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Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology and Geography, 1850-1950

Author(s):Downey, Gregory J.
Reviewer(s):Nonnenmacher, Tomas

Published by EH.NET (November 2004)

Gregory J. Downey, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology and Geography, 1850-1950 New York: Routledge, 2002. xiii + 242 pp. $95.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-415-93108-8; $25.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-415-93109-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Tomas Nonnenmacher, Department of Economics, Allegheny College.

As a scholar trained both as an historian and a geographer, it is unsurprising that Gregory Downey chose to write an historical account of the development of the telegraph industry focused on the concepts of space and boundaries. Somewhat surprising is his specific focus: the telegraph messenger boy (TMB), acting as a bridge between various technologies and geographical and social spaces. Downey’s focus on the bottom rung of the employment ladder offers a unique perspective on the telegraph’s development and sheds light on the broader labor market, particularly the market for child labor. Even though the book does not use the tools nor focus exclusively on answering the questions that would interest economic historians, it will be useful to those economic historians interested in the labor history and product differentiation of the telegraph.

The book is broken into ten chapters, each with a particular topic and most spanning the hundred years from 1850 to 1950. Chapters Two and Three offer a broad overview of the development of the labor force, both at Western Union and at American District Telegraph (ADT). Western Union originally subcontracted with ADT for messenger services, but ADT eventually evolved into a market leader for home security systems. While the ability to read and write was required to be a TMB, it was a low-skill job that did not require tremendous human capital. Some success stories have made it into American folklore — Andrew Carnegie was a TMB — but Downey argues that such stories were the exception rather than the rule. One set of statistics that Downey describes is the cost structure of the telegraph and how TMBs fit into that structure. While Downey provides quite a bit of evidence of the changing wages of TMBs over time, he never integrates that information into the broader labor market. So while he makes the case that TMBs earned less than telegraph operators, we are left wondering whether they earned more or less than those workers in jobs requiring similar skills.

In Chapter Five, Downey describes the product innovations that Western Union pursued and argues that the TMB was used to carve out a market niche for the telegraph. In some cases, the telegraph was a signal of the importance or the quality of messages. A hand delivered message was more likely to be read, or at least placed at the top of the pile, than a similar letter sent by mail. Singing telegrams were initiated during the Great Depression to generate more demand. Western Union’s experimentation with product diversification also included telegram cakes, Fruit Telegraph Delivery Service, floral delivery (FTD was originally Florists’ Telegraph Delivery), the distribution of advertising material and samples by TMBs, and Kiddiegrams for children. TMBs were also temporary workers, doing such odd jobs as walking dogs, playing euchre — with P. T. Barnum — and feeding pigeons — for Nicholas Tesla. In this chapter, Downey clearly shows how Western Union used the TMB as a low-cost way to create and capitalize on its brand name.

Western Union was the “single largest employer of child labor in the nation” in the early twentieth century, making it natural for the messenger market to become a target of the Progressive Era reform agenda. In Chapter Six, Downey describes how delivering messages to and doing odd jobs for the underworld (prostitution, drugs, gambling, etc.) increased TMBs’ exposure to vice. Reformers pressured telegraph companies to limit TMBs’ contact with corrupting influences, leading to a greater proportion of “aged” (over 45 years old) messengers. Between 1910 and 1930 the proportion of child messengers shrank, while the proportion of aged messengers increased. Another reform issue is covered in Chapter Eight, which deals with messenger education. The Western Union Continuation School was founded in 1923 and was soon advertised as “the prep school to the University of Business.” Downey argues that on several fronts, the continuation school was a failure. It cost more per day to educate students in a continuation school than a regular school. Continuation schools did not stem the high turnover rate of TMBs, nor did they significantly improve the public’s perception of TMBs. Finally, Downey argues that TMBs did not attend school or graduate continuation schools at high rates.

The book’s penultimate chapter covers the unionization attempts by TMBs and telegraph employees more generally. The availability of substitute labor made unionization of messengers unsuccessful, leading one trade publication in 1899 to call messenger strikes the “absurd actions of lazy boys” (p. 173). Even large strikes, such as the 1910 Central Federated Union strike that involved over 500 messengers, were quickly broken. In order to counteract the threat of operator strikes, Western Union created the Association of Western Union Employees (AWUE). TMBs were effectively excluded through the AWUE’s minimum voting age of eighteen. Only in the 1930s did telegraph messengers finally crack the ranks of the unionized, gaining substantial power in the American Communications Association, a CIO-affiliated union. The union was ultimately too successful for the TMB, driving up wages beyond the market wage. Downey concludes that, “for the messengers, a large battle was lost. Once their wages were brought in line with national legal minimums, WU opted to increase mechanization and subcontract out to post office and taxi services” (190).

This book is full of interesting facts and stories, and while it is generally well written, there are some minor errors. These errors are factual — such as the timing of Ezra Cornell’s involvement with Western Union — and definitional — such as the definition of a public utility. However, these are minor faults. The book provides something that is lacking in the literature, which is a labor history of the telegraph for the important hundred-year period beginning in 1850. Downey tells a coherent story of the rise and fall of the TMB, a difficult but successfully executed task.

Tomas Nonnenmacher is Associate Professor of Economics at Allegheny College. His forthcoming article, “Network Quality in the Early Telegraph Industry” will appear in Research in Economic History.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII