Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hine’s Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers

“Is it not a cruel civilization that allows little hearts and little shoulders to strain under these grown-up responsibilities?”

Cosmopolitan Magazine, January 1907

Children have always worked. But the Industrial Revolution turned children’s labor from something positive and good for development into work that left “children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves.” Grueling working conditions and unscrupulous business owners robbed young workers of their childhoods, educational opportunities, and their dignity.

Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.

Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.

Danville messenger
#2183. 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. A Western Union boy eagerly took me around and revealed an appalling intimate acquaintance with the district and the inmates. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier.

I first came across Lewis Hines’ photographs as I was working on my recent blog post on the telegraph and its impact on life in Pennsylvania. The Library of Congress holds Hines’ photos and reports and fortunately has digitized a large portion of the collection. I hadn’t considered it as I was writing my other post, but one of the most notable impacts that new technology like the telegraph and train had on Americans was the change in their working habits. Innovations like the telegraph improved life, but they also created more demands on people too. Building and maintaining America’s new transportation and communication networks created huge demands for resources and laborers.

Children made an ideal labor force- they could be paid less, they were less likely to strike, and didn’t have their own families to care for. The telegraph workers that Hines photographed often worked long hours and routinely had to take night shifts to deliver messages all around. Hines noted in his photo captions that messenger boys oftentimes delivered messages to red light districts and worried about their exposure to sex workers, drug dealers, and other dangers. Telegraph message delivery would have been dangerous for an experienced adult, it was even more hazardous for a young teenager.

Along with their frequent association with red light districts, Hines also documented delinquent behavior such as smoking and gambling that were common amongst messengers. “You all know how the circle goes,” Hines said in 1915, “child labor, illiteracy, industrial inefficiency, low wages, long hours, low standards of living, bad housing, poor food, unemployment, intemperance, disease, poverty, child labor, illiteracy, industrial inefficiency, low wages- but we are repeating.” Reformers felt that child labor didn’t just hurt children, it was part of a larger web of problems plaguing American society. I suspect that Hines focused on delinquency and other bad habits to shock other reformers. Morality was just as important to reformers as labor rights and good standards of living (for more on this subject see this article by George Dimock).

I’ve chosen two dozen Hines photographs of telegraph messengers from the Library of Congress online collection. They’re in order of Hines’ original photograph numbers with his original captions.

Indianapolis Indiana
#0053. A.D.T. [?] messengers. Location: Indianapolis, Indiana.
Indianapolis Indiana 2
#0123. Night Shift A. D. T. Messengers, Indianapolis. 10:00 P.M. Location: Indianapolis, Indiana.
Hartford Connecticut
#3233. 8:00 P.M. Flashlight photo of messengers absorbed in their usual Poker game in the “Den of the Terrible Nine” (the waiting room for Wes. Union Messengers, Hartford, Conn.) They play for money. Some lose a whole month’s wages in a day and then are afraid to go home. Location: Hartford, Connecticut.
New Haven Connecticut
#0623. New Haven, Conn., March 8, 1909. Messenger boys. They work until 11 P.M. Location: New Haven, Connecticut.
Hartford Connecticut 2
#0643. A few of the messengers Western Union, Hartford, Conn. They are on duty, alternate nights, until 10 P.M. Messenger #32 is Thomas De Lucco with him (in Tenderloin district) recorded in report to Committee. Location: Hartford, Connecticut.
Burlington Vermont
# 1095. A.D.T. Boy, 13 years old. One and one-half years at it. Works from noon to 10:30 P.M. Said he “carries notes, etc.” Location: Burlington, Vermont.
Utica New York
#1261. W. U. messenger. Location: Utica, New York (State).
Wilmington Delaware 2
#1504.¬†Charles Gibbon, Postal Telegraph Messenger. 14 years of age, 2 months in service. Don’t smoke. Visits houses of prostitution, works form 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. Location: Wilmington, Delaware.
Wilmington Delaware 3
#1512. John Towers, 627 S. Connell Street. Postal Telegraph Company, Messenger # 9. 15 years of age. In service 1 year. Visits houses of prostitution. Sometimes smokes. Edward F. Brown, Investigator. Location: Wilmington, Delaware.
Wilmington Delaware 4
#1520. Frank F. Gibson, 1305 Linden St. Western Union Telegraph Co. Messenger No. 7. 14 years of age. 1 year in service. Visits houses of prostitution. Guides soldiers to segregated district. Smokes. Still at school and works from 8:30 P.M. to 12:30 A.M. Investigator, Edward F. Brown. Location: Wilmington, Delaware.
Wilmington Delaware
#1532. Harvey Buchanan, 608 E. Van Buren St. 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. Investigator, Edward F. Brown. Location: Wilmington, Delaware.
New York City 3
#1680. Messenger boys on a hurry (?) call. Union Square, N.Y. Location: New York, New York (State).
Utica New York 2
#1684. Lunch Time, 14th St., N.Y. Location: New York, New York (State).
New York City
#1688. Messengers at the main office, Postal Telegraph Co., 283 B’way, turning in their uniforms at close of the day. The boys are carefully supervised and clothes are well kept. Location: New York, New York (State).
New York City 2
#1691. A typical group of messengers at Postal Telegraph Company’s main office, 253 B'[road]way. During hot weather they wear these shirt waists. (A Suggestion for the other companies.) Location: New York, New York (State).
Birmingham Alabama
#1811. A.D.T. Boys. “They all smokes.” Location: Birmingham, Alabama.
Danville VA
#2184. Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. 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. Location: Danville, Virginia.
Washington D.C. 2
#2910. 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.” Location: [Washington (D.C.)].
Washington D.C.
#2914. Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., N.W., Washington, D.C., Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia.
Waco Texas
#3559. Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas.
San Antonion Texas
#3563. A few of the San Antonio messengers. See Hine report on messenger service of Texas. Edgar Barnes is one of the smallest in front row. The messengers and their contact with the Red Light districts, in most of the large cities of Texas, is one of the worst phases of child labor in the state. Location: San Antonio, Texas.
Shreveport Louisiana 2
#3701. Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message (which see in his hand). He said gleefully “She gimme a quarter tip.” Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.
Shreveport Louisiana
#3702. Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. He has been messenger for different companies for four years. Goes to the Reservation every day. Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.
Oklahoma City Oklahoma
#4767. Ben Collins, 515 N. Walnut St. Been working steady for Mackay Telegraph Co. for 1 month. 13 years old. Says he makes $5 a week. Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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