Telegraph Hand, or Railway Hand: The Writing Style of Telegraph Operators in Messages Sent and Also Received in Telegrams

From Kaminski Handwriting Collection
Jump to: navigation, search

Telegraph Hand, or Railway Hand: The Writing Style of Telegraph Operators in Messages Sent and Also Received in Telegrams


What distinguishes telegraph hand from any other style are several elements: in its earliest forms, it is often a base style of writing, for example running hand, commercial hand, or even Spencerian or a similar hand; however, there is a secondary style element of joining the words themselves—sometimes as few as two but not uncommonly as many as five words—and this alone can transform the base style into telegraph hand, also known as railway hand.

Other features of the base style may include the following: a tendency towards a round hand style; a tight rounded circling in the c’s, o’s, and a number of other letters; unusual joins between letters to keep the pen on the paper; a vertical angle.

Despite the mention of vertical angle as an element of the style of telegraph hand, it can be of almost any angle from very slightly leftward slanting of perhaps 5 degrees to rightward slanting of perhaps 40 degrees.

It is notable too that evidence of this writing exists in both pencil and pen, so while the flow of ink and other discussions about ink pens may be salient arguments, there does remain evidence of this style in pencil as well.

Because of the width of the telegram, there is often a limited number of words written horizontally, often in sets of five to make the counting and charging for words easier, one assumes? The use of a narrow paper in a letter that is not a telegram and the presence of the style may also be a signal that the writer was once a telegraph operator.

As with the earliest forms of telegraph hand, later operators across many decades also incorporate the base style of writing of their personal style, region, time period into their work, and they add to that the elements already mentioned.

As a caveat, I want to state here at the outset that despite all of these proclamations about what telegraph handwriting is, there does remain some writing that has all of these characteristics and yet still has not been determined to be in fact telegraph hand or railway hand. This material is too complex to intermix, so I have discussed it in an addendum: Joined-Word Style in American Handwriting and Penmanship: Examining Documents Outside the Telegraph Office [1]

In trying to discover how early the telegraph writing thus described occurs, an attempt has been made to search for material. The initial survey has been limited to previously digitized and publicly available telegrams and writing. Finding these online at the National Archives has been easiest, so while earlier examples very likely exist, these examples serve as part of the early timeline of the writing style of telegraph hand and railway hand.

Even in these early samples, the geographic distribution among the states and the posts is impressive. The operators themselves moved frequently to a location where they were needed, and this may have added to the spread of this style. Another contributing factor may also be that these were not entirely private documents such as personal correspondence or a journal entry. The telegrams were handled by numerous people and also read by those people. Even the journal entries at the command posts or stations were available to other operators, and they shared the same books, and they may have been comparing styles and influencing each other. In a job where writing quickly, accurately, and legibly was prized, the best were likely admired and had an effect upon the writing of others.

At the time of the writing of this article, there does not appear to be any concerted effort by commercial colleges, for example, to teach this style of writing. If so, none has been found. However, there is anecdotal evidence that operators learned on the job and from each other.

To avoid all confusion and to fully document the material so that others may easily find it, I have made an effort to provide the full record hierarchy for each sample. Links are also provided.


In the lower right is a short telegram from April 5, 1862, Image 9, and it is a very good example of how an operator writes at great speed and is joining words without lifting the pen. In this telegram, there appear to be the following: two-word joins: 8; three-word joins: 2; four-word joins: 3; five-word joins: 2. This particular count is for the body of the telegram itself, and not the names. In such a case as this, where the joins are so common, and the count of four-word and five-word joins is substantial, it is easy to categorize this as being telegraph hand. [2]

Record Hierarchy, Record Group 109: War Department Collection of Confederate Records, 1825 - 1927, Series: Record Books of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Offices of the Confederate Government, 1874 - 1899, File Unit: Military Departments - Letters and Telegrams Sent, Army of the Peninsula, August 1861-May 1862, National Archives Identifier: 26281891, Local Identifier: Chapter II, Volume 228, Image 9. [3]

