Barack Obama tweets. So do Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga and 200 million other people. To tweet is, of course, to write a message on Twitter, an online service that sends out very short dispatches—no more than 140 characters long.
Will Rogers died more than 70 years before Twitter was invented, but he created something similar. Every day for nearly a decade, he sent out a brief telegram—generally just a few sentences long—that was published in more than 600 newspapers, usually under the headline “Will Rogers Says.” Rogers’ daily telegrams were the tweets of his time.
When he started writing the telegrams, Rogers was already a multimedia sensation, beloved as a warm and funny American everyman. Part Cherokee, he was born in Oklahoma in 1879 and broke into showbiz in 1902, doing lasso tricks in a Wild West show. Within a few years, he was a vaudeville star, telling jokes about the news of the day between his rope tricks. In 1918, he began starring in movies; four years later, he started writing a syndicated weekly newspaper column. Then, in the spring of 1926, on his way to Europe, Rogers stopped off in New York and chatted with Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times. “If you run across anything worthwhile, cable it to us,” Ochs told him. “We’ll pay the tolls.”
In London, Rogers met Lady Astor, the Virginia-born wife of a British viscount and the first female member of Parliament. She was funny and she was headed for New York, so on July 29, Rogers sent Ochs a telegram: “Nancy Astor, which is the nom de plume of Lady Astor, is arriving on your side about now. She is the best friend America has here. Please ask my friend [Mayor] Jimmy Walker to have New York take good care of her. She is the only one over here that don’t throw rocks at American tourists.”
It wasn’t particularly profound but it came from Will Rogers, so Ochs published it. Amused, Rogers sent more telegrams. By the end of August, he was sending one every day. At first his telegrams appeared only in the Times, but by the fall of 1926, 92 other newspapers began running them. Within a few years, the daily telegrams—sent from wherever the peripatetic Rogers traveled—appeared in more than 600 papers. He wrote one every day until August 15, 1935, when he died in a plane crash in Alaska.
Like tweets, Rogers’ telegrams were short, informal, chatty, sometimes funny, sometimes wise, frequently trivial, occasionally foolish. On the pages that follow is a small selection of Will Rogers’ 2,817 daily telegrams. They’re all at least 75 years old, but some seem as contemporary and relevant as anything anybody tweeted yesterday.
LONDON, Aug. 2, 1926—A bunch of American tourists were hissed and stoned yesterday in France but not until they had finished buying.
LONDON, Aug. 5, 1926—Don’t put too much faith in rumors that the peasants of the Middle West will defeat [President Calvin] Coolidge. They change with the wheat crops, and he has two to go.
LONDON, Aug. 30, 1926—Parliament met today. One member was thrown out. It seemed like Washington.
ROANOKE, Va., Jan. 31, 1927— Am down in Old Virginia, the mother of Presidents when we thought Presidents had to be aristocrats. Since we got wise to the limitations of aristocrats, Virginia has featured their ham over their Presidential timber.
PINEHURST, N.C., Feb. 16, 1927— Two of my congressional friends had a fight in Congress yesterday—Sol Bloom of New York and [Thomas] Blanton of Texas. That’s three fights there in three days, and nobody has been hit yet. What this country needs is legislators that can both knock each other out for good.
HARTFORD, Conn., May 19, 1927— We are still trying to make China see things our way, even if their eyes are not shaped like ours.
Charles Lindbergh Makes Solo Nonstop Flight Across Atlantic
NEW YORK, N.Y., May 22, 1927— Of all the things that Lindbergh’s great feat demonstrated, the greatest was to show us that a person could still get the entire front page without murdering anybody.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif., June 1927 (Rogers recovering from gallstone surgery) —“Relax—lay perfectly still, just relax.”
President Calvin Coolidge Poses in Cowboy Chaps
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 7, 1927—Calvin sho’ does look good in those cowboy clothes. I never liked him in that yachting cap. And that old Mother Hubbard apron that they had him pitching hay in, for the pictures up in Vermont that time, was terrible. But those chaps will sure bring out the dude rancher vote.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Sept. 26, 1927—[Missouri Sen.] Jim Reed says Prohibition will not be the issue with the Democrats and, as usual, Jim is right. How are you going to make an issue of it? The drys want it in the Constitution and it’s in there. The wets want a drink and they get it. So what’s all the argument about? Investors Lose $5 Billion in Stock Market Crash
NEW YORK, N.Y., Oct. 25, 1929— What does it mean? Nothing. Why an old sow and a litter of pigs make more people a living than all the steel and General Motors stock combined. Why the whole 120,000,000 of us are more dependent on the cackling of a hen than if the stock market was turned into a nightclub.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Dec. 25, 1929—Passed the Potter’s Field yesterday and they was burying two staunch old Republicans, both of whom died of starvation, and the man in charge told me their last words were, “I still think America is fundamentally sound.”
TOLEDO, Ohio, Jan. 9, 1930— Just passed through Chicago. It’s not a boast, it’s an achievement. The snow was so deep today the crooks could only hit a tall man. To try and diminish crime, they laid off six hundred cops. Chicago has no tax money. All their influential men are engaged in tax exempt occupations. What they got to do is tax murder. Put such a stiff tax on it that only the higher class gangsters can afford it. It’s the riff raff that makes any business disreputable.”
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., May 5, 1930—They got Gandhi in jail in India. He preached “Liberty without Violence.” He swore all his followers “to truth and constant poverty.” He wanted nothing for himself, not even the ordinary comforts. He believed in “prayer and renunciation.” Well, naturally a man that holy couldn’t run at large these days. They figured that a crazy man like that was liable to get other people to wanting those fanatical things. The whole thing just gives you a pretty fair idea of what would happen to our Savior if He would come on earth today.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif., Feb. 22, 1931— Here is what George Washington missed by not living to his 199th birthday. He would have seen our great political system of “equal rights to all and privileges to none” working so smoothly that 7,000,000 are without a chance to earn their living. He would see ’em handing out rations in peacetime that would have reminded him of Valley Forge. We all get fat in war times and thin during peace. I bet after seeing us he would sue us for calling him “Father.”
Nation Celebrates Inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
SANTA MONICA, Calif., March 5, 1933—America hasn’t been as happy in three years as they are today. No money, no banks, no work, no nothing, but they know they got a man in there who is wise to Congress, wise to our big bankers and wise to our so-called big men. The whole country is with him. Even if what he does is wrong they are with him. Just so as he does something. If he burned down the Capitol, we would cheer and say, “Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.”
YUMA, Ariz., Sept. 29, 1931— Republicans’ theory is that if you tax big incomes too much you will discourage a man from making so much for himself. Didn’t discourage him during the war when income tax ran as high as 70 per cent. Some of the biggest fortunes were made at that rate of income tax. Any guy that’s been lucky enough to have a bucket of water during this two-year drought shouldn’t kick on handing out a drink.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Sept. 22, 1933—The President just created the F.E.R.A. (Federal Emergency Relief Association) and the A.A.A. (Agricultural Adjustment Administration) and the P.W.A. (Public Works Administration). The F.E.R.A. and the A.A.A. and the P.W.A. are to work in conjunction with the N.R.A. with the financial help of the R.F.C., who will pay the C.O.Ds of the C.C.C. (Citizens Conservation Camps) and take in return for all money loaned out to all these initials, I.O.U.s. Never was a country in the throes of more capital letters than the old U.S.A. But we still haven’t sent out the S.O.S.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.