TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Western Union Public Telegram Offices

Western Union Public Telegram Offices

Patrick Townson (
Thu, 02 Feb 2006 18:00:00 EST

In Chicago, and almost all cities, large and small, there was a public
telegraph office; a place where people could go either to send a
telegram or wait for the arrival of one. In the bigger cities at least,
the public offices were quite ornate places, replete with high back
comfortable chairs for customer use, writing desks to sit at when you
wished to compose your message or sit to read the message you had
received, etc. They all had nice carpeting, were kept very cool in the
summer with overhead ceiling fans which turned sort of slowly, spitoons
and ashtrays, a long marbletop counter where one was waited on by
the clerk(s) on duty (the desks where one could compose their message
were finely polished wood) and of course there were always one or two
Western Union clocks, often times the 'grandfather' style clock which
had Western Union works in it. The offices were almost always open 24/7
and generally were rather noisy inside. You would always hear the
clock(s) ticking, except for when the printing machinery would start
up to print an incoming message or send a message.

In Chicago, the public office was on the first floor of the main head-
quarters building for Western Union, 407 South LaSalle Street, more or
less across the street from LaSalle Street (Train) Station, and about
a block or so away from the Illinois Bell central office locatred at
65 West Congress Parkway. Western Union had some kind of arrangment
with the telephone company in most towns, the public office phone
number was always (exchange)-4321. Chicago was a little different in
this respect, the headquarters right upstairs had a switchboard whose
number was WABash-4321 but the phone message takers were on

Smaller offices in little towns, etc were often times not operated
directly by the company, but were maintained as 'agency stations', and
operated by individuals who were 'agents' for the company. Western
Union was like Greyhound Bus in this respect: the public offices which
were good money-makers for the company were owned by the company;
those which made less (if any) profit were owned by these agents, who
were expected to hire their own help, transmit/recieve telegrams,
etc. Most of the smaller 'agency locations' received a commission on
their traffic both send-paid and received-collect in the range of
10-15 percent, where at a 'company' or 'corporate location' of course
Western Union kept all the money, but also had to pay all the bills,
the payroll, the rent and utilities, etc. Agents, on the other hand,
paid all those expenses themselves, including their payroll, which
generally amounted to a clerk for each shift (or time period in a day)
as well as a 'relief clerk' as needed. Typically the agents tried to
make do with only one clerk at a time to both man the front counter,
send/receive the telegrams, answer the phone, etc. Company locations,
generally limited to larger cities, would be more 'extravagent' with
two or three telegraphers working in their area behind the main
counter, and at least one or sometimes two clerks in front.

The office would be sort of quiet (except for the telephone [always
whatever-4321] which seemed to ring almost constantly.) Then the
quietness would be broken as one would hear the 'whirring noise' of
the gears engaging on a printing machine, then the noisy chatter of
the keys as they began to strike the paper, etc. Sometimes, there
would be almost constant clatter for hours at a time in the busier
offices. Offices like Chicago had several 'circuits' in a 'hunting'
system like lines on a switchboard: If things were busy, three or four
printing machines would be going at once. One or two of the circuits
were used for outgoing stuff, two or three were used for incoming
messages. Experienced telegraphers usually operated two or three
machines each; sitting in a swivel rolling wheels chair, they would
hear the intial 'whirr', glance around to see which terminal it was
and scoot their chair to that position to begin accepting a new
incoming message.

Incoming messages were put on a spindle on a counter near the clerk,
who would enter it in the log book, stamp the proper indicia on the
message, fold it up and put it in an envelope. Even if the customer
was in the office waiting for the message to get there, the rule was
'the customer is entitled to privacy at all times', so always, the
message was folded and put in an envelope before handing it over. One
of the clerk's duties was to always announce in a clear voice, "a
message recieved for Name; is Name here?" If the person came to the
counter the message would be handed over; if the person was not there
then the message was given to a messenger for delivery to the person
at the address specified.

In reverse, if a message was to be sent out, and the customer had
brought the message to the office, after being seated at one of
the desks used for writing messages, using the pads of yellow paper
for that purpose, the customer would approach the counter with the
scrap of yellow paper in hand. The clerk had the task of reading
the message, using a red pencil just like an old-fashioned school
teacher, squinting at the scribble marks on the yellow paper. Now and
again the clerk would look at the customer and ask "what is this
word here?" the customer would tell the clerk who would then use
the red pencil and draw a circle around the word in question and off
in the margin somewhere _neatly print_ the word in question. When
the clerk was satisfied with the results, she (most clerks were
women; most telegraphers were men) would count up the words and
say to the customer, alright, this will be fifty cents or whatever
it would cost.

The clerk was expected to be a sales person also; she would say 'this
is fourteen words, you can send six more words for seventy- five cents
as a day message, that way it will not have to wait until night rates
go in effect.' The customer would consider the offer she made him and
decide one way or another. Many customers would approach the counter
with a yellow slip of paper mostly looking looking like chicken
scrawls and the clerk would have to ask him "what is it you are trying
to say?" The customer would lean over and with sort of an embarassed
look explain what he was trying to convey. The clerk would say, "then
let's do it this way, and get it all down into eight or ten words
instead of the hundred words you have here, and she would write the
whole thing over for the customer with her red pencil, then show it to
the customer, who was usually quite pleased at how the clerk had done
it. And she would say to him, "now if this is what you want to tell
your relatives, do me a favor and sign your name here at the bottom of
the page." The person would sign off, the clerk would count up the
words and announce the total due just as usual. Then she had to put
the inidicia on that message outgoing as well, in addition to special
indicia in the form of a rubber stamp which read "My name is (name). I
am employed by Western Union in (city) office. First being deposed and
under oath I state that the customer asked for assistance in preparing
and sending his message." This was an FCC requirement as part of
'secrecy in communications' which WUTCO considered a very serious
matter. The clerk _never_ discussed the matter any further or risked
being fired if she did. Outgoing messages were handled the same way:
On a spindle, a little attention-getting bell rung, and presently one
of the telegraphers would pick it off the spindle and send it out.

The clerks had to turn on/turn off their smiles and tears all day long
depending on the customer they were with. An incoming message stated
that 'grandpa had passed away; funeral on Tuesday, please come home'.
With a somber look on her face, the clerk call the person's name; they
had been waiting there in the office; she hands them the envelope. The
customer opens the envelope, reads the bad news and gives it to her
husband who reads it quietly and gently squeezes his wife's hand. The
clerk would likely say something like "I sure am sorry to have to give
you this news". A few seconds later when the machine in back started
chattering again, it would be to tell the recipients that "junior
graduated from high school yesterday", and as she handed over that
message to the person waiting there when she saw them start to smile
and show pleasure at what they were reading the clerk might also smile
and say, "well Junior sure sounds like a very smart young guy!" Their
laughs and tears turned on and off all day as called for, based on the
message the customer recieved or sent out.

And always the salesperson: would you like to respond to this message
as long as you are here? You can send a ten word reply giving them
congratulations for just sixty cents.

An era long since gone. Most of the public telegraph offices were gone
by the early 1970's, and people had to start calling in their messages
to a central message taker in (I think) St. Louis.


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