Review - The American Telegrapher: a social history 1860-1900

by Jim Haynes

The American Telegrapher: a social history 1860-1900
Edwin Gabler
Rutgers University Press, 1988
ISBN 0-8135-1284-0 (hardbound), 0-8135-1285-9 (paperback)

I seem to read a lot of books which are at the same time both interesting and tedious. This is one such book. Written by an academic historian for reading by other academic historians, it is long on footnotes, theories, and statistics and short on flesh-and-blood storytelling; yet there is enough of the latter to entertain the casual reader. Part I of this review is an attempt to convey the general message of the book. Part II is for fun: a selection of stories about the lives and times telegraphers a century ago.

Part I

There are five chapters: a history of the Great Strike of 1883 as an introduction to the world of the operators; a description of the telegraph industry and especially Western Union; a social portrait of the telegraphers; a study of women telegraphers; and a summary of the labor movement and politics of telegraphers. An epilogue compares the situation of telegraphers in the 1880s with that of the air traffic controllers a hundred years later.

Telegraph and railroad companies following the Civil War represented an entirely new kind of business, one in which the company's assets are strung out for hundreds or thousands of miles with offices and employees sprinkled along the lines. There were other affinities between the two kinds of companies. Railroads used telegraphy to support their own operations. Railroad rights-of-way were ideal places to run telegraph lines, affording easy access for construction and maintenance at a time when there were few roads. Telegraph business was likely to be found in the same places the railroads served. In many small towns the railroad station served as the public telegraph office, as there was not enough telegraph business to support an office for telegraph alone. Some railroads such as B & O operated their own public telegraph businesses. (cf. Southern Pacific a century later getting into the communications business.) Other railroads had contract arrangements with the telegraph companies, principally Western Union, for use of rights of way, interconnection of circuits, and providing public telegraph service at the railroad stations.

These new kinds of businesses needed a new kind of management. The military became their model. Many of the top managers were alumni of the Civil War military telegraph system. The companies had divisions, rule books, general orders and special orders, and chains of command. Management style was authoritarian. As is the case with some companies today, the telegraph and railroad companies then were headed by a mixture of people who knew the business and those who were primarily financial wizards.

Telegraph operators represented the beginning of a new social class, the lower-middle-class white-collar employees of large corporations. Many were the children of farmers or of city blue-collar workers. A great many were of Irish lineage. For all of these telegraphy offered a step up the social ladder as well as an escape from hard physical labor and city slums or rural isolation. Telegraphy was an occupation open to women, although the majority of operators were male (and, like the women, young and unmarried).

The national economy was fairly flat or even deflationary during the period 1860-1890. Western Union profits rose handsomely throughout the period. The operators did not share in this prosperity. For one thing, there was an oversupply of them. First-class operators, who could send and receive thirty to forty words per minute for hours on end, were assigned to press and market reporting circuits. They could command pay two to three times as great as that of the second-class operators who made up the bulk of the force. Many operators learned the craft by hanging around small railroad and telegraph offices; others worked their way up from messenger and clerk jobs in larger offices; still others were trained at a number of schools that sprang up around the country. Most of the latter seem to have been disreputable if not completely fraudulent, operating for profit and promising high pay and mobility to rural youth. They were the century-ago counterparts of the for-profit data processing schools of our own times, the kind that advertised on matchbook covers and turned out an oversupply of under-qualified graduates for high tuition fees.

Another financial problem for the telegraphers resulted from their new social class. Telegraphers' pay was on a par with that of skilled blue-collar workers; but their living expenses were greater. With the move to suits and ties and shined shoes they felt a need to live in middle-class housing, eat middle-class meals, and partake of middle-class entertainments.

A few of the operators' perceptions of mistreatment by the companies were more apparent than real. The 1840s through 1860s had been a period when telegraphy was just getting started. Job opportunities were abundant and promotions were rapid. As the industry matured there were fewer spectacular success stories; telegraphy even seemed to be a dead-end job. Other complaints had a more solid foundation. Mergers of telegraph companies eliminated jobs. An economic downturn in the 1870s caused Western Union to institute across-the-board salary reductions, which were partially offset by monetary deflation. Operators tended to move around a lot, which allowed the company to hire cheaper replacements for those who left.