The lower left side is a telegram from April 8, 1862, Image 10, and it is also a very good example, much as the one mentioned above. In this telegram, the exact transcription is not clear, but there appear to be the following: two-word joins: 12; three-word joins: 10; four-word joins: 2; five-word joins: 2. This particular count is for the body of the telegram itself, and not the names. [4]

Record Hierarchy, Record Group 109: War Department Collection of Confederate Records, 1825 - 1927, Series: Record Books of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Offices of the Confederate Government, 1874 - 1899, File Unit: Military Departments - Letters and Telegrams Sent, Army of the Peninsula, August 1861-May 1862, National Archives Identifier: 26281891, Local Identifier: Chapter II, Volume 228, Image 10. [5]


While there are other letters and telegrams in this set that do not have any joined words or traits of telegraph hand, there are three here, likely from the same writer, that are worth examining. The first, Image 4, dated June 28, 1862 has six two-word joins, and one three-word join. In general, the script bears a resemblance to a commercial hand, and is well practiced and executed. [6] Notice that in style, it is much like the telegrams written in South Carolina in 1864, such as Image 27 and Image 28. In Image 10, there are six two-letter joins, and two three-word joins. In Image 12, there are perhaps seventeen two-word joins, one three-word join, and one four-word join. (I give an approximate number here because I think in this case it depends upon how the items are interpreted.)

Record Hierarchy, Record Group 109: War Department Collection of Confederate Records, 1825 - 1927, Series: Record Books of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Offices of the Confederate Government, 1874 - 1899, File Unit: Ordnance Department: Letters and Telegrams Received, Superintendent of Laboratories, June 1862 - May 1863, National Archive Identifier, 12012442, Image 4, Image 10, and Image 12. [7]


Among some early samples is one in pencil. It is titled “Telegram from General William T. Sherman to President Abraham Lincoln announcing the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, as a Christmas present to the President,” dated December 22 1864. [8] One must grant at the outset that this message has only two joins: between the numerals “8” and “6” in 1864 at the top of the message; also, there is a join between the “d” and “p” in “and plenty” within the text itself. By comparison within the same document, one can see the “d” at the top in “President” has a hook of sorts, and while the letter that follows it cannot be incorporated into a high join, the line following the “d” does not extend as it does with the “d” and “p” as noted already. While these connecting lines are minimal as evidence in themselves, in the context of the other material, these joins are in fact early evidence of the joins in telegraph hand.

As to the base style of writing itself within the telegram, it is notable that the running hand style has been chosen by the writer for speed, as per its usual use, and the addition words added to the original are in another base style. It is a more rounded and less slanted style to ensure these smaller words can be read. (And lastly, as an aside, one can see in the lithographed “In the Field” yet another base style of writing to be discussed in a separate essay.)

Record Hierarchy, Record Group 107: Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, 1791 - 1948, Series: Telegrams Sent by the Field Office of the Military Telegraph and Collected by the Office of the Secretary of War., 1860 - 1870, Item: Telegram from General William T. Sherman to President Abraham Lincoln announcing the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, as a Christmas present to the President, National Archives Identifier: 301637. [9]

Another early sample of telegraph writing is Image 27. [10] Among the interesting details are the well practiced Spencerian (or similar writing style) of the first two entries on this page which exhibit a telegraph style. The second entry stands out in particular for its excellent examples of joined words, most exciting among them are “If Col Rhett,” “sends a party of men,” and “of Mt Pleasant.”

Record Hierarchy, Record Group 109: War Department Collection of Confederate Records, 1825 - 1927, Series: Record Books of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Offices of the Confederate Government, 1874 - 1899, File Unit: Military Departments -- Telegrams Received and Sent, 1st and 7th Military Districts; and 2nd and 3rd Subdistricts of South Carolina, September 1864 - February 1865. National Archives Identifier: 16615916, Local Identifier: Chapter II, Volume 45 1/2, Image 27. [11]

In the first of these, the “If Col Rhett” connects three capital letters across three words. The joined phrase “sends a party of men” uses a modified loop on the “d” which does not appear in the same letters on the page, and this time it is employed as a way to connect to the “s” at the end of the word. The “s” itself is looped to the “a” of the next word, which in term slopes upwards to the “p” of “party.” The “y” of “party” loops backwards to attempt to cross the “t” and then the pen stroke is carried to the “o” in the next word “of.” The “f” naturally joins to the “m” in “men” to finish the single long line of words.

