Occasionally, I find an old photograph of a messenger boy, and always pause to admire these cute little guys. Messenger boys are sort of a cousin profession to the iconic newspaper boy, These scrappy, uniformed little boys are a staple of Disney tales, Charles Dickens novels, and many movies made in the 1930s and 1940s.
It’s a profession that no longer exists, and was driven in large part by inventions such as the telegraph.
But today, I realized I bought a romanticized version of this profession. The scales fell from my eyes when I found these images captured by Lewis Wickes Hine, the prolific photographer. Hine’s works is credited with being a key factor in passing child labor laws in the early twentieth century.
The short bios that Hine included with many of his photographs that has made me see the messenger boy profession quite differently.
Preston DeCosta, 15 years old, Messenger #3 for Bellevue Messenger Service in San Antonio, Texas in 1911. Hine encountered Preston carrying notes between a prostitute in jail and a pimp in the Red Light district. “He had read all the notes and knew all about the correspondence. He was a fine-grained adolescent boy. Has been delivering message and drugs in the Red Light for 6 months and knows the ropes thoroughly.”
“A lot of these girls are my regular customers,” Preston told Hine. “I carry ’em messages and get ’em drinks, drugs, etc. Also go to the bank with money for ’em. If a fellow treats ’em right, they’ll call him by number and give him all their work. I got a box full of photos I took of these girls – some of ’em I took in their room.” Hine noted he works until 11:00 P.M.
The little one in the front is Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. “Said he was 14 years old,” Hine wrote skeptically in June 1911. “Works until after 1 A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little ‘tough.’ Has been here at this office for only three months, but he already knows the Red Light District thoroughly and goes there constantly. He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night.” Hine wrote, “Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else.”
Richard Pierce, Messenger No. 2 from Western Union Telegraph Co in Wilmington, Delaware. “14 years of age. 9 months in service. Works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Smokes. Visits houses of prostitution.” May, 1910.
(On a personal note, there is no way this child is 14 years old. He’s probably closer to 8 or 9.)
This is 14-year-old Frank Gibson, of Wilmington, Delaware in May, 1910. Western Union Telegraph Co., Messenger No. 7. He’s been a messenger for 1 year. This boy visits houses of prostitution and guides soldiers to segregated district. He smokes. Still at school and works from 8:30 P.M. to 12:30 A.M.
Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service in Houston, Texas in October 1913. He’s 14 years old. Marion told Hine, “Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation (Houston’s Red Light district) under 16 years, but I do just the same. The boss don’t care and the cops don’t stop me.”
This is Isaac Boyett. Something about this little boy makes me smile and breaks my heart at the same time.
In November, 1913, Isaac told Hine: “I’m de whole show.” The 12-year-old was the proprietor, manager, and messenger of the Club Messenger Service in Waco, Texas.
“The photo shows him in the heart of the Red Light district where he was delivering messages as he does several times a day. Said he knows the houses and some of the inmates. Has been doing this for one year, working until 9:30 P.M. Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from $6 – $10 a week.”
Percy Neville, age 11, in the heart of the Red Light district in Shreveport, Louisiana, November 1913.
“Just come out of one of the houses with message (which see in his hand),” Hine scribbled. “He said gleefully, ‘She gimme a quarter tip.'”
“Extremes meet,” Hine noted. “One of the youngest and one of the older messenger boys in Mobile. The small boy is Emmet Brewster, Postal messenger #3. 11 years old; been working there 7 months. Makes $10 to $15 a month. Finished the third grade in school. I saw him carrying messages late at night. Mobile, Alabama. 1914 October.”
Luther Wharton, drug store delivery boy, twelve years old. San Antonio, Texas. 1913 October
“Works from 4:00 P.M. to midnight in Sommers Drug Store. I saw him working at midnight. He goes to school in the daytime, then works from four to twelve. Sundays half a day. Gets $5.00 a week,” Hine wrote.
The boy confided to him: “I take medicines to the Red Light places several times a day. Yes I know some of the people there.” The photographer later reflected, “This is a pretty heavy burden, both physical and moral, to place on this adolescent boy.”
“The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy in Danville, Virginia. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. 1911 June,” Hine wrote.
Note: All photos courtesy of Library of Congress.
2 thoughts on “Messengers on the Edge of Respectability”
Sad to think of those little guys seeing a lot of things they shouldn’t have known anything about for years and years. They had to grow up way too soon and carry a lot of responsibility for their family’s income. I can’t imagine attending school plus working those long hours. No wonder they look so weary.
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I really try not to judge people in these stories, I have no idea how hard their lives were and in many cases they were literally starving to death. But when I was writing this one and looking at these little boys, I could not imagine a life where I have a 10 year old son working nights in the red light district.