The early teen bicycle messengers, 1908-1917


In 1908, the National Committee on Child Labor hired New York sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine to document the exploitative working conditions of child laborers in dozens of occupations, from mining and construction to farming and newspaper selling. Among the workers he caught were cycle messengers from several southern cities.

Almost immediately after the development of the pedal-powered velocipede in the 1860s, people began to use bicycles for delivery purposes.

David V. Herlihy's 2004 book on the early history of the bicycle includes several references to bicycle messengers operating in the late 19th century, including a description of couriers employed by the Paris Stock Exchange in the 1870s.

During the bicycle boom of the 1890s in the United States, Western Union employed many bicycle telegraph boys in New York City, San Francisco and other large population centers.

Most messengers worked for telegraph companies or drugstores and took a long time to make deliveries. In his interview notes, Hine expressed particular concern about the risk to children and vice versa – many of the youth assignments took them to red-light districts with drug dealers and sex workers.

The photos Hine took became the face of the child labor reform movement and eventually helped lead to the passage of the Keatings-Owen Act of 1916, which set age and shift length restrictions for young workers.

While the act was struck down by the Supreme Court, it set the stage for permanent reform during the New Deal of the 1930s.

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