The days of newsboys delivering your paper to your doorstep, or hawking them in the urban streets, have all but faded into history.
Those memories have been replaced by adults in vehicles, coin-operated vending machines, corner or in-store newsstands, and most recently with reading your “newspaper” on the Web or by receiving preset email news notices. In some places you can forget about having your newspapers delivered to your front porch anymore, unless you are paying extra to have the postal service deliver it.
Did you know that the U.S. Post Office Act of 1792 that created a national postal system was done mainly for newspaper delivery. Their original goal was to make sure that the news was distributed on a large scale to as many citizens as possible. They set a low rate to encourage people in remote areas to keep informed on recent events. This rapidly increased newspaper delivery from half a million people in 1790 to 39 million by 1840.
Back in the 1770s it took quite a while for news to be disseminated. To prove my point, think about the Declaration of Independence. It was approved on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia. FOUR days later it was printed in the local Philadelphia newspaper. FIVE days after approval it appeared in the Baltimore newspaper. SIX days for New York, ELEVEN for Hartford CT, FOURTEEN in Boston, EIGHTEEN days in Watertown MA.
By 1788 you see the term “newsboys” being used by the Farmer's Cabinet of Amherst NH. In the early days, four-wheel stages and coaches carried the mail any distance. The building of post roads increased the speed of delivery somewhat.
By 1818 establishment of the Associated Press news service made what you read in the newspapers of national interest (the information was distributed by telegraph to local newspapers). In 1830 the “penny newspaper” was introduced, and circulation boosted, especially in urban areas, by “newsboys” who yelled out the headlines to sell their wares.
The famous Pony Express amazingly lasted only 18 months, and carried information in both directions. It was expensive even for the time, costing from $1 to $5 per half ounce, so mostly business transactions were sent this way. Reportedly only ONE rider was killed on duty, although a few others were seriously wounded. The ad seeking new riders read: “Wanted: Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows Not Over 18. Must Be Expert Riders Willing To Risk Death Daily. Orphans Preferred. Wages $25.00 Per Week.”
During the Civil War, newspapers were essential. On May 15, 1862 a letter was printed in the (NH) Farmer's Cabinet from “Hartshorn” at Camp Winfield Scott at Yorktown VA. “It is some time since I have had the pleasure of reading a paper from home. We get the “Herald,” with its short dispatches and wranglings with Greeley and other editors of New York, the Baltimore Clipper and other fast papers. These do well enough generally, but there are times when one wants to sit down and read a good paper from home, and the Cabinet came just in season to day, for I have time to read it through….Papers sell very rapidly here, and the newsboys (for we have newsboys here, smart as in their own haunts at New York and Boston, little fellows most covered with a bundle of papers, fumbling at our tent doors, or hurrying on over the road, making the woods ring with Herald! Frank Leslie!) make fortunes selling them at ten cents per copy; scarcely a day passes but they collect two or three dollars in our own camp of 250 men… The 2nd New Hampshire, encamped near a grove…”
After the Civil War, the telegraph handled urgent long distance communication. Letters and other mail going from coast to coast still took weeks, via train. By 1880s-90s syndicated features and comics appeared in the newspapers, creating a wider-interest for newspaper readers. During the Mexican-American War, northeastern newspapers sped their deliveries using horseback riders, boats, railroads and telegraph lines.
In 1952, while still in their heyday, the United States honored the Newspaperboys of America with a three-cent commemorative stamp paying “… recognition of the important service rendered to their communities and their Nation.” The stamp depicts a newspaper carrier with the slogan “Busy Boys…Better Boys” on his paper bag. Below was placed a neighborhood scene with the inscription “Free Enterprise” — A fitting tribute.
PS: Note that this article does not purposefully discriminate against the many girls and women who have acted as delivery agents for newspapers. In the past these female carriers certainly existed, but they were in the great minority, and information about them is difficult to obtain. The photograph above was taken circa 1918-1920 and pictures my uncle Francis “Frank” Manning delivering the Merrimack Valley Sun newspaper.
1. “A History of Mass Communication: Six Information Revolutions,” by Irving E. Fang
2. “Educating the Consumer Citizen PR: A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising, and Media,” by Joel H. Spring