Telegraph boys (or, district messenger boys or, messenger boys or, telegraph messenger boys) were uniformed young men between 10 and 18 years of age who, mounted on bicycles, carried telegrams through urban streets. Unlike the men in the telegraph office who worked indoors on fixed wages under close supervision, enjoyed union benefits, and managed the electrical transfer of information, telegraph boys worked outdoors under no supervision on piece wages, saw no union benefits, and managed the physical aspect of the industry in the form of handwritten or printed paper messages.
Boys reported for work in the morning clad in their uniforms and awaited their assignments, receiving payment by the mile. Though some choose to travel by foot, bicycles were required for distant destinations. John Dickinson of Dallas, Texas accumulated more than 16,000 miles between April and September 1916. Western Union bought 5,000 bicycles a year and resold them to their telegraph boys nationwide at a discount. A local fleet might number from one to three dozen or more. Companies were responsible for providing uniform laundries, locker rooms, assembly halls, and classrooms.
In the call-box system developed in 1872, a customer would "ring" the telegraph office for a messenger who would then speed to the customer's door to pick-up a handwritten message and return to the telegraph office to have it sent electrically to its destination.
The life could be dangerous. Boys were expected to "scorch" their bicycles in urban traffic. Strikes occurred with messenger boys cycling en masse to keep scabs from being hired. Boys attended continuation-school on a four hour-a-week schedule rather than the 36 hour schedule of public schools. During slack times, the telegraph office hid the boys from public view in basements and back rooms where they smoked, read penny dreadfuls, and shot craps. Weekends or evenings might involve taking part in uniformed military drills before the public. At night, the boys might be required to enter the red light districts in connection with their job duties. The demand for telegraph boys fell when companies began reading messages over the telephone.
In the autumn of 1914, bicycling telegraph boy Robert Crawford of Washington, D.C. collided with a car carrying President Woodrow Wilson. The President sent his personal physician to attend Crawford. Later, he visited the boy in the hospital and presented him with a new bicycle. "I did not know it was the President's car that I ran into," the boy said. Wilson replied, "I rather thought it was the President's car that ran into you."
- Herlihy, David V.. Bicycle: The History. Yale University press, 2004. ISBN 0-300-10418-9. p. 318.
- Downey, Greg (1999-11-?). "Information Networks and Urban Spaces: The Case of the Telegraph Messenger Boy". Mercurians. Retrieved 2009-02-05. [dead link]