A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is it still possible to send a telegram?

July 19, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

In this day of e-mail, faxes, mobile phones and other means of instantaneous communication, is it still possible to send someone a telegram? Western Union seems to concentrate on money transfer these days, and apart from old movies and the occasional singing telegram, you never seem to hear about them any more. And if there aren't any telegrams any more, when did they get phased out? Answer anxiously awaited.

Western Union is still very much in business. This from their webpage (www.westernunion.com):

What is a Western Union TelegramSM message?

A message that is physically delivered to the receiver. It can be used for special occasions as a keepsake, memento, or for normal, everyday communications.

How long will it take to deliver a Western Union Telegram message?

Messages received prior to 6:00 p.m. eastern time, on Monday through Thursday will be delivered the next day to any point in the continental United States (excluding P.O. Boxes and rural routes). Messages received on Friday before 6:00 p.m., eastern time, will be delivered on the following Monday. Messages received Friday after 6:00 p.m., eastern time, Saturday and Sunday will be delivered on the following Tuesday. Special delivery schedules may apply for holidays.

How do I pay for a Western Union Telegram message?

You may bill the charges to one of the following bank cards: MasterCard , Visa or American Express .

How will I know when the Western Union Telegram message is delivered?

Coming soon - instant delivery tracking through Airborne, our deliverer of choice.

What happens if the Western Union Telegram cannot be delivered?

Reasonable efforts will be made to deliver the telegram to the intended recipient at the address provided by the sender. However, the Telegram will be returned to the sender directly if the delivery is not possible.

So they still do deliver, but it seems that rather than having telegraph agents deliver, they use Airborne to do the presentation. You have to ask what the point of this is, since you could just send the message direct by Airborne and have it arrive faster. But if it's nostalgia you want--and who ever put an Airborne ticket in a scrapbook?--give Western Union a call.

UPDATE

What was true in 2001 isn't necessarily true in 2006. Western Union's website recently announced:

Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.

Western Union is still in business. Now known as Western Union Financial Services, it makes its money on funds transfer--sending money by wire.

But no more old-fashioned telegrams. End of an era, I guess, although only Cecil would be old enough to remember the uniformed delivery boys and yellow typewritten copy. Some would say that it was the Internet that killed the telegram. As for me, few things match the impact of the written word.  Telegrams were the last bastion of concise writing--comparing them to the average text message is like comparing Moby Dick to Free Willy because they're both about whales.  By the way, as a telegram, the above paragraph would be: 

END OF ERA STOP ONLY CECIL OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER DELIVERY SERVICE AND YELLOW COPY STOP SOME SAY INTERNET KILLED GRAM STOP NOTHING HITS HARDER THAN WRITTEN WORD STOP CONCISE WRITING A LOST SKILL STOP GRAM IS TO EMAIL AS MOBY DICK IS TO FREE WILLY STOP

42 words vs. 102, and the message is still clear. 

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