Telegrams: The Tweets of Yore


By now,  you've probably heard  the assertion that social media didn't start with Web 2.0-- since media is an instrument for communication between people, it's social by default, regardless of specific type or technology. Still, in those specifics, that assertion gets visually interesting. Take telegrams, for instance: those roughly 8" x 6" 19th and 20th-century rectangular papers with short, urgent missives on them bear a bit of a resemblance to tweets. In fact, tweets are, in the general sense, a telegraphic medium, without the physical telegram.

Musing on this resemblance, we've pulled some items from the San Francisco History Center and Book Arts & Special Collections to examine here.

Telegram to the SFPD, March 6, 1931
This one is from a scrapbook full of telegrams that were sent to the San Francisco Chief of Police in 1930-1931. Most of them concern warrants for arrest and were sent from police and sheriffs' jurisdictions across the nation. There are lots of names, aliases, suspect descriptions, and charges on which persons are held or sought.

Here's a more personal telegram to traveler and book collector Nat Schmulowitz, father of the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor (SCOWAH) here in Book Arts & Special Collections:

Telegram from Nat Schmulowitz's scrapbook "Europe 1950"

That "END ONE" at the bottom means "end of page one;" the telegram continues on a second sheet because there is no 140 character limit. It's stapled in, so we can't picture it here (staples are those offline bits of metal that hold papers together). To put it even more in its literal context, the telegram is stapled into a travel scrapbook Nat kept to document his trip to Europe.

Also in SCOWAH are two books about telegrams, one about the etiquette (not yet netiquette) of telegrams:

Book cover, Tested Telegrams and How to Write Them
and the other a more sub-cultural humor from telegraphers themselves, published in 1877:

Title page of Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes
Here's a handwritten telegram (is it perhaps the form the sender filled out, ready to be keyed in by a telegrapher?) from someone displaced by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:

Telegram, May 2, 1906. From Folder: SF. Earthquakes--April 18, 1906--Telegrams.
On the reverse, some facts about Western Union Telegraph Company:

Reverse side of the telegram above, 1906
Finally, let's not forget the face-to-face social aspect of receiving the telegram through that dated intermediary, the telegram "delivery boy":

 Governor James Rolph, Jr. surrounded by Western Union delivery people during his 64th birthday party at the Hotel Whitcomb, Aug. 23, 1933
At this point, we've gone over the polite length of a traditional blog post, so if you'd like to see more San Francisco telegrams, visit us on the 6th floor. And don't forget to tweet about #telegrams!