Tales of newspaper delivery are a trip back in time

Book project chronicles the paperboy era,1920-1970

Bill pulled his hat over his ears. He fastened his jacket shut. Then he hurried along the dark, wintry streets, so that 105 customers received their Anchorage Daily Times, quickly. The rushing warmed him. Three miles to go. In his first job, Bill Gamel, age 10, intended to succeed. He'd already added nine new customers. On Saturday, the bars along Fourth Avenue provided profitable, extra sales. The independent salesboy earned money to buy sports gear and pay for scout activities.

Bill was disciplined with a paper route. Regardless of conditions, he delivered on time. Though disruptions, like a huge moose, snarling dogs, broken bike, ruptured the rhythm of the routine, the advantages and adventures, plus misadventures, overcame annoyances.

In the core of the 20th century, 500,000 youths handled paper routes. Their numbers increased until, by 1980, nearly one million children managed the bulk of newspaper delivery. Legions of kids porched papers for customers who expected the news as conveniently and timely as radio programs.

Inexperienced, the rascals committed mistakes, corrected their errors, developed maturity that led to self-confidence. They learned customer service, how to be a business team member, and to cope with contentious grumps.

The "Main Street School" for paper carriers, a school teaching common sense, required daily attendance even on snow days, holidays, summer vacation days, including sessions on Saturday and Sunday. A child earned while he learned lifetime lessons.

These significant benefits for children almost disappeared in the 1920s. Paperboys were the center of controversy between the newspaper industry and Congress. The legislative branch tried to enact the 1924 Child Labor Amendment, which would "prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age." Paperboys were under eighteen, even under twelve.


Was the 20th century a simpler, slower time? For the young paperboy, balanced on his bicycle with a lopsided load, balancing his childhood against early adulthood, the time was complex and challenging. A novice, he persisted, profited, and pushed forward to success because of the discipline forged from a paper route.


The common paperboys were central in lacing the community together with daily news, because a paper was more than communication. Local newspapers were about community. Belonging and being identified with the canvas bag, children didn't wander down streets lost without direction or purpose. The parameter of a carrier's route was his; he belonged in the community. As one paperboy said, "We knew more about neighbors than a census taker did."


The individual, nostalgic scenes are enhanced by the national historic records of paperboys serving their country. Familiar with the town, and with keeping accurate pay records, the children were tapped for national importance during World War II. Thousands of boys sold just under two billion defense bond stamps for the war effort. The collected dimes for each stamp added to the weight of their route collections.

And paperboys held benefit ball games, raising thousands of dollars for the March of Dimes in support of polio victims. Immune to inertia and indoor-itis, the active, capable children were outside every day no matter the elements. Through prevalent childhood diseases, and being accident-prone in the formative years, carriers stayed productive.

Like Bill's dad, Tom Rockne's father taught him to earn toward his college tuition plan. Tom, age 10, faced severe challenges in Bismarck, North Dakota, in the predawn handling his route. In blizzards, the bike was no help. A sled worked okay, at times. His numb fingers interfered when collecting cold coins. Meeting altar boy schedules and rising to Eagle Scout, Tom also reliably delivered a large route seven mornings a week.

With the image of a friendly Norman Rockwell character, the paperboy resided in the heart of American towns, in the heart of the American century.

Sandra Walker is the author of "Little Merchants, the Golden Era of Youth Delivering Newspapers," which shares the history of paperboys, and the girls, in the 1920 to 1970 period. Walker started the book project to honor her brother's memory, since as a child he delivered the Mount Vernon Daily News in Ohio. Discovering abundant stories of paperboys, she expanded the project across America to interview hundreds of paperboys and girls.

Published by Orion Wellspring in Seattle and including 28 vintage photos, the book is available in print or e-book through the website http://www.carrierchronicle.com, or ordering from bookstores or Amazon.

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