These last two telegrams, while having some elements of a running hand as a base style to them, feel less so than one by the same writer that comes on the next page of the journal, dated October 22, 1864, which is Image 28. [12] In this sample, identified here, the script has a bit more spacing between letters, yet it is also tighter, and a bit more angular. Therefore, these telegrams have a somewhat commercial style, even a running hand as a base style, like the Sherman to Lincoln telegram discussed which was in pencil.

The adjacent messages from other operators are writing a style that may be Spencerian or a similar style, with some flourishes and shaded elements, but they lack any defined style relative to that of the ones here discussed.

Overall, the writer discussed in these last three example stands in contrast to the others on the same pages written by others. His writing is easier to read, he has greater mastery of writing, the writing is a bit larger, it has a greater number of joins between words, and it looks more professional. Likely, one could say that this writer had been a good student at a commercial school or had good training. This is important because it suggests that the better writers were encouraged to write this way, and that it was the highest and most refined form of writing which was emulated and propagated in the ensuing years.

Record Hierarchy, Record Group 109: War Department Collection of Confederate Records, 1825 - 1927, Series: Record Books of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Offices of the Confederate Government, 1874 - 1899, File Unit: Military Departments -- Telegrams Received and Sent, 1st and 7th Military Districts; and 2nd and 3rd Subdistricts of South Carolina, September 1864 - February 1865. National Archives Identifier: 16615916, Local Identifier: Chapter II, Volume 45 1/2, Image 28. [13]


To look now at some samples from Mobile, Alabama, one sees a set of messages from four different telegraph operators. It might be important to characterize their writing, to some degree, without falling into the trap of graphologists of assigning personalities and character traits to the people themselves. It is clear that among then there is a careful writer, who shows competence without any unusual qualities; a more practiced writer with some small flair for modest ornamental capitals and who creates a small number of joins between capitals, names, and a few words.

See the first writer’s telegram from November 22, 1846, and November 23, 1846, Image 4 (manuscript pages 2 and 3). [14] The second writer’s work are on the same image, but dated November 24, 1864. While there are no joined words on this image, the following pages show some joins between words. See Image 5 (manuscript page 4 and 5). [15]

Record Group 109: War Department Collection of Confederate Records, 1825 - 1927, Series: Record Books of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Offices of the Confederate Government, 1874 - 1899, File Unit: Military Departments -- Telegrams Sent, Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, 1864-1865, National Archives Identifier, 16878212. Local Identifier:Chapter II, Volume 10, Image 4 and Image 5. [16]

The third and fourth writers from this set can be found on Image 10 (manuscript pages 14 and 15). [17] We see the third writer, on the top left, with a telegram dated November 29, 1864. He focuses less on style in the words and more on horizontal speed and letter count, and he uses his ink to join words more than all the other writers in this set.

Lastly, the fourth penman is certainly of some considerable skill in Spencerian or similar penmanship whose shaded capitals, ornaments, and bold style are themselves a presentation as much as the telegraph message itself, and his joins are limited more to the capitals of names than to between words. His style like the first writer mentioned, is fixed more in the initial training of writing than in trying to show any effort at writing in the style of telegraph hand; whereas the second and most especially the third writer introduce more joins, with the third writer clearly focusing on his speed and with a belief that the connected words add to it.

To compare these two sets of telegrams (Sample telegrams from Georgia and South Carolina in 1864 and Sample telegrams from Alabama in 1864), one comes to a new understanding. While the best penman in the telegrams from South Carolina has a style that is easy to admire and with the most joined words, the best penman in the set from Mobile, Alabama cleaves to his personal and learned style rather than to give in to the telegraph hand and joins. Is it possible that style trumps the number of joined words? Perhaps.

