History Through Hollywood: 3rd Edition
The History Through Hollywood series looks at old films as inadvertent time capsules packed with the norms and customs of a bygone era. Traditions change, cultural mores shift, and technology races on; what was once commonplace might now seem totally weird. For example, when was the last time you saw a man wearing sock garters? Why does everyone have an English accent? And have you ever noticed that no one drinks wine in old films but instead opts for cocktails?
Old movies are full of history hiding in plain sight, and you can learn a lot without meaning to, and usually without even noticing. The “History Through Hollywood” series is also my attempt to explain why old movies can sometimes seem so very different from today’s films. With a little context, a “boring,” and “tame” old film can suddenly shimmer (watch for those cross-dissolves!), and something that seems utterly alien can make sense (why are so many wives going to Reno?)
But before we jump into this edition, I’m delighted to announce that “History Through Hollywood” won the Classic Movie Blog Association’s annual award for “Best Film Series” for the second year in a row! The 2016 awards were just announced and I could not be more excited! Congratulations to the other nominees and winners, and thank you to my fellow CMBA members for this honor!
You can read my other History Through Hollywood posts about love, doughnuts, train travel, vintage ads, and the ever-smoldering cigarettes here, but this entry will examine a collection of customs and technology including telegrams, full-service gas stations, public makeup, and the “time of day” service. Ever heard of a gas pump jockey? Or noticed how women whip out their compacts or lipstick at the dinner table in old movies? Read on to learn more!
- Telegrams were the original texts. Sort of.
Telegraphy, the practice of sending messages without the actual exchange of the physical thing, encompasses methods like smoke signals or messages sent by flags (semaphore). But I will just be focusing on electrical telegraphy, which goes back about two hundred years.
The first telegraph systems were developed in the early 19th century. On the most basic level, they worked by sending currents of electricity through wires to a receiver on the other end. With the help of magnets and circuits and all kinds of things that I’m not going to get into (you can learn more here) the electrical pulses moved a needle on the receiver or caused the machine to emit clicks or beeps in Morse code or another telegraph language.
Operators sent, received and decoded the messages, and then the telegrams were sent out to be delivered, or held at the telegraph office for the recipient.
By the 1850s there were commercial telegraph systems in place in many countries, including the United States. By that point, America had twenty different telegraph companies, and the country was crisscrossed by 23,000 miles of aboveground telegraph wires. Buried telegraph lines failed due to inefficient insulation so most systems utilized wires strung between poles. That made cities crowded with wires, especially as telephone and power lines went up. When the technology improved, many of the lines were buried.
After much trial and error, underseas cables were eventually installed. The world was officially circumnavigated by telegraph wire in 1902 when a line across the Pacific Ocean was finished.
That’s why there are “cablegrams” and telegrams; a cablegram or “cable” is a telegram sent via an underwater cable.
And “radiograms” are basically telegrams sent over the radio. Radiograms were mostly used for ship-to-shore communication, which is why characters on cruises receive and send radiograms, not telegrams.
Most telegraph systems were first implemented along the railways as a means of quick communication, but the systems were soon utilized for non-railroad communication, too. The speed of telegrams must have been absolutely astounding. After all, in 1857 it could take you a few weeks to a month to cross the country by train, the fastest way to go, which meant that letters posted across America could only travel that quickly, too.
But a telegram whizzed through the lines in no time at all. Suddenly, people could communicate over thousands of miles in a matter of minutes (assuming all the lines were in good shape, and that operators were standing by!) Nothing else could compete; in fact, the telegraph ended the Pony Express in 1861 when telegraph wires linking the West Coast with the East were finally installed.
Besides personal messaging, telegrams also revolutionized the news. Suddenly events could be reported and disseminated almost in real time. Ever wonder why some newspapers have the word “telegraph” in their title? It’s because when they were named they received much of their news through the telegraph lines.Most of the world, including the United States, used Morse code for their telegraph systems. Morse code is a language created by assigning a series of dots (short) or dashes (slightly longer) to each letter of the alphabet. (You can play with this Morse code translator here.)
