The Western Union Telegram was the texting of the olden days. Prior to the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, your best bet for getting a message across a long distance was the Pony Express—which had only been operating for two years, had an average delivery time of ten days, and was put out of business pretty much overnight by Western Union.
Telegrams were received almost immediately from as far away as the opposite end of the country by local Western Union offices, who employed couriers to hand deliver the messages locally. Business exploded as more telegraph lines were laid, and by the telegram’s peak in 1929, 200 million of them were being delivered yearly. They became an enormous part of American culture, known for their curt wording and use of “STOP” in place of punctuation (as periods cost extra, but four letter words were free, which was probably convenient if one wanted to send a particularly angry and colorful telegram).
Deliveries dropped steadily over the years as long-distance phone service, email, and finally text and instant messaging slowly eroded the telegram’s usefulness. Volume had dropped to around 20,000 by the final year, mostly for official or certified messages, and the last telegram was sent on Friday, January 27, 2006. What did it say? Western Union doesn’t know or won’t tell, but it almost certainly ended with, “STOP“.
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