The first attempt of telegraph workers to organize was the National Telegraphic Union of 1863. This was more of a mutual benefit society than a labor union. It provided members with sickness and funeral benefits and aimed to elevate the character of the members and promote just and harmonious relations with employers. With conditions for telegraphers growing worse after the Civil War the Telegraphers' Protective League was formed in 1868 as a very different kind of organization. It was a secret organization, because there was nothing at the time to protect its members from the unbridled power of their employers. Rather than relieving the sick and burying the dead it proposed to raise the members to a financial position in which they could take care of themselves.

The TPL felt strong enough by January 1870 to risk a strike against Western Union. It failed after about a week. There were just too many operators seeking work, especially in the winter season; the company was too strong; and the union was too poorly organized. The operators' situation continued to deteriorate through the 1870s as Western Union reduced wages, the number of would-be operators increased, and the company absorbed its competitors. An attempt to form another union in 1872 fizzled. In 1881 Jay Gould took over Western Union, moving the company closer to being a true national monopoly. By the summer of 1882 a number of regional labor organizations put aside their differences to form the Brotherhood of Telegraphers of the United States and Canada under the aegis of the Knights of Labor. The Brotherhood, unlike its predecessors, accepted the female operators as members.

In July of 1883 the Brotherhood presented a list of grievances to Western Union and some other firms, hoping for at least a compromise settlement and at worst a short strike. When the company made no meaningful concessions the telegraphers walked out on July 19. At first things looked good for the Brotherhood. About three fourths of Western Union operators honored the strike. Public opinion was much on the side of the telegraphers, at least to the extent that it was against the side of Jay Gould and the W.U. monopoly. One competing telegraph company settled quickly with the union; and another (B & O) came close to, but never close enough. Union leaders worked hard to keep the public on their side, urging the strikers to be models of dignity and sobriety. The women were as valiant as the men, if not more so, in upholding the strike.

Still, public sympathy did not feed the hungry; and the strike dwindled until it was officially called off August 17. Operators wishing to return to work had to sign a pledge of loyalty; those considered militant unionists were blacklisted by the company. Still, it appears the company was somewhat humbled by the power of the union and made a few concessions to the operators. Failure of the strike led to some ill feeling in the larger labor movement. The telegraphers accused the Knights of insufficient support; the Knights leadership felt the telegraphers had acted impulsively and without sufficient preparation. The Brotherhood soon withdrew from the Knights; and union activity reverted to local groups. Yet by 1885 there was a new organization, the Telegraphers' Union of America, which rejoined the Knights in 1886. This seems to have faded away by the early 1890s along with the Knights. Railroad telegraphers formed the Order of Railway Telegraphers in 1886. An Order of Commercial Telegraphers was formed in 1890 but never amounted to much, and allied itself with the railway telegraphers in 1897-98. The next attempt to form a union didn't happen until 1907, with the Commercial Telegraphers' Union of America, which also suffered disaster in a strike against Western Union.

Gabler concludes with a discussion of a number of labor and political issues affecting telegraphers. One of the Brotherhood's demands had been equal pay for equal work, male and female. This seems to have been widely hailed as the Right Thing to do. I wonder whether the male telegraphers supported the demand because it was right; or if they supported it because they knew if the companies had to pay men and women the same they would hire only men.

Some wanted a craft union, with membership limited to telegraphers, with an apprenticeship program that would raise the quality of operators while reducing their numbers. There was some interest in government licensing of operators. Others favored an industrial union, open to all Western Union employees. Some objected to the secret fraternal rites that were a feature of the Knights of Labor; Catholic workers were forbidden to become members of secret organizations of any kind. The operators wanted to protect their new middle-class image by being models of respectability and sobriety; some of the linemen on the other hand had no scruples about cutting wires to increase pressure on the companies during a strike. Some felt that telegraphy should be a government monopoly, as was and still is the norm in Europe. Some saw salvation in a worker-owned cooperative, if they could only convince the banks or the government to put up the money necessary to establish the system. Others sought to improve the status of the working classes through political action; quite a number were attracted to the United Labor Party of Henry George. A hundred years later issues like these are still with us.