For example, the international distress code SOS can be tapped out by three dashes (dahs), three dots (dits) and three more dashes because in Morse code S is three dashes and O is three dots. (Contrary to popular belief, SOS doesn’t actually mean anything. It was chosen as the universal distress call at a conference in 1908 after being suggested by the German delegation because it was quick and easy to transmit and didn’t signify anything already. You can read more about that here, and listen to SOS in Morse code here.)
An operator using Morse code would tap out letters that were sent along the wires as electrical impulses. The operator at the other end would decode the dots and dashes back into normal language. Good operators could send fifty words a minute and decode the Morse just by listening to the beeps or clicks.
But Morse wasn’t the only code for telegraph systems. Britain hung on to the Cooke and Wheatstone system that used multiple needles. They jumped around the face of the receiver to point at letters of the alphabet.
Soon after working telegraph systems were introduced, machines that could receive and “print” messages were invented, which meant that telegraph lines didn’t need to be constantly attended by an operator.
Instead, the operator could decode the message from a printout instead of taking down the message in real time. It was sort of an answering machine via ticker tape, I suppose. Or text messages that arrived on slips of paper instead of phones.
Once a message had been decoded and copied out by the operator, Western Union and other telegram services employed a veritable army of (mostly) teenage boys on bicycles to deliver the telegrams. Though you could also pick up your telegrams at the office.
The physical telegrams were usually yellowish note-card sized paper with text pasted on, and they arrived in little envelopes. The paper seems to have been especially crinkly and thin, judging from the noisy telegram-opening scenes in movies!
As I mentioned, telegrams were much faster than sending a letter, which explains their usefulness in the 19th and very early 20th centuries, but why did telegrams continue to flourish after telephones become common? Cost. A telegram was much cheaper than placing a long distance call even into the 1960s.
In 1919, for example, it cost about 60 cents to send a base telegram (about ten words) from New York to Chicago, but to make a phone call between the cities was $4.65. By 1950, the phone rates had fallen to $1.50, but a telegram was still cheaper at only 75 cents. (For more on why long distance calls were so expensive, visit my History Through Hollywood: Telephones.) So telegrams remained a good option, especially for important news that needed to travel fast.
But telegraph companies generally charged by the word, so it wasn’t economical to be chatty. That’s why the distinctive “telegraphese” style of super-concise messages developed. (Some claim Hemingway’s simple, short writing style is partially due to his early work as a journalist which required him to constantly distill ideas into telegraph form.)
You’ve probably heard movie characters read a telegram that consists of short, simple phrases interspersed with the word “STOP” to indicate the end of a phrase. That’s because originally Morse code didn’t include punctuation marks, so STOP was useful to signal the end of a phrase. Once Morse included punctuation, telegraph companies counted each punctuation mark as a word, making them expensive grammatical luxuries.
Plus, periods were easily overlooked by the operators furiously sending and decoding messages, so STOP was used to indicate a period or end to avoid confusion. You can see some typical telegrams here.
There were also codes, similar to the modern text language of LOL and JK, that telegram senders used to keep costs down. For instance, according to an Atlas Obscura article, the word COQUARUM translated to “engagement broken off.” Hopefully people didn’t have to send that one too often…
LOZENGE was a business code for “What shall we do with documents and bills of lading attached?” GIGGLE instructed the recipient to, “Use your discretion as to delivery of documents.”
You can read a 1928 guidebook on “How to Write Telegrams,” which includes such handy tips as removing “small words” such as “a,” “the,” and “that,” and explaining various codes:
So general has the use of code become as a measure of economy, that virtually every large industry has at least one code especially designed for it, and many individual firms have worked out their own private codes. To illustrate the theory of these codes, one may take an instance of a grain merchant making a sale of grain in the Chicago market. He sends a telegram to “sell 10,000 bushels of May wheat at $1.45 1/4” There are 14 words in the message quoted. Coded, the message might read, “Sell barney stoke,” which reduces the check of the message to three words. In this instance, “barney” means 10,000 bushels of May wheat. “Stoke” means “1.45 1/4.”