It is most likely that the joins in the ornate sample from Alabama are because of his base style, and not from any effort made to join words like the other operators. While there are a few joined words—“of the”—it is hard to see operator’s style as a telegraph hand. See Image 16, (manuscript pages 26 and 27). [18]

The most damning evidence that this fourth writer of the second set is not writing in a telegraph hand is that the end strokes of many words move dramatically to the lower right, at a diagonal that goes far below the writing line, and far away from the word that follows.

Record Group 109: War Department Collection of Confederate Records, 1825 - 1927, Series: Record Books of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Offices of the Confederate Government, 1874 - 1899, File Unit: Military Departments -- Telegrams Sent, Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, 1864-1865, National Archives Identifier, 16878212. Local Identifier:Chapter II, Volume 10, Image 10 and Image 16.[19]

What does this all mean? The adoption of a style is slow, and it occurs in small ways at first. And it is probably true that even when it is generally adopted and admired, there are those who do not adopt the style. Such is the adoption of telegraph handwriting and many styles of handwriting, it seems.


While not itself telegraph handwriting, a famous specimen of writing is nonetheless important here to note: “the handwriting of Captain Samuel H. Beckwith, General Grant’s cipher-operator…was used in transmitting Lincoln’s telegrams to and from the City Point and Richmond, March 25 to April 8, 1865” [20] Beckwith was also later assisted in the capture of Lincoln’s assassin, Booth, for which Beckwith received a reward of $500.


Although these previous samples provide only a quick survey of the early years of telegraph hand, let us now briefly look at some other similar styles in American handwriting that occurred during in these years.

Referencing them is important, as they are sometimes improperly conflated or misunderstood relative to each other.


After the advent of telegraph handwriting, there are some variations, of a sort, that overlap and become often erroneously conflated.

Most significant and famous is Thomas Alva Edison’s creation of his own script, which is based upon the telegraph hand, but which he modifies to the degree that he creates his own letterforms. The most unusual and dramatic change he makes though is to separate the letters into a non-script writing, also called a printscript or manuscript-hand. While his unique writing might be his own version of telegraph hand, his style is not itself what others consider to be telegraph handwriting.

Edison’s style of writing each letter individually is also used by him in business writing, such as in this letter to John Clark Van Duzer in 1868,[21] as well as for his job as a telegraph operator. [22]


Melvil Dewey, who prints a set of letterforms in 1887 for “library handwriting,” [23]or library hand, did examine a copy of Edison’s handwriting, [24] but Dewey's letterforms are quite different, though he does introduce a non-script writing he calls “dis-joined.” His library hand is not in any way telegraph hand.

While telegraph handwriting has several peculiar elements that define it, it is often written with no slant, and thereby it is vertical. However, one should avoid confusing it with other vertical styles. Although the “vertical writing” or “upright writing” movement which began in Europe and was promoted by John Jackson in Great Britain,[25] this style (with its own set of letterforms) was used fairly widely in schools in the United States beginning about 1894 [26] and ending its prominence about 1904. Some variations of it exist in California, and among some publishers during this time. It remains used to some extent a decade or so later. The latest date identified for its teaching is 1949.

There are other vertical styles that I have yet to fully explore, such as a round hand that occurs in the middle of the nineteenth century. There is one form of this that is also used by lawyers and judges. Yet another form becomes a back hand that is also different.

None of these other vertical styles is telegraph hand.


While not factually true, this article does point out that telegraph handwriting preceded the movement of “vertical writing” that took over many schools from 1894 to about 1904.

Below is an article from Owosso, Michigan's paper The Evening Argus, March 21, 1895, page 2. It is complete, below.


Telegraphers Are Mainly Responsible for Its Introduction Here.

If the vertical handwriting which is being taught in our public schools schools prevails, and becomes the ordinary handwriting, the people who enjoy its advantages will have in large measure the telegraphers to thank for it. They have been the pioneers of vertical writing. For the last twenty years almost every telegraph operator in the country has written a round, vertical hand, plainer than any other sort of handwriting known, with round, fat loops for the letters which drop below the line, and simple capitals. This telegrapher's handwriting has much in common with the English "civil service handwriting," which may have preceded it, but the civil service hand is less often vertical and has certain points of difference. Men's handwriting tends in a general way to conform to the fashion of Roman print prevalent at any time, and as the most ordinary print letter nowadays is of a round or Scottish face, it is not strange on the whole that the tendency in handwriting is toward a round letter. Women's chirography is more capricious in its fashion, though it has inclined pretty steadily now for several years toward angular Briticism. 