Part II

Dr. Gabler had access to a vast amount of material: census records, archives of the telegraph companies, contemporary newspaper accounts, magazines published for the edification and amusement of operators, and even novels in which telegraphers were used as characters. The footnotes and bibliography take up 48 pages. One page in the book is an illustration of advertisements in a telegraphers' magazine of 1883. They include a book on shorthand, a book of money-making secrets, a book on the mysteries of love-making, a book on fortune telling, watch charms with microscopic pictures, a book of advice to the unmarried, a package of stationery, a book on politeness, a book of letters for all occasions, playing cards with marked backs, a book of magic tricks, a book on business, and a book on ballroom dancing. The theme is that these appealed to working-class young adults who felt a need to learn how to behave properly as new members of the middle-class.

A number of telegraph operators rose to prominence. Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie are the best known; Theodore N. Vail was a founder of AT&T; others found success in business or politics; and almost all the upper management of Western Union was drawn from the ranks of operators. In 1885 there were five doctors and one dentist moonlighting as telegraph operators - maybe medicine and dentistry didn't pay all that well in those days.

Thomas Edison, as a young telegrapher in the 1860s, would work a full day and then stay in the office at night, listening to a press circuit to get high speed code practice. Later he worked the Boston end of a New York circuit with an operator named Jerry Borst. Operators formed friendships with their counterparts at the other end of the wires. The telegraph companies insisted that operators should work at whatever circuits they were assigned. Edison and Borst conspired to change three characters of the code, so that nobody else could copy their transmissions and they could always work together. Cockroaches were such a problem in the office that Edison devised a bug zapper to protect his lunch from the little beasties.

Friendships over the wires were nourished during lulls in traffic by exchanges of jokes and local news, and by checker games. Sometimes love and courtship blossomed too. At other times operators were rude to one another. On one occasion two operators got so angry at each other that they arranged to meet at a town halfway between their posts and settle the matter with fists at 1:00 AM. "Salting" (sending too fast for the receiving operator) was a frequent source of irritation. Salting was also part of the common practice of hazing new operators.

Operators frequently got privileges, such as free passes to theaters and on trains. With the chronic oversupply it was common for operators to travel back and forth across the country looking for work, or for better conditions. Operators didn't get vacations, paid or otherwise; but in the summer months telegraph offices would open in the resort towns where the rich took their vacations, and operators could find work there.

In 1883 Western Union employed 444 telegraphers in New York City, 96 in Boston, 88 in St. Louis, and 83 in Chicago. This seems to support a conjecture of mine that W.U. was weakened all its life by overattention to serving New York City and insufficient effort to develop the business in other parts of the country.

There was friction between the city operators and the rural operators. The city operators were proud of their skills, and wanted to move the traffic. They resented they way country operators would frequently interrupt transmissions. The country operators, usually working in railroad depots, countered that telegraphy was but a small part of their duties. They had to answer questions from the public, sell tickets, meet trains, tend switches and signals, handle freight, and keep the lamps burning. They commonly worked shifts as long as twelve or even sixteen hours.

Development of duplex and then quadruplex operation greatly increased the pressure on operators, as the receiving operators could not interrupt the senders. Gender stereotyping held that only male operators had the stamina to handle these heavily-loaded circuits; yet the book cites a number of examples of women who worked these circuits. Women were consistently paid less than men. The companies were well aware that women were a bargain compared with men, and continually tried to replace men with women.

Nellie Welch had full charge of the telegraph office in Point Arena, California in 1886. She was eleven years old.

Western Union and the Cooper Union Institute in 1869 jointly started a free eight-month telegraphy course for women. It lasted through the early 1890s, turning out about 80 graduates a year. They would first take non-paying jobs assisting regular operators, and then be hired as operators on lightly loaded city circuits. This school was much despised by men for its contribution to the oversupply problem, thought it probably hurt the opportunities for women more than those for men.

Beginner and less-skilled operators were called "plugs" or "hams." (Note the endless controversy over the origin of the term "ham" for amateur radio operators.) The schools that turned out these operators were called "plug factories."

Craft magazines sought to shame operators who taught telegraphy. They were urged to pass on the secrets of Morse only to brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. At least one railroad operator quit his job rather than cooperate with a student placed with him by the company. (Some other material I have read tells of operators who took on students for a fee; and notes that the operator not only gained the income but also used the students to run errands for him.)

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