But the author cautions that the lay person will probably only confuse his recipient if he tries to get too clever, so it’s important to remember that clarity is paramount. For example, a reporter can translate “The enemy has not yet been met or even seen on account of the entanglements thrown up during the night,” into “Enemy unmet unseen account entanglements upthrown night,” but such brevity is not encouraged for the average person. The booklet is a fascinating, short read that I highly recommend!
If a normal telegram wasn’t whimsical enough for you, you could also send singing telegrams, where the telegram delivery person would sing the message. They were first introduced by Western Union in 1933 as a novelty service for birthdays and other festive greetings. But usually a singing telegram didn’t end as this one does in Clue (1985):
Western Union stopped selling singing telegrams in 1974, though some independent companies still offer the service.
The telegram peak came in 1929 when 199 million telegrams were sent in America alone. They continued as a popular system for the next few decades, though telegrams went from an exciting arrival to a dreaded one during WWII. The War Department hand delivered telegrams informing families that their loved ones had been killed in action or were missing, so the sight of a uniformed soldier or sailor delivering a telegram meant very bad news.
It’s no wonder telegrams appear so frequently in old movies– they appeared frequently in the classic movie era! Besides, showing the audience a telegram is a very quick, economical method of providing information.
But by 1960, it cost the same to telegraph or call New York from Chicago, and by 1970 a telegram was the more expensive option. Once other forms of communication were faster and cheaper, telegrams became a nostalgic reminder of the past, not a vital communication method. But Western Union kept sending telegrams until 2006, and in India telegrams remained until 2013. They’re not totally gone though. Today you can send telegrams through iTelegram, which bought that part of Western Union’s business. Though it’s not really a telegram…
You can read more about Morse code and the electrical telegraph here and here, and you can read about some of the most famous telegrams in history in The New York Times, Forbes, and the aptly named British newspaper The Telegraph. If you’d like to learn more, check out this incredible site devoted to telegraphy, or this essay on the economics of telegrams. And don’t worry! If you miss the days of telegrams, you can bring some of that telegram style to your next event!
- It was perfectly acceptable to powder your nose and freshen your lipstick in public at even the fanciest dinner tables.
And it still might be, depending on which etiquette expert or beauty magazine editorial you read. This isn’t a clear-cut issue, as it really does depend on personal taste and what you consider acceptable. But my classic movie viewing suggests that in the 1930s-1950s it was much more common for women to touch up their makeup in public than it is now.
I’m drawing mostly on my own experience for this one, which puts me on shaky ground, research-wise. But I don’t see many women pulling out their compacts and powder puffs and dabbing away at their faces as they sit at lunch.
In fact, nowadays having a beautifully monogrammed gold compact is a nostalgic touch, not a must-have luxury.
I don’t see many women carefully applying lipstick with the aid of a hand mirror in meetings or in restaurants, or whipping out a little comb to smooth their hair. But this happens all the time in old movies!
My hypothesis is that today’s style calls for a more natural look in general. Hair isn’t always “done” in careful waves or updos, bright red lipstick isn’t the norm, and overall a more “effortless” look is en vogue. After all, we don’t match our shoes to our gloves to our purses to our hats when we go to the grocery store. (Or at least I don’t! For more on classic movie fashion, visit my History Through Hollywood: Fashion.)
The reluctance to reapply our makeup in public could be because we feel more pressure to hide the effort behind our “flawless” faces. Because the more natural, effortless look doesn’t always come effortlessly. In fact, it can be more difficult to achieve the “natural” look than to appear “made up.” So it goes. Read The Beauty Myth.
So, when the style was for obviously “constructed” makeup, it was more acceptable to touch up one’s lipstick or powder in public. Because–stay with me–a woman wasn’t pretending she “woke up like this.” There was no shame in displaying the paints and powders and overall effort it took to have such perfect red lips and flawless complexion.
