TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Re: Western Union Public Telegram Offices

Re: Western Union Public Telegram Offices
7 Feb 2006 08:17:02 -0800

Note that the original Western Union filed for bankruptcy and is
essentially gone. Today's company is in the money transfer and
financial service business.

Patrick Townson wrote:

> 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.

To see a view scene of this, check out the opening scene of the movie
"Executive Suite". A corporate executive goes into a WU office to
send a telegram and it's exactly as Pat describes it. (The rest of
the movie is good, too.)

In the early 1980s I visited a WU owned office in Trenton NJ. It was
not attractive, but quite austere in a 1960s kind of way, no
decoration, ugly flourescent lighting, linoleum floor, and glass
walled unit with holes to deal with the employee who looked tired.
There was one Teletype in a corner and one equipment rack frame that
didn't seem to be connected to anything. Soon after it was closed and
WU service handled by an contract agent in a diner outside the city.

At that time almost all business of WU was wire transfers, not
personal messaging. This is the same business they do now.

> 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

I visited that office and the train station in the mid 1990s. The La
Salle St station had been rebuilt. It once was the terminal for many
classic trains, including the 20th Century Limited. Now it serves
commuters only and looked it. It was reached by a narrow stairway and
had a tiny glass waiting room at the top; whatever station building
facilities it once had were gone.

The WU office across the street was similar to the one in Trenton in
appearance and atmosphere. Whatever dignified decorations it once had
were gone. Indeed, I think the office was actually on the side of the
building; probably the original nicely furnished office was closed and
space for a small office found off to the side.

> Western Union had some kind of arrangment with the telephone company
> in most towns, the public office phone number was always (exchange)-4321.

Early on the companies were jointly owned. Ever since they had a
friendly arrangement. You could dial Operator and ask for Western
Union and you'd be connected to them. You could charge your telegram
to your home phone number and it would appear on your long distance

WU ended up using much of AT&T's physical plant and AT&T gave WU a big
discount on service charges. I believe this was a matter of quiet
policy. Accordingly to Oslin's book, AT&T hit WU hard in other ways
such as TWX getting a great deal and other regulatory benefits.

> 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.

When MCI came along, it demanded the same discounts that WU got. AT&T
wasn't about to give MCI a break and was forced to raise the WU rates
steeply. This was the final knife that killed off WU.

As mentioned, cheap long distance rates by the 1970s pretty much
killed off the traditional telegram traffic. WU main business was
wire transfers by individuals and some Telex. It operated a few
service centers (one was near me). Basically an agent or customer
would call in with a request, it would be verified and entered into
the computer. The computer would then have another operator call the
appropriate receiving agent to authorize the pickup. AT&T WATS lines
were used. When AT&T rates went up per above, things got tough.

WU was also well unionized. A friend of mine worked at a message
center and was very well paid for the work she was doing. The office
was very structured, the computer counted keystrokes and errors and
was part of one's productivity report. (Sadly, this is common now,
but new in 1978.)

In alt.folklore computers we had discussions on the demise of WU other
businesses. It tried getting into satellites, becoming a long
distance provider, etc. but it didn't work out.

In the above movie mention about an executive sending a telegram to
his home office, I wonder when the switch to using long distance
telephone would've taken place. The executive was in a distance city,
heading home, and calling a special meeting of the Board. Had he
telephoned, his secretary would've had the message immediately and
would've started making arrangements, where via telegram there was a
delay and it was a one-way conversation. (However, part of the
movie's plot dealt with the Board speculating intensely on why the
meeting was called, so the one-way concept was important to this
particular movie.)

It's amazing in so many old movies that vital information is
telegraphed to a person rather than telephoned, even from relatively
short distances. Most large railroad stations had a Western Union
desks or ticket agents doubled as telegraph agents. When business
people travelled, they'd wire ahead their arrival plans or that they
arrived safely. Everyday people sent a postcard.

