Written by Beth Bayley, Archivist Assistant
Ah, the telegram! Before email and texting and chat, it was the only way to deliver news quickly. Flag semaphore, smoke signals, and carrier pigeons all had their flaws as communication systems, so when the electrical telegraph was invented, the world got a lot smaller, a lot quicker. Telegrams, cables, wires, and telexes were all variations of the same speedy technology, and systems such as these put an end to the Pony Express and enabled the survivors of the Titanic to be rescued.
The fieldwork archives in ICFA are chock full of telegrams in all iterations: some sent wirelessly by radio and others sent by submarine cables. The example below is from William Emerson to Robert Van Nice in 1937. Van Nice had been working in Iran, surveying mosques while keeping an eye out for another job. Emerson hired him to survey Hagia Sophia and wired money to Van Nice’s account in advance:
Another example is the one below from 1941, when Van Nice was trying to coordinate his exit from Istanbul before transportation difficulties caused by the war prevented him from leaving. Many telegrams were exchanged during this hectic time, as Van Nice’s extended family in the U.S. waited for word that he was heading home.
Here’s a question: are telegrams ephemera? They were meant to convey information quickly and they were printed on poor quality paper. You were supposed to read them and react, not file them away for posterity. The abbreviated way telegrams convey information is rather like texting or chat messages (and doesn’t it make texting seem less like the end of civilized communication when we consider it’s just the Morse code of today?).
Yet some telegrams contain information of lasting value – information we are happy to have in the present. Many of the telegrams in our collections are just about setting up appointments, but that doesn’t mean they should have been thrown out. Instead, when collected together, the telegrams can tell the story of an organization and its activities, just like the emails we send can add up to the story of our lives.
Below is a selection of Western Union telegrams with stickers from the Van Nice and Byzantine Institute collections. These telegrams all do have an ephemeral element in common: someone slapped a sticker on each one. Like an advertisement in your email or a flier on your windshield, stickers on telegrams were more noise looking to get the reader’s attention – though, to our contemporary perspective, they seem kind of sweet.
The first telegram was sent between Eastman Kodak and Thomas Whittemore of the Byzantine Institute, with regard to film developing (possibly motion picture film, though we can’t say for sure). The sticker on this telegram refers to a Western Union telegraph messenger, usually boys between the ages of 10 and 18 who bicycled around cities delivering messages. They were paid according to the amount of telegrams delivered and only attended school for a few hours a week:
Father’s Day 1950 saw Boris Ermoloff, Librarian of the Byzantine Institute Library in Paris, writing to Seth Gano, Secretary of the Byzantine Institute in Boston, about printing the Bulletin of the Byzantine Institute:
The following telegram from Father Nicholas Harbates in Detroit requests the presence of John Thacher, then Director of Dumbarton Oaks, at an open house. Thacher replied by telegram, declining the invitation, but hoping he could come later in May:
Here we have another telegram referencing Van Nice’s exit from Istanbul during the Second World War. Seth Gano wanted William Emerson to be informed about the best options for Van Nice:
Finally, Thanksgiving 1950 saw a meeting between William Emerson and Albert Mathias Friend, then Director of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. Van Nice was appointed Visiting Research Associate at Dumbarton Oaks in the same year:
A few more telegram facts:
Telegraphese is the name for the particular way that these communications were written – if you were paying by the letter, of course you wanted to cut out the unnecessary text. And writing STOP to end a sentence was cheaper than paying extra for punctuation. Telegrams cost less than long-distance phone calls.
Apparently the shortest telegram ever sent was from the perpetually eloquent Oscar Wilde, who wanted to know how his latest book was doing. He sent a cable from Paris to his publisher in England, saying, “?”, to which his publisher responded, “!”.
Though you can’t send one in the U.S. (Western Union discontinued the service in 2006), you still can in several other countries, like Bahrain, France, Mexico, and Russia. Telegram service was only discontinued in the Philippines in 2013. But, if you are feeling nostalgic for obsolete technology, there are several websites that allow you to send your own retro telegrams.