Of course, sometimes classic movie characters adjourn to the ladies room to do their touchups, but they still seem much less concerned about letting others in on their “secret” makeup tools than we are today. (Also, the gorgeously appointed vanities and dressing tables you’ll see in nearly every bathroom and bedroom in old movies have mostly faded away, but I miss them and I’m determined to have one! But that’s for other post…)
But if you’re going for the natural look (and not everyone does, of course!), you might be a little more hesitant to expose the effort. A quick swipe of your lip sheer or hurried touchups in the bathroom out of sight are more in line with the long con of “effortless, natural” beauty.
Ads, tutorials, and magazines trumpet this dichotomy: wear this makeup primer, foundation, concealer, mascara, and lipstick, and use this eyelash curler, eyebrow pencil, and contouring kit, and you will look so “naturally” beautiful that it will appear as though you are wearing nothing at all!
And you can see it reflected in the advice columns and editorials that pop up every so often debating public makeup. Real Simple and New York Magazine are a little uncomfortable with fixing one’s face in public, but in the end they say go for it. As the New York Magazine essay asks, “Is the act of applying makeup really so gross? Is it impolite to destroy the fantasy that all women wake up with dark black lashes, rosy-cheeked complexions, no red veins around our noses, and perfectly arched brows?”
But not everyone agrees. In Good Housekeeping, Peggy Post says it’s far too personal to apply makeup in public, Slate and The Gloss aren’t really fans, and this guy likes to take potentially humiliating pictures of women doing their makeup in public spaces.
The Telegraph begs women to stop applying makeup in public, asking “Why bother with the whole charade if you’re going to let the outside world into every step of the process? What’s the point of erecting a formal facade (to most women, make-up isn’t so much about beauty as respectability and professionalism) if you’re publicly admitting the fraudulence of it all?” Such “deceit” is better undertaken in private.
There does seem to be a difference in dabbing on some powder in public vs plucking one’s eyebrows or applying anything goopy like foundation. Women in classic movies don’t do the latter two onscreen, either.
But the message comes across: No one wants to see the messy work under the surface, just show us the glossy perfection! Or so it seems. All the “Stars Without Their Makeup” features and fuss over Alicia Keys’ decision to stop wearing makeup seems to suggest we’re not really okay with “natural” but still don’t want to see the process. Rachel Bloom says it much better than I can:
Do you agree that it was more acceptable to powder your nose or refresh your lipstick in public in decades past? Do you see women pulling out compacts or combs in fancy places? What do you think about public makeup?
- When you needed to know what time it was, you called your friendly Time of Day Service!
In September 2007, AT&T discontinued its “Time of Day” service in California, bringing an end to a longstanding tradition that most of my younger readers have never heard of, much less used. I certainly never did.
In fact, my experience with the time of day service comes purely through old movies, notably Bringing Up Baby (1938), when Katharine Hepburn impersonates the female operator announcing the time. She tries to interrupt Cary Grant‘s phone call by dropping in with “When you hear the tone, the time will be 7:40 and one half” followed by a crisp bell. You can watch it here, starting at the one minute mark:
At&T ended the “time of day” in California (one of the last holdouts along with Nevada and Connecticut) because the equipment was failing, and there was no reason to replace it because the service was no longer useful. When you need to know the exact time to reset your watch or appliances, you can just check your computer, or cell phone, or DVR box, or time.gov, or any number of wired devices with clocks built in. So why would you call to hear a recording deliver the time?
But imagine how helpful that option would have been pre-cell phone, internet, and DVR box? That’s why phone companies began offering “time of day” services in the 1920s. Back then, live operators intoned the time based on clocks in their call centers.
And so the time of day service, sometimes called “speaking clocks” in other countries (the term didn’t catch on in the US), became a common part of life.
In the 1930s, a company called Audichron developed technology that could deliver the time automatically using a pre-recorded voice. That soon became the norm nationwide, and many companies used Audichron’s recordings, which resulted in people all over the country hearing the same operator intoning the time.