Anyway, at some point in time (1960? 1965?) long distance phone
rates came down low enough that a businessman could telephone his
distant office. I think in the 1954 movie the telegraph charge was
about $1.00 while a person-to-person long distance phone call would've
been $3-5. In 1954 a $4 differential was like $40 today. Business
did make extensive use of Long Distance telephone back then and
before, but for simple messages they'd wire.

I note that business people in those days made calls by name, not
number. For person-to-person, charges would not start until the
desired party was on the line, significant in a business atmosphere
where someone might have to paged. I believe the p-to-p premium was
relatively modest compared to later years. It is still offered to
this day but one would pay about $2.00 or more for a call that
otherwise might be 5c.

Would anyone have a telephone directory from around 1954? They
usually had sample long distance charges to various points and I'm
curious as to what toll charges were back then.

[public replies please]

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Although I never had any employee/employer
relationship with Western Union, around 1960-62 I used to hang out
with a guy who was himself employed by a Western Union agent, at the
old Union Bus Terminal in Hammond, Indiana. Actually, the Western
Union agent in Hammond was also the bus agent; both of those were sort
of expensive and losing propositions; combining them and the help
required to operate both at least mitigated the expense somewhat.

The lady had three or four bus lines (Greyhound, a couple of the
Trailways Bus companies, something else); she also had the Western
Union agency; each and every one of them paying her 12-15 percent
commission on the bus tickets she sold, the telegrams, etc. And from
those proceeds she was responsible for hiring staff to run the place,
both 24/7 operations of course. But since she owned the entire Bus
station building, she also rented out space for a restaurant, a beauty
salon, a barber shop and a few apartments, all of whom paid her rent
as well. So I guess she did okay. The guy who worked for her doing
the telegraph stuff was the guy I mentiond, my friend.

He told me a very interesting story once, around 1960 or so. He said
that one morning he had gone over into the restaurant area to get a
cup of coffee; looked around the station, and had gone back to his
office since the phone was ringing. He took the call, and a lady he
had seen getting off an incoming bus with a big smile on her face
walked into the telegraph office area; still with a big smile on her
face. She was probably 18-19 years old. She wanted to send a telegram
to her parents ('they told me to be sure and let them know I got here
safely as soon as I arrived') so she wanted to do that, and also asked
for directions on getting to some address. That done, she then picked
up her luggage and started walking down the street, still with that
big smile. My friend said he thought no more about it.

He said he came to work the next morning, shortly after that this same
woman came back, but this time instead of the big smile, she obviously
had been crying. Her earlier smile had been so infectious, I could not
help but wonder what had gone wrong to cause her to begin weeping sort
of silently. She counted out some change and told me to please send a
telegram for her. It simply said 'Bus leaves at 10 change in South
Bend at 2 home about 6' . He said "I was curious about what had gone
wrong: Had she been there for a new job and either not gotten hired or
been hired then fired on her first day at work? Was she intending to
meet a new boy friend who wound up being some sort of flake? Had she
gotten physically hurt somehow?" But I did not dare ask her anything
on it. She paid for the message and asked if she 'could sit in here
and wait until the bus arrived' I told her of course, in a way hoping
that she might decide to say something about it, but she did not.

And the 'company' (WUTCO) was always so strict about secrecy in
communications. If they found out that _I_ had brought the matter up,
well -- you know, I do not work for the 'company' (WUTCO) directly, I
only work for Jim R. and his wife Lillian (the agents) but Western
Union would have put all kinds of heat on _Lillian_, she would have had
to fire me. The company was like that with the agents. The company ran
nothing personally when it suited them, but in reality they ran
_everything_ when that suited them better, if you get my drift. So I
walked in back by the printers and sent out her message; I came back
out in front by the counter a bit later; she looked at me with a sort
of very small, faint smile, said 'thank you so much for helping me
find the place yesterday; my bus is here now, goodbye' got up and
left, hauling along her suitcase. PAT]

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