In an advertisement by W.C. Stevenson for his writing method from 1896, one finds that telegraph operators are not using a vertical style, despite its being in fashion and use in schools. [28]

Do telegraphers write vertically, or do they have an individual slant? Teachers, why not go to them and find out? They are your neighbors, and your friends, and their experience is worthy of consideration. Read the following:

Office of Western Union Telegraph Company, Emporia, Kansas, December 17, 1895. Prof. W.C. Stevenson, Dear Sir:-- I am not in favor of vertical writing for the reason that it is impossible to make speed. The pose is awkward, and the act of writing becomes laborious and tiresome. I deny that telegraphers as a class use the vertical system. Very respectfully, C.W. Cleaver, Telegrapher. (Slant 24 degrees to right)

Santa Fe Depot, Emporia, Kansas, December 19, 1895. W.C. Stevenson, Esq., Department Bookkeeping and Penmanship, State Normal School. Dear Sir:  Replying to yours of the 16th inst. in regard to vertical writing I will endeavor to answer your questions as best I know how  1. Plain and even, devoid of much shading and flourishing, such as the Spencerian.  2. My writing slants.  3. I place the paper at right angles to the forearm.  4. Forearm action.  5. Do not consider vertical writing suited to the demands of business, especially for telegraph operators, with whom speed and legibility are most essential.  I consider vertical writing too slow for the telegraph business and never saw an operator use it. Yours truly, H.C. Roehkig, Telegraph Operator. (Slant 28 degrees to right.) 

Emporia, Kansas, December 17, 1895. Prof. W.C. Stevenson, Kansas State Normal School. Dear Sir:-- In reply to your letter of the 16th inst. will say that I consider the essentials of a good style of handwriting to be legibility, speed, ease of execution and compactness. In writing I always place the paper at right angles to the forearm, and use the forearm movement assisted by a slight action of the fingers. I do not consider the so called "vertical" system suitable for a business hand as it seems to me to be unnatural, and presents a scrawling, boy-like appearance and is not to be compared to the easy, flowing, and yet compact, words as they appear when written by your system.  Yours respectfully, H.W. Fisher, Teller, Citizens Bank.  (Slant 37 degrees to right.)" 

Operators wrote what in a style that could be referred to as "telegraph hand," as indicated in The Express Gazette article on the "Characteristic Writing of Telegraphers" in 1903.[29] As a response to the graphologists of the time, the magazine exclaims

"Whether the writer was an evangel or a bunco fiend still it can not be denied that there are certain styles of writing generally characteristic of various vocations or business occupations irrespective of the (im) moral tendencies of the writers. Among the most marked illustrations is the writing of telegraph operators."


As the document examiner Albert S. Osborn writes in 1910 on page 184 in his Questioned Documents [30]

"There are certain types of writing developed in various occupations that have well known characteristics. One of these hands is that used by the telegraph operator….The manipulation of the telegrapher’s key develops a certain muscular action and skill which, no doubt, affects the writing process, and the necessity for continuity, speed and legibility, and the natural desire to copy the style of those already expert all lead to the result shown….The literary hand, the railroad style and the writing of the business clerk or bookkeeper each have certain well defined characteristics which are partly developed by the conditions and in a measure are also a result of imitation."

This style of the telegraph operator—“railroad style,” as he calls it, can be seen in figure 67 on page 144. [31] As he describes it, it is “Five words to line, typical word connections and circle small "o's." He adds, “the railroad clerk whose work requires boldness, strength, speed and legibility,  develops a style that requires much room and is just the opposite of effeminate. The telegraph operator becomes so accustomed to writing five words to a line on telegraph blanks that he must resist his natural impulse or in any writing his hand will count off five words to a line.”

