Some of us are just old enough to remember the messenger boys who delivered telegrams; in military-style uniforms, perhaps on a bicycle or motorbike. For most families, the arrival of a telegram nearly always meant bad news i.e. the death of a relative.
News, good or bad, is a 24/7 affair and that means telegram boys have to be on call round the clock and prepared to deliver telegrams in any district of the town, however insalubrious it may be.
American commentators in the early 1900s were concerned for the welfare of young boys who were employed on night duty delivering telegrams. “Patrons” would telephone the telegraph office and ask for a boy to be sent over, but it wouldn’t be because they wanted to send a message. Instead, the patron would send the boy on an errand to fetch things like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, fast food or medicine. The patron might be anyone from a hotel, a bar, or drug store. Prostitutes were frequent callers, requesting that messengers come to do errands or deposit money. British telegram boys, on the other hand, didn’t have to deal with molls but rather the bogeyman on freezing moors, as I describe in a previous post. Admittedly I haven’t searched very hard but I have yet to find accounts of British telegram boys falling into similar dens of iniquity as their American counterparts.
The telegraph office did not ask what the patron wanted the boy for, but even if they did, there was no way they could keep a check on the boy, unless they had him followed. The patron could use the boy for whatever task he pleased and for as long as he liked. Of course, the messenger boy was paid for his time. Greg Downey has written extensively on telegram boys in the US.
There was obvious concern for the welfare of these teenagers who were obliged to associate with call girls, visitors to brothels, and other inhabitants of the underworld. States gradually introduced legislation forbidding the use of underage minors for night time service.
I sense the welfare agencies and the messenger boys were working at cross purposes. Remember initially that telegram boys worked the first telephone exchanges: they had to be removed because of their rowdy behaviour and insolence towards subscribers. The telegraph companies were at pains to keep the boys out of public view while they were hanging around for messages to deliver. The image of a uniformed boy who was supposed to adhere to military discipline did not tie in well with the reality of seeing the same boy playing cards with his fellows with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. I also have the impression that the boys themselves were not in the slightest bit concerned about their contacts with city lowlife. Here was a chance for them to earn good tips and be paid much more than the petty official amounts for each telegram delivered. What is more, if you were a choir boy who needed some extra pocket money, then you didn’t sign up as a messenger. This job needed blasé individuals, unfazed by scenes of decadence.
The telegraph companies wanted their young boys to have a squeaky clean, wholesome image – the boys just wanted to earn more money.
In Britain a certain amount of nostalgia surrounds telegram deliveries, as is to be expected with an extinct practice. Retired messenger boys in Leicester and Birmingham have maintained contact with old colleagues and established websites with photographic material and first-hand accounts of their duties, training, and experience. They are striving to keep old history alive. But these are old men who used to do a job that no longer exists today. A sobering thought.