Thinking about getting in touch with that special one? You could send an e-mail. You could lick a stamp, put it on an envelope and drop it in a mailbox. Fed-Ex? Maybe, if it absolutely, positively…
Or, you could send a telegram. But not any more. Western Union discontinued them as of last Friday.
I wouldn’t have known about it, except through this item on MetaFilter. Curiously enough, Western Union did make news last Friday when its parent company, First Data, Inc., announced plans to spin off Western Union as a separate, publically-traded entity. Wall Street was urging First Data to take this step as (according to the New York Times) “the latest in a wave of efforts to break up companies and ‘unlock value’ when shareholders believe a company is worth less than its parts.” Western Union is now a profitable company in the money-transfer business.
Nowhere in the Times story does anyone mention that the company’s historic telegram service was coincidentally ending the same day.
I don’t think I ever got a telegram. Mostly, you see them in old movies as a plot device to deliver surprising news. If a character was rescued off a desert island, or found gold in Brazil, or was killed in battle, other characters usually found out when the man from Western Union delivered a telegram. They looked like this:
After family members have passed away, I’ve come across telegrams in old scrapbooks, usually announcing the birth of one of my cousins. In recent years, of course, they were mostly sent as novelty items. Wikipedia takes a rather expansive view of the telegram, tracing its origins in smoke signals, beacons and semaphore signals. Western Union strung the first telegraph wire across the continental U.S. in 1851. When similar lines stretched across other continents, and then under the sea, messages could be transmitted electrically (using electric pulses of Morse code) across the globe.
I’m surprised Western Union’s PR people didn’t make a bigger deal out of this. The Western Union brand at one time represented the primary communications pipeline that connected outposts of the global village. I think the official end of telegram service deserved a little salute that might have done the newly spun-off company some brand-building benefit. Certainly, it would’ve been a news hook for some feature pieces. But what do I know?
For decades, those two words, “Western Union,” evoked the yearning to get and send news of family, friends, business and country. You who travel from place to place looking for a wi-fi connection to download e-mail and post blog items, you are the heirs of Western Union’s no-less avid customers, searching for a Western Union office out on the lone prairie.
So, in the absence of an official memorial, you can pay tribute by downloading a copy of Jerry Butler’s late-60s soul hit, “Hey Western Union Man.”
Oh Western Union man, send a telegram
Send a telegram to my baby
This is what I want you to do
Listen, tell me have you got a boy you can send
This is what I want him to do
Put him on his bike right away
See if he can get my message through