Letters and telegrams

There were no computers of any sort in 1949 (when I was seven).  No emails, no internet, and no cellphones.  Phone calls from landlines were free in your local town, but expensive if you wanted to talk to someone in a different town, and very expensive indeed if you wanted to talk to someone in a different country.  So, people used to send lots of letters instead.

writing-a-letterYou would write your letter on sheets of paper, like in the picture.  There were no “biros” in those days, so you used what was called a “fountain pen”.  It was called a “fountain” pen because it had a refillable reservoir (a very small tank) within the barrel of the pen, and “reservoir” is one of the meanings of the word “fountain”.  (There, now you know!!!)

The ink we used in those days was a liquid, so you had to be very careful you didn’t smudge what you’d written before it dried.  It was particularly hard for left‑handers (like me), because your writing hand tended to smudge the words as you wrote them.

When you’d finished your letter, you folded it, put it in an envelope, wrote the name and address of the person you were sending the letter to on the envelope, stuck a postage stamp on the envelope (which you could buy from the Post Office, which was a bit like a modern PostShop), and put the envelope into a letterbox (usually at the Post Office).  Once or twice a day, postal workers would collect everyone’s letters from the letterboxes and send them on their way (by foot, bicycle, car, bus, train, or ship).


A letter might take several days to reach the person you wanted to contact (or weeks, if they lived overseas).  So, if you needed to contact someone urgently, you would either phone them (which was expensive) or send a “telegram”.  A telegram was a short message (similar to an SMS), but to send it you had to go down to the Post Office.  You would write your message on a form and the Post Office clerk would send the message for you (by phone, or by using Morse Code).

telegramAlthough telegrams were terribly expensive (they cost maybe a dollar or more per word, in today’s money), they were still cheaper than phoning, provided you only used a few words.  The picture shows a typical very short message.

  1. #1 by Robyn Freeman-Greene on 30 November 2016 - 8:09 am

    You were lucky in your day. In my day we had dip pens with nibs. We dipped them in the ink bottles. At schools ink wells sat in a hole on the desk. xxx

    Robyn Freeman-Greene 027 281 3483

    • #2 by . on 30 November 2016 - 9:08 am

      Yes, I remember them, too, when I was quite young.

  2. #3 by Graham Hoult on 9 August 2017 - 4:45 pm

    One could also dictate a telegram over the ‘phone.

    Recipients of telegrams would also receive a phone call from the exchange who would read it out.

    The actual telegram was typed into a teletype machine and transmitted around the country (and around the world) and be printed out on paper tape at the destination on a similar machine.

    The paper message tape would also be pasted onto the form (as in the photo above) and sent to the recipient by post.

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