Thus are some of the articles and arguments that flourished about telegraph hand the vertical styles of the time. They show a fierce strength in the cohesion of the group of telegraph operators, an allegiance to their skills, coworkers, and companies. Yet despite all of this, it is not the handwriting style so much as the encroachment of the typewriter and other technologies that put pressure upon the telegraph operators.


One of the more daunting technologies used the telegraph and telautograph itself. An article from 1888 proclaims that

“Prof. Gray’s new ‘telautograph’ will telegraph handwriting exactly as it is written. This may put a stop to bogus telegrams and much petty swindling.” The Kingman Daily Courier (Kingman, Kansas), 28 Mar 1888, Wed., Page 4. [32]

Even in the offices where the telegrams were handwritten, the typewriter was coming into use in the late 1890’s. The argument against them was the same used against vertical writing in this same time period, which was said to be too similar, from one person to the next in the case of cashing a check, for example. Here, it is not the style of penmanship, but of the machine itself that obfuscates the writer’s identity.

“Telegrams Typewritten, Abandonment of Penmanship Thought to Be a Detriment” “In conversation with a telegrapher of long standing as to effect of the introduction of typewriters, he stated that the beautiful chirography peculiar to the fraternity would soon be a lost art. “A few days ago,” he continued, “the Postal Telegraph Company opened up for business in Dallas, with the announcement that none but operators familiar with the typewriter would be employed. I have heard bankers in Houston state that they preferred an operator’s handwriting, in money transactions, to typewritten telegrams. Many cotton men, in large transactions, prefer plain chirography to the typewriter. There is no loophole for a telegraph company to evade responsibility when a telegram is received by one of their operators with a pen. A official of the Western Union recently declared to me that no operators could swear he received a typewritten telegram, but when received by pen he cannot deny his own handwriting.” -Houston Post

Abilene Daily Chronicle (Abilene, Kansas), 09 Feb. 1898, Wed., Page 4. [33]

The tension between the typewriter and the handwritten copy continues, but the age-old complaints of poor handwriting also become part of the argument. Here, the author even discusses it as a problem from “as far back” as he can remember. He also discusses how poor writers might be inspired by better ones.

Here is an excerpt of article that is sent to the paper by a reader.

“Improvement in Handwriting”
By L. C. Hall, Chief Operator, Western Union, Norfolk, Va.

“In looking over the telegraphic service, with a view of seeking out and remedying its weak points, one cannot fail to be struck by the fact that the handwriting of a great number of operators is very poor. In the case of nearly all the small offices, where, as a matter of course, the less proficient operators are employed, the poor quality of chirography turned out very often amounts to almost positice [sic] elegibility [sic], and the impression made upon the users of the wires—the local and the travelling public—is that the service generally is performed in a slipshod and careless manner. As far back as I can remember, the difficulty in deciphering a telegram has been a subject of of adverse comment and jest. There can be no doubt that this criticism is justified in no small degree, and that it reflects no credit upon our profession. Of course in the larger offices this cause of complaint has been generally removed by the introduction of the typewriter, but in the small branch offices and the thousands of small railway stations not much regard, as a general thing, is paid to legibility and neatness in the copies delivered to patrons….

It is a well known fact that a telegram written in a clean, pretty hand is always an object of lively interest to the less proficient telegraphers. When such a “copy” passes throught [sic] their hands they admire it, examine it, and study it critically, and never fail to envy the man who can turn out such work. More than that, they analyze the chirography and are seized with an instant desire to imitate his style, especially where specimens of the admired copy are constantly before them. Every observer has noted the effect made upon an office full of young operators by the advent of a single guilt-edged [sic] telegrapher among them. And what is true of one office is true of the service as a whole. If a plan can be adopted whereby specimens of the best telegraphic copies can be kept constantly before the embryo operator, he will soon be found copying a style that he most admires, and the result will soon show itself in the class of work he turns out. As it is from the beginners, thus influenced. that the ranks of the first-class talent must finally be recruited, it is of the utmost importance that they be started right. How to carry out such a plan effectively and inexpensively is the questions.

