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This is a story of technological change in America through the eyes of Jewish weddings, particularly my own.
Peculiar? You’d rather try to read yet another tedious explanation of what 5G is, or how algorithms make it possible for you to get your own unwanted personal Google ads for disposable underpants?
So, let’s go.
In mid-June 1966, a few days after my wife Joy and I got married, my new father-in-law received a letter from Abe Marco of “Marco’s Quality Liquor.”
“I pulled a terrible boner,” Abe began.
“I intended to buy a gift, but due to circumstances, I just didn’t get around to it, so I am enclosing a little check for the children. I am sure they can use to your advantage. Auntie Anne and I wish you and your children every happiness.”
Actually, Abe pulled an even bigger boner than he thought. He butchered the spelling of my in-laws’ last name.
Most of all, anyone who really wanted to connect with the family would never write a letter like that. They would have sent a telegram.
A wedding telegram, now that was the technological and emotional state of the art.
I found Marco’s letter among a small stash of our old wedding telegrams. Back then, wedding telegrams were as much a part of Milwaukee Jewish weddings as kosher chicken, kishke and a four-piece combo.
In fact, beginning even before the Civil War telegrams became a central part of everyone’s life, both for happy occasions and for the most dreaded occasion of all, announcing the death of a loved one in World War II: “The Secretary of War regrets to inform you …”
Today Western Union is still around, but telegrams are gone.
Before I came across the stash, I remembered wedding telegrams this way: Some chubby emcee relative, tie askew, at the mic reading from a fistful of telegrams:
Congratulations. Uncle Sol’s gall bladder was not infected, thank God. But the surgeon thought flying from Florida with all that bumping and squeezing would be too much. Give Auntie Gert a kiss for us. Is she losing any weight? Aunt Yetta and Uncle Sol.
Turns out that they were not at all as I had remembered. They were short and formulaic first, because you paid by the word:
“Congratulations and best wishes for long life health happiness and prosperity.”
“Congratulations and best wishes on this happy day. Sorry we can’t be with you.”
“May your road through life be filled with happiness and joy.”
These telegrams were not flowery, more like clichés, mediocre Hallmark cards. No matter. The words were not important. The gesture was.
Telegrams were part of a crucial ritual — a way of demonstrating your connection to the life fulfilling event that you had to miss. A telegram redefined your absence from “unexcused” to “excused.”
And considering the communication technology of the times. There really was no other way.
How else would you communicate on this big day? Letters might arrive too early or too late. Marco’s was at least a day late, so no one had a chance to hear it. I doubt he cared.
And calling long distance? Don’t even think about it.
Long distance calling was out of the picture. That was not for special occasions. It was only for dire occasions.
Telegrams were part of a crucial ritual — a way of demonstrating your connection to the life fulfilling event that you had to miss.
It wasn’t just that long distance phone calls cost an arm and a leg. They were simply outside of people’s 1960s imaginary. Think of someone at the start of World War II trying to conceive of TV. That’s what long distance was like.
In college I lived about 70 miles from my parents. I never called home. Also, I never called my girlfriend (now wife) when she was going to school in a different city.
It’s not that I was such a schmuck. Long distance calling was like an exotic power tool your dad bought on impulse at Sears Roebuck. In theory it was usable but in practice too tricky.
There was no direct dialing. God, this seems ancient, but you had to rotary dial an operator who actually made the call for you. You had to pay extra if you wanted to talk to a specific person.
Asking a person my age if she knows the difference between person-to-person and station-to-station long distance calls is like asking her if she ever heard of Milton Berle or Howdy Doody.
Fast forward 50 years, the telegram is gone, long distance calling across the globe is easier and faster than rotary dialing my buddy across the street in 1960s Milwaukee.
And with texting and Face Time, it’s just like you were at the wedding even though you and the space where your gall bladder used to be are on the mend in your condo in Fort Lauderdale.
Except it’s not the same. It’s too easy. Weddings have become too smooth, too much production, too little amateur hour.
There was something endearing and essential about the emcee on stage reading those telegrams.
More, it was a ritual. There was a formula: first a couple of jokes, then read a telegram, maybe a sometimes cheesy, sometimes sentimental emcee comment about the sender. People expected it, even looked forward to it. And both the senders and receivers knew. They knew.
The telegram was a visceral, tactile part of a rite of passage. Have today’s communication tools replaced the ritual or made it obsolete?
Don’t ask me, not from a guy who watched Howdy Doody, Mister Bluster and Buffalo Bob almost every day after school.
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