The hardcore teen bike messengers of the early 1900s

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Teen bike messengers of the early 1900s
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Teen bike messengers of the early 1900s

November 1910

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

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

June 1911

"Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. Said he was fourteen years old. Works until after one A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little "tough." He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night. Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1913

"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."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

November 1913

"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."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

September 1913

"Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

November 1913

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

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

November 1913

"Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message.... He said gleefully 'She gimme a quarter tip.'"

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

June 1911

"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."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1913

"Luther Wharton, drug store delivery boy, twelve years old. 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."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

November 1910

"Postal Telegraph messenger. Location: Birmingham, Alabama."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1914

"A typical Birmingham messenger."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

May 1915

"'Red Line' messenger service.... Location: Sacramento, California."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

August 1911

"Young messenger in New Bedford, Massachusetts."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

August 1908

"A.D.T. Messenger Boy, Indianapolis, 10 P.M."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

April 1912

"Young messenger making an office call. Location: Washington. D.C."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1913

"Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service. Fourteen years old. 'Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation under sixteen years, but I do just the same. The boss don't care and the cops don't stop me.' Location: Houston, Texas."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1913

"Fourteen year old Western Union Messenger #43. Works until 10:30 P.M. Goes to Reservation some. Location: Houston, Texas."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

March 1911

"Leo Day, Postal Telegraph Messenger, 12 years old, and a very knowing lad. Location: Tampa, Florida."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

June 1911

"Hodges Gallop, Western Union Messenger No. 16, Norfolk, Va.... Been working here one month. He, and several other young boys, work until 10:30 P.M."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

June 1911

"Hodges Gallop, Western Union Messenger No. 16, Norfolk, Va.... Been working here one month. He, and several other very young boys, work until 10:30 P.M."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

April 1912

"Wilbur H. Woodward, Washington, D.C., Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

April 1912

"Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service. They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night. Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight. They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips. They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes. Said "'The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us. Not very often.'"

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1913

"Preston DeCosta [i.e., De Costa?], fifteen year old messenger #3 for Bellevue Messenger Service. I ran across him and took photos while he was carrying notes back and forth between a prostitute in jail and a pimp in the Red Light. 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. 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.' Works until 11:00 P.M. Location: San Antonio, Texas."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

June 1911

"A typical group of Postal Messengers in Norfolk, Va. Smallest on left end, Wilmore Johnson, been there one year. Works days only. The Postal boys are not nearly so young, in Norfolk and also in other Virginia cities, as are the Western Union boys."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

March 15, 1917

"Ben Collins. Been working steady for Mackay Telegraph Co. for 1 month. 13 years old. Says he makes $5 a week. Location: Oklahoma City."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

November 1913

"Isaac Boyett, 'I'm de whole show.' The twelve year old proprietor, manager and messenger of the Club Messenger Service, 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. on Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from six to ten dollars a week."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

March 15, 1917

"Manley Creasson. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job - "Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks' pay." Location: Oklahoma City."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1913

"Eleven year old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1913

"Postal messenger #6. Said he was 14, but he does not seem to be. Frail, tiny and stunted. Works until 11 P.M. Says he goes to the Red Light some, and gets 25 cents extra then. Location: Montgomery, Alabama."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

May 1910

"Harvey Buchanan, Postal Telegraph Co. Messenger No. 1908. 14 years of age. 1 year in service. Works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. $4 weekly. Visits houses of prostitution. Smokes."

IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

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In 1908, the progressive National Child Labor Committee hired Lewis Hine, a New York sociologist and photographer, to document the exploitative working conditions of child laborers in dozens of occupations, from mining and manufacturing to farming and newspaper selling.

Hine crisscrossed the country over the course of a decade, sneaking around employers to photograph and interview children about their hours, compensation and general treatment.

Among the many workers he captured were bicycle messengers in several southern cities.

RELATED: Female Bike Messengers Demand End to Street Harassment

Female Bike Messengers Demand End to Street Harassment

Most of the messengers worked for telegraph companies or drug stores and spendt exhaustingly long hours making deliveries. In his interview notes, Hine expressed a particular concern about the children's exposure to danger and vice — many of the youngsters' assignments took them into red light districts rife with drug dealers and sex workers.

The photos that Hine took became the face of the child labor reform movement and ultimately helped push through the 1916 passage of the Keatings-Owen Act, which set age and shift length restrictions for young workers. While the act was struck down by the Supreme Court, it set the stage for lasting reform to be created during the New Deal of the 1930s.

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