The Very First Online Hookups, Old-School Style

The latest generation of electronic tech promising the most reliable hookup for those looking to meet is always new. Human desires for love and lust is not. Long decades before the likes of  hundreds of ubiquitous sites allowed the almighty us who live right now to check others out online, the kids were doing it their own way.

Online flirting – by telegraph.

By telegraph.

When a new form of technology is put in use to help along human nature, an inevitable sense of living in the most convenient period of time possible inevitably leads to the same old disappointment in…human nature.

Teenager Telegrapher.

Initially, young, unmarried men filled the ranks of the pretty tedious job of being a telegraph operator and when these young men went off to fight in the Civil War in 1861 or use their skills in the Military Telegraph Corps, it was young, unmarried women who filled the ranks and took on their jobs, much as they would do during World War II in plane, ship and bomb factories.

On occasion, however, some young women also worked for the Union Army sending, receiving and decoding telegraph messages one Samantha French, for example, was in charge of operations in the town of Gettysburg Pennsylvania during the famous battle there.

Typically, women telegrapher operators only contact with men was when they came to the office to submit a handwritten message to be coded and then sent out by the women.

The work was done from telegraph offices in railroad depots, hospitals, and military headquarters. Civilian telegraph operators, however, worked either in large rooms together at small desks in poorly heated, unventilated, over-crowded rooms or in complete isolation at home in their parlors.

Descriptions of the conditions are bleak, one recalling “the long rows of soiled wooden desks dotted with machines whose horrid metallic clack went on relentlessly.

There were at least a hundred girls in that room; some stolidly absorbed in their functions, some only too ready to turn aside to furtive novel or snatch of chatter…”

Telegraph operators in terrible working conditions.

Like the wireless laptop and smart phone, the Marconi wireless only increased chatting.

Both ways, for men and women, the work was tedious and often isolating and there were often long stretches of time, alone in thought. This led many of the young telegraphers to the same particular thought – each other.

The Telegraph in the 1850s was just as exciting a modern venue for increased communication as was the Internet in the 1990s. The first commercial telegraph was created in England in 1837.

Tap, tap, dash, dot – could lead to meeting the right one.

By 1844, Samuel Morse had invented a system of using it to relay “instant messages” by encoding letters to form words and sentences with a series of dots and dashes, not unlike the 0s and 1s used for the Internet. By 1850, England was wired to continental Europe, and eight years later Washington and London were able to communicate this way after the successful laying of the trans-Atlantic cable. In the U.S. it was not until a year after the Civil War ended that the entire country was wired, the Overland Telegraph Company connecting the East Coast to West Coast.

Of course, it wasn’t just being able to exchange messages with a loved one or business partner within just minutes instead of waiting months for a letter to arrive in the mail which made the telegraph so revolutionary. It was also used to relay news around the globe.

Sometimes the loneliness of the job was worse than the clack and click of it.

Truly the beginning of a wired world, it was the obsession of Victorian teck-heads. One kid, William Bryan, was so excited about learning the relays, batteries, switches, registers, keys, sounders and tape punching and being able to send and receive messages on his own, he climbed a telegraph pole to watch the wire in case it was possible to “see” the arriving messages coming “fly in.”

A little off-line at-work flirting.

Closing young men and women up together all day in these hot rooms with these gadgets, however, offered the potential for even hotter encounters that Victorian elders considered verboten. More often than not, groups of young women were brought in to be trained by young men, but the sexes were kept in separate facilities. Still, by the time training had ended, they knew which telegraph office all of them were being assigned to.

Hanging out at work.

Despite the popular use of the telegraph, however, the operators weren’t sending and receiving messages every single minute of their workday. There was a lot of downtime. Many times, women working together were dispersed to different offices, so they would keep focused on work instead of talking and loafing with their new colleagues.

Another view of the telegraph girls at work.

But with the telegraph, however, you no longer needed to see someone to friend them. Soon enough, it was the girls who’d trained together who started using the telegraphs to keep up on gossip.

One Mary Ellen Love admitted that she and three friends always were “in touch with each other by making use of the privilege of chatting over the line after business hours.”

The luckiest ones were those who lived in a small town where the telegraph office was usually set up in private homes, allowing the operations to stay online all day in between house chores.

