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Fascinating portraits of teen bicycle messengers of the early 1900s

Neil Patrick

During the bicycle boom of the 1890s in the United States, Western Union employed a number of bicycle telegraph boys in New York City, San Francisco, and other large population centres.

Telegraph boys were uniformed young men between 10 and 18 years of age who carried telegrams through urban streets.

In most areas they used bicycles; in some dense areas they went on foot. Unlike the men in the telegraph office who worked indoors on fixed wages under close supervision, enjoyed union benefits, and managed the electrical transfer of information, telegraph boys worked outdoors under no supervision on piece wages, saw no union benefits, and managed the physical aspect of the industry in the form of handwritten or printed paper messages.

All photos by Library of Congress 

A typical Birmingham messenger

A typical Birmingham messenger

 

A typical messenger boy in New Orleans. The telegraph companies are trying to obey the law, and few violations occur.

A typical messenger boy in New Orleans. The telegraph companies are trying to obey the law, and few violations occur.

 

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with WU for six months, one month delivering for a drug store.

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with WU for six months, one month delivering for a drug store.

 

Fifteen year old delivery boy for Linders Drug Store.... He works from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M.

Fifteen year old delivery boy for Linders Drug Store…. He works from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M.

 

Fourteen year old messenger #2 Western Union, Shreveport. Says he goes to the Red Light district all the time.

Fourteen year old messenger #2 Western Union, Shreveport. Says he goes to the Red Light district all the time.

 

George Christopher, Postal Tel. #7, 14 years old. Been at it over 3 years. Does not work nights.

George Christopher, Postal Tel. #7, 14 years old. Been at it over 3 years. Does not work nights.

 

Happy but thoughtless. The messenger service is poor training for him. (Works for Dime Messenger Service).

Happy but thoughtless. The messenger service is poor training for him. (Works for Dime Messenger Service).

 

Howard Williams, thirteen year old delivery boy for Shreveport, La. Drug Company.

Howard Williams, thirteen year old delivery boy for Shreveport, La. Drug Company.

 

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers.

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers.

Boys reported for work in the morning clad in their uniforms and awaited their assignments, receiving payment by the mile. Though some chose to travel by foot, bicycles were required for distant destinations. John Dickinson of Dallas, Texas accumulated more than 16,000 miles between April and September 1916. Western Union bought 5,000 bicycles a year and resold them to their telegraph boys nationwide at a discount. A local fleet might number from one to three dozen or more.Companies were responsible for providing uniform laundries, locker rooms, assembly halls, and classrooms.

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message.

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message.

 

Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. He has been messenger for different companies for four years.

Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. He has been messenger for different companies for four years.

 

Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. Says he has been messenger for different companies for four years

Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. Says he has been messenger for different companies for four years

 

Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands

Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands

 

Postal Telegraph messenger.

Postal Telegraph messenger.

 

Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. Said he was fourteen years old. Works until after one A.M. every night.

Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. Said he was fourteen years old. Works until after one A.M. every night.

 

The life could be dangerous. Boys were expected to “scorch” their bicycles in urban traffic. Strikes occurred with messenger boys cycling en masse to keep scabs from being hired. Boys attended continuation schools on a four-hours-per-week schedule rather than the 36-hour schedule of public schools.

During slack times, the telegraph office hid the boys from public view in basements and back rooms where they smoked, read penny dreadfuls, and shot craps. Weekends or evenings might involve taking part in uniformed military drills before the public. At night, the boys might be required to enter the red light districts in connection with their job duties.The demand for telegraph boys fell when companies began reading messages over the telephone.