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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 5 Internet Annoyances That Are Way Older Than the Internet (cracked.com)
- The Fear Hookup (thebookofvalues.wordpress.com)
- Tap Joint Delivers Otherworldly Telegraphic Messages (wired.com)