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.” . . . Location: Shreveport, Louisiana. 1913.
Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with W[estern] U[nion] for six months, one month delivering for a drug store. “I learned a lot about the ‘Reservation’ [red-light district] while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now.” Location: Houston, Texas. 1913.
Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas. 1913.
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 DC. 1912.
Selling during school hours, 10:30 A.M. Location: Syracuse, New York. 1910.
Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., NW, Washington, DC, Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only. Location: Washington DC. 1912.
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. 1913.
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. 1911.
Manley Creasson, 914 W. 6 St. 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, Oklahoma. 1917.
Since these boys stared into Lewis Hine’s camera a century ago, the status of American children has improved in some ways but not others. Back then, children were prone to become whatever the economic situations of their families required. The children of farmers were often pressed into lives of drudgery, while others followed the trend of modernization, working in the street trades if they were city dwellers, or in mills, mines, and factories, all to stave off the want of individual and family poverty.
At the time, millions of children worked, sometimes at the expense of attending school. According to Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University, in 1900, 26.1 percent of all American boys aged 10-15 held a job of some kind. (The percentage of girls that age who worked was much lower.) Progressive reformers worked to restrict child labor, pointing out the harms–whether physical, mental, or moral–that work could have on such young people.
Lewis Hine (1874-1940) photographed thousands of child workers during his sixteen-year tenure with the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Besides taking photographs, he talked with his subjects and took notes, information that later found its way into the captions and into investigative reports for the Committee. Over five-thousand of these NCLC photographs survive. Boys who were messengers for the telegraph company or for drug stores were among those working in the various street trades.
Hines focuses on the hardships and on the boys’ unfortunate and degrading exposure to vice, but he also captures the boys’ satisfaction and pride. Some sit beaming on their bikes, or nonchalantly showing off their uniforms, proud to be making it, to be doing something, proud even of ferrying across the boundary between right and wrong.
They exude a different sort of mentality than impoverished youth of today, who have no legitimate means of escaping or redressing the poverty and crime that envelop their families.
All images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Click here to see more of Hine’s photographs.