Cable Code: Technological Shorthand from Another Era

Special Collections in many ways is a history of written technology. Browsing our collections is a tour through communication innovations– from vellum manuscripts to the invention of the printing press to the beginning of machine-press paper and the start of memos and digital files. Many of the things we often think of as unique byproducts of a particular type of technology can find echoes in other formats, if you look hard enough.

Take, for example, the current love of acronyms. In order to save characters and type messages faster, we often abbreviate phrases into a series of letters: ICYMI, IMHO, TTYL. While this ever-evolving lexicon may seem tied to the arrival of the cell phone, another older communication technology also privileged being as brief as possible. Enter the telegraph.

Telegrams were constructed to be as concise as possible. Reading samples of telegrams in our collections always highlights the writer’s ability to be as brief and to the point as possible. But beyond leaving out unneeded adjectives, some places would take the effort to be concise to an entirely different level. The telegraphic code book of Stoddard, Lovering & Company is a prime example of this.

Handwritten ledger page with words and phrases, each followed by a 4 digit code
A page from the telegraphic code book of Stoddard, Lovering & Company, .MS2015-010, John J. Burns Library

Stoddard & Lovering was a Boston-based textiles firm that specialized in importing ribbons, laces, fabrics, and gloves amongst many others. In order to have buyers communicate, concise and fast telegrams were essential. Burns Library holds an 1889 cable code volume belonging to that firm. In this volume, Stoddard & Lovering took all the key phrases needed to operate their business and assigned them numbers.

Want to alert headquarters that “Our competitors are quoting lower prices (values)?” Just send a telegram that says “7018”. Add on “Shall or may we quote lower than our competitors?” by sending “7020”.

Handwritten ledger with half-written sentences and associated 4 digit codes
Common phrases become a quick 4 digit number. Telegraphic code book of Stoddard, Lovering & Company, .MS2015-010, John J. Burns Library

Routine phrases were assigned codes:

  • “Think best plan be to” becomes 8101
  • “Busy at shop and cannot well promise shipment in less than …. Days, but will try to meet you” is conveyed by just “8577”
  • “Order has been placed for shipment” is a simple 9846

What words and phrases Stoddard & Lovering chose to shorten reveals a great deal about their business. There are five pages listing specific cotton mills, with a different code for each mill. Machinists, Wool, and Worsted & Cotten spinners all get the same treatment.

Two pages of handwritten ledger, filled with the names of cotton mills and associated 4 digit codes
The importance of cotton mills is shown by the sheer number listed out with individual codes. Telegraphic code book of Stoddard, Lovering & Company, .MS2015-010, John J. Burns Library

To the imaginative mind, you can read a lot of drama into the other phrases they’ve chosen for shorthands. The page on “Standing of Firms” has codes for “supposed to do business beyond their means” (8667), “Rumours current of the suspension of ….” (8673), and “There is no truth to the rumors of suspension of ….” (8675) while the page on “Shipments (Insurance)” shows a lot of the danger and uncertainty tied up in the transportation of goods.

In another 130 years, there’ll be much to say about what phrases we chose to develop shorthands for and what that says for us. In the meantime though, we can learn a lot about the telegraph, and the commerce and trade world, just by looking at the language of this code book.

–Kathleen Monahan, Reference, Instruction & Digital Services Librarian, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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