Library Fun Finds 1.14.22

by Lauren VanDenBerg on

Library News

Welcome to Library Fun Finds! An ongoing series where we share some of the fun and unique items we come across in the library and archives collections.

Did you ever have secret codes as a kid? A word, or maybe a whole language, to use with friends? Or maybe to code the telegrams you were sending from aboard an ocean liner while travelling?

In the early 1900s shipping lines distributed these cipher code books to passengers who may wish to send telegrams while on board. These code words were used to shorten the overall length of a telegram, making it less expensive for the sender and less time-consuming for the telegraph operator to send. Many steamer lines had a set limit for the maximum number of words a telegram sent from a ship could contain, making cipher codes extra important.

From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, Cover.
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, Cover
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

This is one example of a code book from 1911. You may recognize the name White Star Line of Titanic fame. This code book would work for passengers sailing on ships belonging to the six companies listed on the cover. Other companies issued their own cipher codes and codebooks, meaning you can only decode these old telegrams with the correct codebook.

From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 1
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 1
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

So far, I have been lucky, all the coded telegrams (they are not uncommon from expeditions) have been decoded. Funny enough, none used the only code book I have found in the Central Archives, so I haven’t had the chance to decode a message with it. But I can send coded messages to friends and coworkers alike.

From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 2-3
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 2-3
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 4-5
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 4-5
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 6-7
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 6-7
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 8-9
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 8-9
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 10-11
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 10-11
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 12-13
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 12-13
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 14-15
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 14-15
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 16
From Central Archives: 1911 International Mercantile Marine Company Travelers Cipher Code book, p. 16
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

There is even a page to make your own codes, just make sure the recipient has the key.

This entry was written by Lauren VanDenBerg, Shelby White & Leon Levy Project Archivist.