A Brief History of Western Union

With a name like western union, it’s hard not to think of the iconic image of uniformed messengers whisking telegrams to loved ones across thousands of miles. But the storied company’s roots go back much further, and its role in modern life is more important than ever.

The company’s earliest days were marked by many milestones and technological innovations. The first consumer charge card was introduced in 1914, and teletypewriters—the precursor to modern facsimile machines—followed soon after. Then, in 1935, Western Union began a service that allowed customers to send and receive photos over its wires.

By the end of the 19th century, however, telegraph use began to decline as the telephone gained popularity. Message output from the telegraph industry fell sharply, and Western Union grew increasingly concerned that it would lose its position as the nation’s most dominant telecommunications company.

In 1857, the company consolidated its lines with other large telegraph firms in the “Treaty of Six Nations.” Over the next few years, it continued to absorb smaller competitors and transform itself into a national monopoly.

While Western Union’s monopoly over the telecommunications industry lasted only a few more decades, it still had a strong presence in international markets. By 1992, the company was sending money in nearly 300 countries. That year, Western Union launched its Dinero en Minutos service in Mexico, an instant cash-transfer program through Elektra—a leading Mexican retailer. The service was a big hit, and Western Union quickly expanded its operations in Africa and South America as well.

Western Union continued to diversify its business as the 21st century rolled on, but its sprawling operations began to take a toll on profitability. In 1991, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. During the reorganization process, the company divested its telecommunications businesses and refocused its strategic efforts on money transfers.

While millions of people trust western union to send their money, the service has also been a favorite target for scammers. In a typical scam, a person will ask you to wire them money for an unauthorized purchase or some other illegitimate purpose, and it’s important to verify that the request is legitimate before wiring any money. For this reason, it’s always best to use a service that specializes in online shopping, such as PayPal.

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