Game of the District Messenger Boy: A Boundary Object Bridging Two Eras of American History

Game of the District Messenger Boy: A Boundary Object Bridging Two Eras of American History
By: Kathleen Black

Intern, Historical Society of Baltimore County, 2014

Oh, the games we play without considering the context of their time.  Take for instance the board game titled Game of the District Messenger Boy, or Merit Rewarded, manufactured by McLoughlin Brothers in 1886, and found among the collections of the Historical Society of Baltimore County.  District Messenger Boy is a straightforward “spin-and-move” board game where players spin an arrow, which directs them to move either one, two, three, or four spaces.  Each player’s goal is to advance their game piece from beginning to end ahead of their opponent to become President of the Telegraph Company.  Before a player begins navigating the board, they must spin a one to be placed on “Apprenticeship,” a two to move to “Training School,” and a three to begin work on the “Messenger Force,” thus gaining entrance into the maze. Along the way, players may stumble onto the following spaces: “STUPIDITY Go Back to CARELESSNESS,” “LOITERING Go Back to LAZINESS,” and “INATTENTION Go Back to DICIPLINE.”

The game’s allusion to the socio-economic constructs present at the time it was manufactured beckoned me into light research about the history of telegraph messenger boys and the context of the time. What you find is how something as simple as an historic children’s board game, quietly and discretely housed among thousands of museum collections items, can act as a conduit into major socio-cultural and economic dilemmas in national history.  It provides a glimpse into the stirring debates of the late Gilded Age and early Progressive Era in American history, when largely unregulated capitalism butt directly up against a rapidly industrializing society and political reformers.  Manufactured between the Gilded Age, a time of rapid economic growth, and the Progressive Era, a period of social activism and political reform, District Messenger Boy is a product of these two melding paradigms.

Let’s Play

Now spin a one, knowing the McLoughlin Brothers’ game was manufactured during an era that idealized the young worker in a rapidly changing and rapidly industrializing society in 1886.  The would-be messenger boys, commonly fourteen year old children, entered an apprenticeship with the telegraph company and “would have worked ten-hour days, seven days a week, waiting on a bench in back of the district office with five other boys as his turn at the next messenger call.”[1]  Spin a two, to land on training school, where boys were taught to be the “smiling, uniformed, industrial soldier, ready not only to deliver a holiday telegram with a smile, but competent to carry out product surveys, to deliver direct-marketing samples, and even to cover the phones while the boss was away.”[2]  Spin a three and enter the messenger force, where boys were viewed as either “up-and-coming young business men,” or “exploited children,” depending on whose opinion one cared to adopt.[3]

Messenger boys aided in increasing both the popularity and profitability of the telegraph.  Young boys were the popular choice for employment in telegraph companies as they were diligent, trustworthy, and “instantly recognizable [while] also unobtrusively invisible.”[4]  Simultaneously, they proved to be the best financial choice to keep profits high, because the young boys were less likely than older men to demand higher wages.

The boys’ entertainment of the time included messenger boy stories found in dime-novel literature, where the young messengers were often poor orphans, who by some inconceivable chance obtained employment as messenger boys, and then used their position for protecting vulnerable women on the street while excelling at their delivery duties.  At the end of the stories, “the messenger always reaps a surprise reward of both family and career, leaving his childhood working days behind for a respectable adult male life.” [5]  While the messenger boys were respected for performing their delivery duties, these stories may have skewed their view of their actual necessity and likewise their chance of advancement in the work place.

The dime-novel tales were as idealized as the McLoughlin game considering the boys rarely advanced in position in the telegraph company.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, representation for the messengers increased as children’s working conditions were getting taken into account when the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era.  Tiles found in the game such as, “INTELLIGENCE Advance to SERGEANT,” “INTEGRITY Advance to ASS.MANAGER,” and “ACCURACY Advance to BOXINSPECTOR” were the exception rather than the rule for telegraph messenger boys.  The Massachusetts Child Labor Committee, in 1911, presented reports to the Committee on Labor that revealed “conditions of vice and crime […] must have been the unmaking of hundreds of boys engaged” in the telegraph messenger service.[6]

In need of reform, according to the Child Labor Committee, was the night service running from 10 P.M. to 5 A.M.  The Committee states: “The night service, it appears, is so injurious to minors from a moral as well as a physical point of view that only dense ignorance of facts can be offered as a weak excuse for our having done nothing to date.”[7]  Correct in their assertion, there were little to no facts about the condition of messenger boys in the labor force, as they were often ignored during unionization discussions.

Taking the issue into their own hands, messengers themselves formed strikes throughout the late-1800s and early-1900s. In Maryland, in 1902, sixteen messenger boys working for the Postal Telegraph and Cable Company went on strike after not receiving proper pay for taking long distance messages.  While the message delivery system was temporarily halted, it began running smoothly again as new messengers were hired and a few of the strikers returned.[8]  Unfortunately, the goal of reformation proved to be ineffective for the messenger boys; although, “their wages were brought in line with national legal minimums” because of union work, telegraph companies “opted to increase mechanization and subcontract out to post office and taxi services to carry its telegrams instead of keeping a large messenger force” in order to counteract the increased wage of messenger boys.[9]

Take another look at Game of the District Messenger Boy, or Merit Rewarded, and the game no longer seems as benign as before.  Hidden under its bright graphics, simple game play and well-meaning message that hard work equals great reward is a more complicated and nuanced history of labor rights, child labor laws, unionization, industrialization and capitalism. What one does not see in McLoughlin Brothers game were the worsening working conditions of the messengers during the late-1800s and their struggle for more labor rights and legal protections during the 1900s.

Placed within their context, items like a simple historic board game may reveal that museum artifacts are much more than neat objects stored carefully on shelves or in display cases.  They have the ability to shed light on the critical social, cultural, economic and political issues of a bygone era, and to encourage critical thinking about similar issues today.

[1] Gregory John Downey, Telegraph messenger boys: labor, technology, and geography, 1850-1950  (New York: Routledge, 2002), 3.
Ibid, 4.
Ibid, 4.
Ibid, 11.
Ibid, 110.
Philip Davis, “The Night Messenger Boy,” Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, MA), March 11, 1911.
Maryland Bureau of Statistics and Information, Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics and Information of Maryland (Baltimore: The Sun Book and Job Printing Office, 1903), 41.
Gregory John Downey, Telegraph messenger boys: labor, technology, and geography, 1850-1950  (New York: Routledge, 2002), 190.