Fifteen cents a word to read . . .

Western Union, The Five Americans, 1967 .

Most of us are familiar with Western Union as a way to send or transfer money, if regular banking or Paypal can’t be used. Before ATMs, a Western Union “Moneygram” was about the only way to get funds outside of a bank if you didn’t have a credit card.  Before they did money though, Western Union did telegrams.  If you can find one it will likely be yellowed and crinkly, complete with the word “stop” to emphatically designate a period. Like text messages, earning income from telegrams was piece work. The sender paid by a block of words – $1.95 for 15 words, a nickel per word over that in 1950.

photo of a Western Union telegram

The Telegram

More so than for personal use, the telegram was the most effective communications tool available for business. It was equally convenient for trans-continental communications and trans-oceanic. You need to be able to speak to your customers and suppliers, place orders, send instructions, and wire payment.  How do you do that without breaking the bank?  Western Union didn’t offer an unlimited word package the way AT&T (they used to be in the telegraph business too) does with text packages.

Catalogue No. 10. Hall & Brown Woodworking Machine Co.

I may have found the answer. I’m selecting Trade Catalogs for a digitization project we’re  undertaking. It’s a complementary program to the IMLS Iron & Steel project that will be completed this fall. While reviewing Catalogue No. 10 of the Hall & Brown Wood Working Machine Co., I came across – in  addition to a rich vein of all manner of machinery – their cable codes. It’s a true lesson in Twain’s dictum to not let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. How does it work? Well, if you’re a wood working machinery salesman, you might need to know “shall we ship by rail?” or “shall we ship by steamer?” That’s 10 words. In Hall & Brownese, it’s “Aberdeen” “Abernathy.”  The full example they cite in their instructions looks like this:

         HOW TO USE CODE

We have arranged this Cipher and Code for the use of our correspondents. As each machine or size of machine has its own independent word by which it is designated it will be seen at a glance the saving of both time and expense which may be affected by its use. For the benefit of those who are not familiar with codes, the following example as to use of same is given:

Code:  Anteros Firdonsi Amadeo Shreveport

Translation:  Telegraph lowest price and earliest delivery number one fifteen inch Mississippi Planer and Matcher.  What is the best rate of freight you can obtain from your place to Shreveport?

Concise and to the point, and money-saving for both seller and buyer. When you look at the code pages in the Hall & Brown Catalog, it’s easy to see the cipher pattern in each usage area. In some instances there are distinct tie-ins to biblical names and words. Much of it looks like ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, other codes are straightforward literary or place names.  Take a look at the two partial listing below:

TIME AND MANNER OF SHIPPING

  • Abaddon . . . Express at once
  • Aaron . . . Freight at once
  • Abba . . . Answer saying when you can ship
  • Abdalla . . . When will you ship order

TRACER

  • Amram . . . Goods not received, send tracer
  • Amurath . . . Follow with tracer
  • Amsterdam . . . Send wire tracer after shipment
  • Anak . . . Will send tracer immediately
Under Miscellaneous codes they utilize Beatrix, Bedouin, Belfast and Belgrade as code words too. The alpha coding is easy to spot, but I’d like to have met the person or people who came up with it. I’ve since come across other catalogs with similar coding and abbreviations, but nothing as extensive as Hall & Brown. They have 7 pages of code for everything from percentage of discounts to letter salutations and closings.  This catalog and several hundred others will be digitally available next summer when we complete “American Marketplace.”

By the way, the Firdonsi (the No.1 15” Mississippi Planer and Matcher) weighs 9500 lbs., and no price is listed.

-Richard

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Fifteen cents a word to read . . .

  1. lizzy

    I was lucky to have vacationed on Valentia Island (Ireland) where the first viable commercial trans-atlantic cable was laid in 1866. There is a tower at the tallest point which later served during WWII as a signal for planes to know they had reached Europe.

  2. This is so interesting–I never knew this stuff. Thanks!

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