Some 19th century IT guys could hack a telegraph wire to read, decode and send messages without being caught.

Whether at home, in a crowded room with other telegraphers or alone at a railroad depot telegraph room, it was long and solitary work – with plenty of time for dreaming who one might like to be there with you. In writing about real-life telegraph girls like “Delight Smith,” surely a pseudonym, one essayist noted they were notable less for their skills than for their unsupervised sexuality.”

A girl working in a railroad station depot telegraphy office.

One Anne Barnes Layton often had to work up to eighteen straight hours at a depot telegraph room, responsible as well for giving news to incoming trains about weather conditions or re-routing. When friends came by to go out for some fun, she said, “”I had to remain at my post until the last train cleared and they often were late, so I missed a lot of social life.” Elaine Casterline in Florida admitted that “the only communication was the telegraph key.”

Lecherous guys tended to flirt up the girls trapped at their desks.

Whether the idea for starting an online romance was reported or prompted by an 1870 issue of Harper’s Weekly, it was a logical step for isolated young women.

It was also not only safe but allowed the girls to harbor a fantasy dude at the other end of the telegraph – a far stretch from the lechers who often hung around the telegraph booth to flirt.

But the male telegraphers also had their share of trouble online.

Telegraph guy.

In Idaho was a case of shenanigans where a bunch of other guys started telegraphing more naïve male telegraphers in another office with provocative messages and “got up quite a flirtation with one hick.”

What was unexpected was that the eager guy actually showed up at the telegraph office where his love messages were being sent from. And there was one girl working there, by the name of Ma Kiley, who bore the brunt of her male co-workers trouble. She recalled:

The fellow finally called at the office one afternoon and asked me if I was “ready.” I asked him “for what?” He was dressed up in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, had a silk hanky stuffed down his collar clear around his neck, and was sweating like all get out. He answered me, “Why, to the show, of course. You promised you’d go, didn’t you?” I stared at him a minute and told him, “You may be drunk or just crazy, but I never saw or heard of you before and I surely didn’t promise to go out with someone I’d never seen.” Then he asked me if I didn’t sign myself “su”, and I told him that the third wire chief signed himself that way.

Valentine’s card referencing love telegrams.

The titillating telegraphing even resulted in some contemporary literature.

One fellow by the name of James M. Clark turned out the poem, Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk, the first stanza reading:

“The tendrils of my soul are twined

With thine, though many a mile apart.

And thine in close coiled circuits wind

Around the needle of my heart.

Working the needle of the telegraph.

One telegraph operator went public with this secretive online flirting. Ella Cheever Thayer thrust herself out of the telegraph office by writing a novel in 1879 called Wired Love: A Romance in Dots & Dashes. The story tells of the online romance between telegraphers Nattie and Clem, who fall in love simply through dots and dashes and no pixels. The fact that Ella Cheever wrote the whole book by using an even more modern gadget – the typewriter, is less startling that her prediction of future online dating:

[W]ho knows but some genius will invent something for the especial use of lovers? something, for instance, to carry in their pockets, so when they are far away from each other, and pine for a sound of ‘that beloved voice,’ they will have only to take up this electrical apparatus, put it to their ears, and be happy. Ah! blissful lovers of the future!

Over one hundred years before there was such a thing as a mobile device, good old Miss Ella was itching for one. She mightn’t know her ass from an app and thought blackberries were for cobblers, but she sure could have taught Thomas Edison a thing or two.

The iPhone 5: Did Ella Cheever see the need for it in a way Tom Edison couldn’t?


Categories: Americana, History, Technology, The Past Future

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10 replies »

  1. One can only imagine, of course, how far technology will take us in a 100 years. Perhaps, couples will be able to maintain”full” relationships while living on different continents, being “virtually” together. In such a case, what will it do to monogamy? One, I suppose, might be able to “live” or, at least exist, alongside a number of
    people–minus the laundry, the dishes and whatever else might pass for chores in the 22nd century. It’s not gay marriage that threatens the institution, it’s technology, and there is probably nothing that anyone can do about it Somewhat scary.

    in an unrelated aside involving the early 20th century and failed technology, I was wondering if you are a “Titanic-phile”. I’ve wondered how TR reacted to the news of the sinking. President Taft mourned the loss of his aide Col. Butt, but I haven’t read whether TR was similarly affected. Best, John.

