We often think of spam as a product of the Internet age, a modern phenomenon that evolved alongside email. But it turns out that the large-scale dissemination of unwanted advertisements and promotional messages is much older than email. In fact, spamming seems to have originated in the 19th century with the invention of the telegraph machine.

The telegraph revolutionized advertising, allowing businesses to send out their ads in huge quantities for the first time. But the would-be spammers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t always understand the complicated new invention. Which is why, in 1928, Nelson E. Ross published How To Write Telegrams Properly, a booklet outlining proper telegram style, and explaining how to send thousands of telegrams with the same message at once.

The handbook reads:

If you wish to send the same telegram to 20 different persons, or 200, or 2000, it is not necessary to prepare 20, 200 or 2000 separate telegrams at considerable cost of time and money. You need only to make one copy of your message and furnish a list of addresses. At no additional expense, the telegraph company will prepare the messages for separate handling, with as much speed and accuracy as, if only a single message were filed. Such "books" of telegrams, as they are called, often are sent by business concerns in offering some special proposition to customers, or in the collections of accounts. The largest number of copies ever filed at one time by a single concern is said to have been more than 200,000 telegrams. They were sent from New York City. Such an avalanche of messages would put considerable strain upon the facilities of the world's metropolis, but fortunately several hours notice had been given and operators were held for emergency duty.

Though Ross’s handbook was published in 1928, The Economist reports that the first known instance of telegram spam actually dates back to 1864 when a group of British politicians received late-night telegrams advertising a local dental practice run by "Messrs Gabriel." One politician was so outraged by the act that he sent a complaint to a local newspaper: “I have never had any dealings with Messrs Gabriel,” he wrote. “And beg to know by what right do they disturb me by a telegram which is simply the medium of advertisement?”

Check out the full text of Ross’s handbook here for more telegram tips and further insights into the communication technologies of the early 20th century.

[h/t Boing Boing]