In the 1950s, an operator named Mary Moore loaned her voice to the Audichron system and could be heard almost anywhere in the U.S. She had a “prissy” voice and pronounced five as “fiyev” and nine as “niyun.” This was because five and nine can sound similar, especially on a bad connection, so they needed to be pronounced differently for clarity.
After Moore came Jane Barbe, the “Time Lady,” who was hired as the new Audichron voice in the 1960s. She had a previous career as a big band singer, but she would become famous worldwide for her recorded announcements for Audichron, other phone companies, hotels, and even elevators! She could be heard delivering the time of day service, weather announcements, dialing error messages, and voicemail recordings, as well as a slew of other messages. Barbe recorded for companies overseas, too, and it is estimated that her voice was heard by 300 million people a week in 2000!
Although most phone companies don’t offer speaking clocks anymore, you can still find time of day services if you need one. For instance, you can call a phone number maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to get an accurate time reading. As a bonus, Barbe’s voice is the one you will hear!
The U.S. Naval Observatory offers numbers in D.C. and in Colorado that feature actor Fred Covington (Norma Rae (1979), Roots (1977)) delivering the time. Some smaller carriers still offer the service, so check your area to see if a speaking clock is still in operation where you live. You can read this LA Times article or this one in The Atlantic to learn more.
- When you stopped for gas, you didn’t have to get out of your car.
That’s because the original gas stations were “full service.” They employed “gas pump jockeys” who would fill up your tank, check your oil, clean your windshield, and perform other little maintenance checks. In fact, the self-service stations that most of us are familiar with are relatively new.
The very first gas stations were hardware or general stores, blacksmith shops, and any other place that could store and dispense gas. These shops began offering gasoline to motorists as cars slowly began appearing on the roads. In this era before standardized gas stations, each shop’s setup might be different, so it made sense for the employees to dispense the gas rather than the customers. Plus, this was a time of hand-cranked engines, so an attendant was especially helpful. They could wind up your engine and send you on your way.
Thus, blacksmiths and general store clerks were the first gas pump jockeys. But purpose built “filling stations” started popping up in the first decade of the 20th century as cars became more common in the US. And soon they were ubiquitous, as were the mostly young men who worked as attendants at the stations.
Gas pump jockeys remained common for decades, though self-service stations started appearing in the late 1940s. It wasn’t until the gas shortages of the 1970s that things really changed. Obviously you are going to pay more at a full-service station than a self-service one, so people began looking for the self-service option to save money. And many full-service stations couldn’t afford to pay their attendants, so they closed or switched to self-service.
Nowadays, the majority of us pump our own gas, so I remember being confused when I heard about a character “hustling a gas pump” in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). I didn’t know what Lauren Bacall was talking about when she lamented her inconvenient attraction to “gas pump jockeys.”
Early in the movie, Bacall tells her friend, Betty Grable, that she met a man she is certain is a gas pump jockey. Grable asks, “But he was cute, don’t you think?” Bacall answers, “Sure he was. But then I never met one of those gas pump jockeys that wasn’t…I know those guys. I married one once.” I had no idea what they were talking about. But if most gas pump jockeys looked like Joel McCrea, I’d be in trouble, too…
There aren’t a lot of gas pump jockeys in old movies–then, as now, there aren’t really that many gas station scenes. (And not every movie with gas stations stars Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea…Chance at Heaven and Primrose Path just happened to be the two movies I’ve written about with gas pump jockeys!) But the gas station scenes that do exist give a glimpse of a very common custom that has mostly disappeared.
But it’s not totally gone. Today, self-service stations are banned in New Jersey and Oregon, thanks to safety concerns and successful lobbying about jobs, so attendants will still pump your gas for you. And full service stations remain the norm in several other countries, including Brazil, Egypt, and South Africa. So if you’re hankering for that old-fashioned service, head thataway.
That’s it for now! You can find all of the History Through Hollywood posts here, including meditations on Fashion, Telephones, Vice, Accents, Love, Advertisements, and even Esther Williams and the Olympics.