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
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.
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.