One of America’s most famous songwriters. His disinherited flapper heiress fianceé. Her silver miner grandpa who hit the the mother lode. Their stories are all united with a simple pencil.
It’s the height of the Great Depression, jobs are scarce and money is tight. You’re heading down to “The Postal” with a quarter clenched in your fist, ready to send a life-changing note to your wife-to-be, parents, or boss. But first, you need to grab this unassuming purple pencil with “Postal Telegraph” written in a lightning bolt font up the side, and jot down your dire communique in 10 words or less, not including punctuation. STOP.
Postal Telegraph, which the New York Times once called “the only successful rival which the Western Union has ever found,” went out of business in 1943, but this 1930’s PT pencil has survived to remind us of a time when everyone from paupers to presidents marched down to “The Postal” to send their era’s version of a text message.
Walt Disney did. So did pencil enthusiast John Steinbeck (in a long missive to President Franklin Roosevelt) and a pre-presidential JFK did too. Bob Hope, Babe Ruth, you name ‘em, they sent or received Postal Telegrams. And in an earlier era, so did a Wright Brother, and radio pioneer Marconi had a back and forth with Alexander Graham Bell. Yes, THAT Alexander Graham Bell.
And it would not have been possible without an army of these purple pencils, waiting at the ready at the coast-to-coast offices of the Postal Telegraph, a company that had sprung to life when Irish-born John Mackay hit a bonanza of silver in Nevada’s Comstock Lode in the 1860s and decided to start a cable and telegraph company.
By 1893, PT had hoarded so much coin that Mackay built a newfangled 14 story “skyscraper,” in downtown Manhattan that still stands to this day. Landmarked in 1991 [pdf], New York’s Postal Telegraph building sits across the street from City Hall and what was once “newspaper row.” So you can just imagine how many politicos and jittery reporters stomped into the ground floor office of the building to pencil in telegram blanks that sent huge scoops and other world-moving news across the city, state and country.
As early as 1892, female Postal Telegraph operators were recognized as being on the forefront of a movement for greater careers for women. Eventually, college-aged girls could be PT messengers too, but barred from using bikes like the boys, they ended up walking upwards of 12 miles a day, often bearing the heart-rending strain of delivering terrible news, usually the death or illness of a loved one pencilled in by a bereaved relative far away.
By the time John Mackay passed away in 1902, his son Clarence was running the company. Just a year later, Clarence’s lovely daughter Ellin would be born. But she was destined to become a thoroughly modern woman. Around the time this Postal Telegraph pencil began to be mass-produced, 21-year-old Ellin, a respected writer and future novelist, and 36-year-old superstar jazz age songwriter Irving Berlin fell in love. Her daddy Clarence vehemently opposed the relationship because their family was staunchly Roman Catholic, while Berlin was Russian and Jewish. A couple days after New Year’s 1926, Ellin Mackay and Irving Berlin snuck off to the New York City Clerk’s office, literally 700 feet from her dad’s Postal Telegraph Building, and secretly got married, which amounts to a pretty colossal middle finger to dear old dad.
All the papers (also about 700 feet away) carried screaming headlines the next day, and dear old dad disinherited Ellin and wouldn’t even let her visit home for five years. Irving would write her many a love song, including the classic “Always” that he gave her for a wedding present (and we hope he used a Postal Telegraph pencil to compose it). Ellin and Irving were ultimately married for 62 years, until her death when she was 85. Irving died a year later at age 101!
And who knows just how many singing telegrams, a format Postal Telegraph invented in 1933, featuring one of Berlin’s love songs for Ellin were ordered with one of these purple PT pencils before the last one was delivered in person in 1942? Only the pencil knows.
The Postal Telegraph company would finally be eaten whole by its more famous rival, Western Union, in 1943, the 540th company forcibly acquired by telegraphy giant. In a perfect karmic twist, Western Union spent the rest of WWII using up Postal Telegraph blanks, uniforms, and yes, pencils like this one.
Neither company sends telegrams anymore, but once upon a time a purple Postal Telegraph pencil like this bore witness to the most important moments of American lives, great and ordinary. -Jessica Letkemann