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Ephemera : Telegrams


The nature of ephemera is that it is often not preserved because it is seen as replaceable. Ephemera include a large variety of material types often representing physical manifestations of communications of a commercial speech or other non-privileged physical formats. Ephemera items include: telegrams, receipts, tickets, calling cards, programs, advertisements, menus, broadsheets, postcards, and invitations. These items when found in libraries and archives are usually rare or unique items, often personalized with marginalia from the collector, and individually and collectively can provide great value to Biographers, Sociologists, Economist and Social Historians. The Sherman-Thackara collection in Villanova’s Digital Library provides access to some very illuminating examples of ephemera. Digital libraries have not in the main embraced the digitization of these format types largely concentrating instead on photograph, book, journal, and newspaper formats largely because these are the formats that are most privileged, and traditionally collected formats, in academic and public information institutions. In this issue of the Blue Electrode we will look at two examples, other examples are available for browsing in the collection, of one type of more common ephemera: the Telegram.

Sherman Telegram

This telegram from A. M. Thackara, Sherman’s son-in-law, by the American Rapid Telegraph Company, sent to General Sherman on the occasion of his 61st birthday shows that the cultural practice of sending a brief message of celebration on a birthday when friends or relations were not physically present was already well a established practice in the America of the 1880’s.

Sherman Telegram

Another telegram this also to General Sherman by the Western Union Telegraph Company gives a health update on an ill loved one and announces the death of child and the transportation of his remains: a grim counterpoint to the above joyous birthday greeting, demonstrating that the telegraph brought both news of weal and woe to the individual household. What a short step it now seems to a post-9/11 world, where watching wars as they happen has become a commonplace.

The telegraph service called the “Victorian-era Internet” served to provide individuals nearly instantaneous, albeit mediated by the telegraph company staff, communication to even small and rural population centers. Truly a communication media of the age, the last telegram was delivered by Western Union in February 2006.

This article appeared in a different form in Compass at:



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Last Modified: October 31, 2007

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