    • I’m not sure how far advanced the whole virtual technology of creating peoplpe and use of handgloves and so forth has gotten since the late 90s, but it seems that no matter how acutely crafted a cyber-person is they will always be cyber. That said, I don’t think email or online contact is any different from the “virtual” experience of a letter, handwritten or typed. I believe, at least, that everything still falls into one of two camps – direct human contact or non-human contact, be it letter, Skype, photo, text, instant message, etc. On the sdecond – good question. I am not that big into the whole Titanic story except as a slice of time in terms of social classes and immigration, etc. which the news stories at the time reflected – and of course, the Tafts. In my research and writing of Nellie Taft, I didn’t come across any references to how Theodore Roosevelt reacted to the loss of Archive Butt on the Titanic. Excellent point to search out. Taft wept, ofr course, very moved and upset at the loss of Butt.

  2. What a delightful historical overview! It is filled with well documented facts and comments that fascinate and uplift the reader.

  3. DANIEL WEBSTER & THE TELEGRAPH –
    Daniel Webster (1782 – 1852) was fond of moralizing upon the period in which he lived; he often talked of the rapid progress which civilization had made and was making in his century . . .
    “I have reflected much on the past and on the future, in connection with events that are passing before our eyes: and I am rather inclined to the belief that, for discovery, this age has certainly surpassed every other of which history renders us an account. And I doubt whether any century in the future will be so prolific in discoveries beneficial to the race as ours has been.

    “Take STEAM, as applied to the advancement of civilization and the progress of human society, — that one discovery has distinguished this age from all others. I remember well when Fulton was seeking aid from Congress, and sent his boat up to Albany propelled by steam. He was looked upon by those whose influence he sought as a wild visionary, an enthusiast; as a man better fitted for an insane asylum than for practical life. Very scientific men demonstrated that it was impossible to apply steam to the purpose of navigation, — that the amount of fuel required would alone prevent it. Now, think of it! Merchant vessels are having more or less steam applied to their navigation. Think of steam as applied to the railroad, and the changes it has wrought in society!

    “Then take the discovery of ETHER, — an event the full benefits of which we can hardly realize as yet. Just think of the human suffering prevented by that discovery! Think of the pain of amputations and other operations prevented in hospitals!

    “But the miracle of miracles is the TELEGRAPH. Whatever improvements may be made in the instruments of telegraphic transmission, the agent itself cannot be improved. It is impossible, because it is as quick as thought. Steam, electricity, ether, and the ten thousand things that have grown from them, — think of it! What age has produced any thing like it, for the advancement of human society and the amelioration of human suffering? I think that we who live in this nineteenth century have, as far as -the development of these great discoveries goes, the advantage over all who have preceded us; and I think we shall have the advantage over the generations that are to follow.”

    • Fascinating perspective of Webster on technology – one gets a sense that people from the past like Webster might be less shocked by the advance of technology and medicine and science – just as we today would probably be less shocked by the technology in a century from now -and more shocked by social interaction between humans, and evolving morality and values, etc. In the end, despite all our outward focus on technology, I think it is always the human experience which defines an age. Thanks for writing about Danny boy there Jim!

  4. How funny! We’ve always thought that we were so advanced, but it’s been going on forever, in some form, hasn’t it? The human desire for connection, flirtation and romance always finds a way to express itself. It’s rather fun to look at our grandparent’s, or great-grandparent’s, generations as they really were… young, once, just like us!

    • I just wrote a response to someone else here about this – that even though we might use technology and wonder at its ever-expanding capacity, at the end of the day it is always a matter of how it enhances, advances, speeds up or changes tohe human experience. Thanks for writing Jake.

  5. Wow! Another great article! I can see a movie plot line in your article, sort of like the documentary “Catfish” (2010), during the 1800’s. Substitute the car ride for a steam locomotive.
    Love your articles!

    • Thank you – thank you, thank you. Too many ideas for movie plots -t hey are lined up outside my door, waiting. It may be decades before they all find form. At least getting them down here is a first step. I appreciate your words very much.

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