American photographer and historian Lewis Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform, shooting thousands of photos of working children to document their hardship and abuse between 1908 and 1924.
Children as young as ten worked as bicycle messengers in several cities. Hine’s concern for these boys seems to be their long working hours and their exposure to prostitution and gambling. “The Reservation” referenced in some of the descriptions below was an early 20th Century colloquialism for the red light district.
I’ve pasted Hine’s descriptions with the photos below.
Preston 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 district. 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 six 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 them. 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. 1913.
Willie Cheatham, Western Union messenger #1. Says he is 16 years now; been messenger for 6 years. Late Sunday night, October 4th, I talked with him, still on duty, until 10 P.M.
“You bet I know every crooked house in town. Went to school with one of those girls when she was straight. Her mother died and she went bad. Some young girls were there too. I go out to Red Light some with messages and packages, and if I want to, I bust right in and sit down.”
Hard face. Montgomery, Alabama. 1914 October.
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. Just come out of one of the houses in the heart of the Red Light district with message (which see in his hand).
He said gleefully “She gimme a quarter tip.”
Location: Shreveport, Louisiana. 1913 November.
Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with Western Union for six months, one month delivering for a drug store.
“I learned a lot about the ‘Reservation’ while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now.”
Houston, Texas. 1913 October.
Fifteen year old delivery boy for Linders Drug Store, which is located on the edge of the Reservation, Griffin St. The boy has just returned from a trip to one of these houses. He works from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M.
Dallas, Texas. 1913 October.
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.
Danville, Virginia. 1911 June.
He is a messenger boy. During the day messengers go to all parts of the city. He is a go between. As errand boys, they carry messages, buy meats, liquors and dope for prostitutes. Often guide men to these haunts. He is a victim. His work gives him by personal contact, an intimate acquaintance with vice and crime, starts him down hill. What does your state permit?