t. And if you did, you probably had a ‘party line’, meaning that you shared a telephone line with at least one other person. You had a specific ring-tone to your telephone so that you knew when to pick it up if there was a call. Telegrams were fast, efficient and cheap, although the messages that you could send on them were short and were able to be read by almost anyone! In the 1920s and 30s, more telegrams were sent long-distance than long-distance phone-calls!

The limited space available on telegraphic forms, combined with the payment method for telegrams caused people to write their messages to be as short and as to-the-point as possible. All unnecessary words and letters were removed to cram as much information as you could into the smallest possible space. This led to a phrase called “telegraphic English” or “Telegram-Style” English, which referred to the clipped, precise English used in telegrams.  Telegrams were charged by their length, in words and letters and punctuation.  Rates and fees varied over time, but usually, it was a set rate for the first ten or a dozen words and an additional charge for every word after ten.

Telegrams were generally delivered by postmen, private messengers or by telegram messenger-boys, who were young lads employed by telegraph offices to send telegrams from the office to their intended recipients as fast as possible. In WWI and WWII, telegrams were used to notify next-of-kin of the death of a loved one in battle. Being a cheap and effective means of communication, telegrams were sent in their thousands to the wives, sisters and mothers of dead soldiers, generally accompanied by the nervous and hesitant telegram messenger-boy, who had the task of delivering the sad news.


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