Lewis Wickes Hine - his Bicycle Messenger Portraits

He Is A Messenger Boy
He Is A Messenger Boy

"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?" When Lewis Wickes Hine died in 1940, ironically he died in extreme poverty, the same circumstances in which the subjects, of his ever persistent lens, had lived their lives. Employed as an "Investigative Photographer" by the American National Child Labor Committee, Hine tirelessly pursued his subjects, recording their lives through his lens and notepad. Sometimes Hine would resort to posing as a fire inspector to gain entry to factories and workplaces in order to record the stark reality faced by child labourers. Hine once remarked

"Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past."

The gritty portrait above, of two small boys - Sonny and Pete, San Antonio Texas, describes a harsh reality for some of these messengers, one of them already working on the streets at the age of six.

Thanks to Hine and his doggedness, the words "child labor pictures will be records of the past" became a reality.

Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else.

Eleven Years Old Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls.

Fourteen Years Old "I learned a lot about the 'Reservation' while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now."

Fourteen years old."Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation under sixteen years, but I do just the same. The boss don't care and the cops don't stop me."

Today we are privileged to have access to the work of Hine, his Bicycle Messenger portraits are widely published and admired. Yet their original intended use is bluntly illustrated in the exhibit panel -  "He Is A Messenger Boy". Hine and his indefatigable team of photographers worked day and night, recording the lives of child labourers. Sometimes following them for days at a time. "He Is A Messenger Boy" is only one small sample of the extensive use of images and notes taken in the field, then adapted to create a massive and unstoppable public awareness campaign.

Forcing a nation to see, worked. The combination ofthe outstanding photographic talent of Lewis Hine and his constant blasts via the National Child Labor Committee's public awareness campaign, brought about change across many sectors of child labour, in factories, shops and many other work places. Rural and urban. A direct result of the efforts of Hine in 1916, saw Congress pass legislation protecting children - the Keating-Owen Act.

The Library of Congress photographic collections house more than five thousand original Lewis Hine photographs, given to the library by the chief executive of the National Child Labor Committee, Mrs. Gertrude Folks Zimand in 1954, together with the specific instruction - "There will be no restrictions of any kind on your use of the Hine photographic material."

Lewis Hine was a pioneer in the field of documentary photography. In 1967 Judith Gutman wrote about the images of Lewis Hine,

"The people in the photographs communicate directly to us as if they were still alive. They spill out of their historic reality to become part of our present. We see them and think we are about to know them." In the context of the exhibit panels the bike messengers look as if they've been pinned onto a wanted poster. Removed from the exhibit panel context, today the photographic genius of Hine is all we see - as we think we are about to know them.

Bicycle messenger 1913

Bicycle messenger 1913

Messenger boy in the heart of the Reservation delivering messages. Prostitutes run back and forth. Business beginning at mid-day. I saw messenger boys and delivery boys for drug stores from fifteen years upward. Some still younger told me that they go there. This was in spite of a strong agitation being waged to close up the resorts. Location: Dallas, Texas. 1913 October.

Euegene Dalton bicycle messenger

Euegene Dalton bicycle messenger

Some results of messenger and newsboy work. For nine years this sixteen year old boy has been newsboy and messenger for drug stores and telegraph companies. He was recently brought before the Judge of the Juvenile Court for incorrigibility at home. Is now out on parole, and was working again for drug company when he got a job carrying grips in the Union Depot. He is on the job from 6:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. (seventeen hours a day) for seven days in the week. His mother and the judge think he uses cocaine, and yet they let him put in these long hours every day. He told me "There ain't a house in 'The Acre' (Red Light) that I ain't been in. At the drug store, all my deliveries were down there." Says he makes from $15.00 to $18.00 a week. Eugene Dalton. Location: Fort Worth, Texas. 1913 November.

Preston De Costa bicycle messenger

Preston De Costa bicycle messenger

Preston DeCosta [i.e., 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. 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 6 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 'em. 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 October.

Below some Hine Bike Messenger Portraits which includes the classic pseudonym of Raymond's ..... "BYKES" or is that really his name?

The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5 Danville, Virginia “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.” June 1911

The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5 Danville, Virginia
“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.” June 1911

Raymond BYKES Western Union No. 23 Norfolk, Virginia  “Said he was fourteen years old. Works until after one A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little “tough.” Has been here at this office for only three months, but he already knows the Red Light District thoroughly and goes there constantly. He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night. Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else.” June 1911.

Raymond BYKES Western Union No. 23 Norfolk, Virginia
 “Said he was fourteen years old. Works until after one A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little “tough.” Has been here at this office for only three months, but he already knows the Red Light District thoroughly and goes there constantly. He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night. Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else.” June 1911.

Postal Telegraph BOY – Danville – Virginia. “That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands. A Western Union boy (tallest boy in photo 2182) eagerly took me around and revealed an appalling intimate acquaintance with the district and the inmates.”

Postal Telegraph BOY – Danville – Virginia.
“That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands. A Western Union boy (tallest boy in photo 2182) eagerly took me around and revealed an appalling intimate acquaintance with the district and the inmates.”

George Christopher, Postal Tel. #7 Nashville, Alabama “14 years old. Been at it over 3 years. Does not work nights.” November 1910

George Christopher, Postal Tel. #7 Nashville, Alabama
“14 years old. Been at it over 3 years. Does not work nights.” November 1910

Eleven year old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall Houston,Texas. “Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls.” October 1913

Eleven year old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall Houston,Texas.
“Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls.” October 1913

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Houston, Texas “Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with W[estern] U[nion] 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.”  October 1913

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Houston, Texas
“Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with W[estern] U[nion] 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.”  October 1913

Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service. Houston, Texas Fourteen years old. “Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation under sixteen years, but I do just the same. The boss don’t care and the cops don’t stop me.” October 1913

Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service. Houston, Texas
Fourteen years old. “Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation under sixteen years, but I do just the same. The boss don’t care and the cops don’t stop me.” October 1913

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company.  Waco, Texas “Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers.” September 1913

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company.  Waco, Texas
“Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers.” September 1913

Isaac Boyett, “I’m de whole show.” Waco, Texas “The twelve year old proprietor, manager and messenger of the Club Messenger Service, 402 Austin Street, Waco. The photo shows him in the heart of the Red Light district where he was delivering messages as he does several times a day. Said he knows the houses and some of the inmates. Has been doing this for one year, working until 9:30 P.M. Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from six to ten dollars a week.” November 1913

Isaac Boyett, “I’m de whole show.” Waco, Texas

“The twelve year old proprietor, manager and messenger of the Club Messenger Service, 402 Austin Street, Waco. The photo shows him in the heart of the Red Light district where he was delivering messages as he does several times a day. Said he knows the houses and some of the inmates. Has been doing this for one year, working until 9:30 P.M. Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from six to ten dollars a week.” November 1913

Note on Isaac Boyett : Joe Manning has researched and published articles on many of the child labourers who Hine had photographed. One of them was Isaac Boyett. On Joe Manning's website you will find a brief history of Boyett's life and an extract from an interview which Manning conducted with Boyett's daughter in 2008. The account of Boyett's life gives us a window into the life of one messenger, which probably included time in jail. A life where Boyett barely know his daughter, showed up one day and gave her a brand new bicycle then disappeared until her wedding, many years later. If you're keen to find out more Manning's work answers many questions.

You will find the entire Lewis Hine Library of Congress collection at this link. All images used to illustrate this post at Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print