My idea is that the telegraph companies and journals ought to take the matter up and push it along. Let each company cause to be bound in every tariff book sent out fac-similes of “copies” from the pens of the best operators, and the journals devoted to the interest of the telegraphers print reproductions of messages copied in the best style of telegraphic writing. A half-dozen such copies inserted in the tariff books and telegraph papers, and kept there month after month would exert an education influence that would spread over the whole country and elevate the standard of telegraphic work everywhere. There is nothing like a good object lesson for teaching the idea, and particularly the young idea, how to shoot.”

Richmond Dispatch (Richmond Virginia), 19 May 1901, Sun., Page 4. [34]

This article has not been found in its original at this point in time. There is also no evidence that his suggestions were acted upon, but they offer a tempting selection of potential material, if these exemplars were ever reproduced.

This excerpt from the American Telegraphy and Encyclopedia of the Telegraph serves as a sort of refutation of almost everything previously argued and documented in this article about how the classic handwriting of operators is distinct. Here, the author of this encyclopedia indicates that no writing style is required by the operator, except that it is plain and legible. To put this in context, it may be a caution against Spencerian or any of the ornamental business hands of this time, but then again, it does seem to suggest that there is in fact no style required or taught.

"It is obvious that it is at first a difficult matter to exercise one's faculties to the utmost in the act of translating the Morse characters into the characters of the more familiar English alphabet, and at the same time give much attention to the style of one's penmanship in recording the translation. So long, however, as the use of the pen is permitted in telegraph offices (and the typewriter has not yet completely superseded that method of recording messages) great care should be exercised in acquiring a clear and legible style of penmanship while writing at a high rate of speed. Ornate penmanship, although not to be belittled in the telegraph operator, is not an essential, but plain writing is very essential. Each letter should be accurately written, and the letters which, like fine, fire, five, in long-hand, are liable to be confused, should be very legibly written: even where words are not liable to be confused they may often be “blind,” as it is termed, if each letter is not clearly defined.

By acquiring a habit of legibly forming each letter in the act of receiving by Morse, the operator will rind that he will usually write far more clearly when receiving Morse than when writing at his own dictation, so to speak. This has been the experience of many operators." [35]

American Telegraphy and Encyclopedia of the Telegraph: systems, apparatus ... By William Maver, Jr., Maver Publishing Company, Chauncey Holt, printer, New York, 1903. Page 57c, 57d.


This article, from The Wellsboro Gazette (Wellsboro, Pennsylvania) 28 Feb 1912, Wed., page 2, suggests a closing of the period in which handwritten telegrams flourished.

The Western Union has ordered 10,000 new typewriters, which is but a beginning, and it is expected that within a year all telegrams. including the day and night letters, will be typewritten. Does this mean, it may be wondered, the gradual extinction of that peculiar current writing, rapid, open, free, and intricately looped, which is known as "telegraph hand"? It is admirable for its purpose but it is the reverse of what is needed for those uses for which chirography is still retained. Librarians, for example, also have a special hand, but it is compact, formal and print-like, and rapidity is less important than legibility. The mercantile hand, nowadays at least, is much less uniform, but it has its own traditions. Literary people, on the other hand, when they happen not in typewrite, follow any model they like, but they seldom employ the easy, rapid gallop or lope of the telegrapher’s hand. That is best suited to one who is writing from dictation, and who keeps up a steady pace after once getting up motion.

Regardless of whatever stated waning of the need for operators or penmanship is, here is an example of an advertisement for telegraph operators and instruction in "telegraph penmanship":

Railway Agency. Typewriting and Telegraph Penmanship, and earn $50 to $100 a month. Two railroad wires. Big demand for telegraphers. You can qualify in few months. Graduates guaranteed $50 from start. Rapid promotion. Expenses low. We pay your railroad fare and first month's board. Big descriptive catalog free. Write today. Great opportunities in the railway service. Southern School of Telegraphy, Box 383-L, Newnan, Ga. [36]

Southern Planter, Volume 75, No. 12, December 1914. Richmond, Virginia, T.W. Ormond, 1914. Page 900.

Interestingly, the influence of Spencerian script exists in Vancouver:

“There is on the Vancouver force a disciple of Spencerian penmanship who is noted from Chicago to the Gulf and from St. Paul to the Pacific Ocean. His copy is a picture and is the admiration of all his colleagues wherever he goes. In addition to being without an equal with his pen he is a thoroughbred high-class gentleman and his name is Roscoe F. Pollard.”

Telegraph and telephone age: telegraphy-telephony-radio. ... 1917. March 1, 1917, page 118 [37]

It is also worth noting that while it might be easy to assume that all telegraph operators might be young men of at least sixteen, the job might be filled by someone as young as ten years of age.

Horace G. Martin “was one of the brilliant members of the of the force that was released in 1897 by the amalgamation of the former United Press with the Associated Press and was one of the fastest and best senders ever in the press service. His typewriting and penmanship were accomplishments that were generally admired even when he was somewhere between ten and fourteen years of age.

Telegraph and telephone age: telegraphy-telephony-radio. ... 1917. July 16, 1917, page 331 [38]

As the age of the telegraph operator writing by hand comes to a close, and its inventors and operators age, there is this article in the paper in 1931.

In The St. Louis Star and Times (St. Louis, Missouri) 11 Feb 1931, Wed., page 3, in an article titled, “Edison, 84 Today, Has Lived on Milk Diet for Six Years,” it is noted that “Edison is deaf, so his birthday interviewers prepared a list of questions for him. He wrote his answers in a neat Morse ‘telegraph hand.’” Here, there is the suggestion that the style of handwriting is from Morse. This interpretation comes from the belief that telegraph operators may have copied the style of Morse’s writing. This is not factual, but the belief does exist among the stories of how the writing style began. [39]


A quick survey of the years 1861-1918 shows that some operators seem to be using this style while others do not. At no time, in the survey of material I have reviewed, has there been a time when this style was ubiquitous. Despite this, it is still accurate to identify this as a particular style, and it has been openly recognized for more than a hundred years.

While it has been difficult to find a person still alive who learned to write in telegraph hand, and while many of the oldest continue to die, there must certainly be both men and women who still have this knowledge and skill, and I would ask that anyone who learned this style of writing or knows someone to please be in contact with me.


Disambiguation and explanations about the words, terms, meaning, and context of the words and variants of “telegraph hand”:

“Some people are rude enough to say to an editor whose writing is not very plain: ‘Always telegraph; never write; we like your telegraph hand so much better than your writing hand.’” Rocky Mount Mail (Rocky Mount, North Carolina), 04 feb 1876, Fri., Page 1. [40] The meaning of “telegraph hand” here is meant to mean the typewritten font that is printed, rather than any actual handwriting.

“telegraph hand feed cutter” (agricultural), The Allentown Democrat (Allentown, Pennsylvania), 22 Feb. 1905, Wed., page 3. [41]

“Morse telegraph hand keys” (mechanical / electrical) Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 22 Apr. 1961, Sat., page 36. [42]

“…I suddenly heard signals in the “Morse code” which I understood, being an old telegraph hand and able to read by sound.” The Guardian (London, Greater London, England), 01 Dec. 1908, Tue., page 5 [43]

A separate and interesting detail about telegraph and telautograph

“Prof. Gray’s new ‘telautograph’ will telegraph handwriting exactly as it is written. This may put a stop to bogus telegrams and much petty swindling. But how can the husband send himself a telegram calling him suddenly to New York? Will not the telautograph expose the plot to his trusting wife?” The Kingman Daily Courier (Kingman, Kansas), 28 Mar 1888, Wed., Page 4. [44]

“Handwriting by telegraph has been so perfected that in Paris a device has been tried out by the French postoffice department so successfully that banks have honored checks signed by telegraph from a considerable distance. The device also has been found useful in other tests.” Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 22 Mar 1925, Sun., Page 14. [45]

Variations on the meaning and context of the words “railway hand”:

“If some people had their way, ministers would do their work after the manner of the old railway hand.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), 16 Dec. 1923, Sun., Page 6. [46]