Suppose you received a telegram with the single word “Kalmia.” What would you make of it?

Well, a species of Kalmia is the Pennsylvania state flower. That might be a clue. But it also might not be.

If, however, you were a properly trained sales representative of Steinwender, Stoffregen & Co., coffee traders in New York, then you would know that your employers had given a full answer to your inquiry about terms. “Kalmia,” to you, would mean “Cash as removed, full settlement within 30 days; basis 60 days notes, less discount at the rate of 8% per annum for the unexpired time. Bill to date when coffee is all in store. Buyers to have benefit of unexpired storage and fire insurance, and same time to weigh as wanted.”

This is a saving of at least 51 words, which is pretty near a record. But it illustrates the principle very well. Telegrams were charged by the word; multum in parvo was the obvious and sensible rule to be followed in sending them. Code books that made it possible to reduce whole sentences to a single word were almost an economic necessity.

Retailers in the new mail-order businesses were quick to seize on the idea. Would you like an Estey parlor organ, style B 70 case, four sets of reeds, manual sub-bass, octave couplers, Harp Æolienne stop? Cable “Fervid” to the Estey Organ Company, and you will get exactly the instrument you require.

In fact a whole profession sprang up to provide these codes to interested parties. You could buy a “universal” code book, but then of course anyone else with the same book could intercept and interpret your messages. For the good of the firm, would it not be better to have a specially ordered code book, kept as secret as practical?

Advertisement for the American Code Company

Some of these code books are remarkably comprehensive, running up to 1800 pages. Consider just a few code words taken from various telegraph code books:

Capitulate — Might save greater portion of cargo if steamers and lighters sent soon.

Conception — Send sufficient details to enable us here to form an intelligent opinion about the matter.

Distracted — We have sold 900 cases Medallion Brand hams at price named in your last quotation.

Guileless — Has (have) been declared guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.

Mudbreast — Decline to vote. Consider it a subject for discussion at meeting of the committee.

Ogress — We cannot ship barley by this steamer; can ship by next steamer; cable if we shall ship.

Outjesting — The revolution has been crushed.

Sanctitude — Telegram unintelligible; repeat same, by wire, without regard to any code.

Underway — It is evident that you do not understand.

As you might have guessed already, this whole article serves to introduce a new page in our Eclectic Library. We now have a collection of Telegraph Codes for your amusement and edification. Historical novelists will find this page an invaluable resource. Serious historians will find more information about commercial conditions than could be discovered in any number of carefully researched academic treatises. The rest of us will find a few minutes’ amusement, and that is all the profit we need to justify this little collection.


  1. The Shadow says:

    Wait… “Guileless” was an actual code? I thought for sure that Dr. Boli was pulling our collective leg. How often would one need to send that message?

    A very famous, if apocryphal, code was that of Charles Napier sending a telegram “Peccavi” to be punfully read as “I have Sind.”

  2. vonhindenburg says:

    For decades, there was a back and forth battle over telegraph rules and pricing schemes.
    On the one side were commercial telegraph users who used ever more complicated codes, both to hide the intent of their messages and to reduce cost. On the other were the telegraph companies who were losing money to these highly-condensed messages and (as code words morphed into strings of nonsense characters) whose human operators were having increasing difficulty in parsing the messages.

    A third concerned party were governments and government-owned telegraph services who wanted to prevent wire fraud, or just read the mail.

    Some telegraph companies required all words and sentences to be clearly legible, while others went so far as to produce books of acceptable words that their service would transmit.

    I’d highly recommend the book “The Victorian Internet” for a fairly quick and very engaging read on the subject.

  3. Belfry Bat says:

    Such a delightful anticipation of Shannon Relative Entropy!

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