Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Messenger Boy

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 27, 2015.

In the collections of the Exeter Historical Society is a photo labeled, “the only messenger boy in town!” In the picture, there is a young boy of maybe 12 or 13 standing gravely next to his bike on Water Street looking straight at the camera. We don’t know his name or much about the photo album which contains the picture. Most of the pictures involve the printing office of the Exeter Gazette and the railroad post office. Even the caption provides us with no hint – is there only one messenger boy in town, or is this the only reliable boy to call?

Messenger boys, or telegram boys as they were sometimes called, worked long hours. It was their job to ferry messages to and from the telegraph office at the railroad depot. Telegraphy, utilizing Morse code, had followed the development of the railroad in the 1840s. Both the trains and the electric telegraph wires needed straight paths to travel, and the railroads had to have fast and dependable communication to coordinate traffic on the rails. By the time of the Civil War, the telegraph office had become the information superhighway. It was the quickest way to get information across the country. Getting the information from the telegraph office to the newspaper offices, however, still required racing across town.

In large cities, Western Union – which became a telegraph monopoly by the late nineteenth century – regularly hired boys between the ages of 11 and 18 to run messages to customers. The job was frequently paid by the mile, so once bicycles became common in the 1890s, Western Union was one of their biggest customers. Boys paid a rental fee for the bike and another fee for their uniform. Often making a mere two cents per message, he could earn up to two dollars per week – not bad if he was living at home, but most city messenger boys lived in flop houses and wiled away their off hours reading penny dreadfuls and smoking unsavory cigarettes. Because of their poor habits, larger Western Union offices kept the boys well away from the public – often hiding them in a back room or basement. 

Social reformers worried endlessly about messenger boys, while at the same time popular novels and stories hailed them as hard-working, self-employed, up and coming young businessmen. Horatio Alger Jr.’s rags to riches stories, such as Number 91: Tales of a New York Telegraph Boy gave these youngsters almost hero status. The image of a messenger boy on his bicycle became ubiquitous in the film industry. Receiving a telegraph carried thoughts of something unexpected happening – a birth, death or big announcement – and the messenger himself carried some importance.

But let’s not forget these were boys – often young boys – working long days. In Exeter, there were no big Western Union offices that offered the occasional meal and at least minimal schooling. By the turn of the century, children were required to be in school until reaching the age of 14, but the local telegraph office probably didn’t ask too many questions if a boy was on the tall side and willing to work. The boy in our picture has most likely provided his own bicycle – but unlike the city kids, he probably went home for meals and sleep. His down time was likely long and dull, similar to the pace of life in Exeter.

As telephones became popular in the 1920s, it would seem that the telegram and telegraph boys would have disappeared from the landscape, but the telephone was primarily for local use, communication from farther away still required the speed of the telegraph. In his book, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology and Geography, 1850-1950, Gregory Downey notes: “Messenger employment peaked around 1930 and began to drop off after World War II. With the increasing demand for the telegraph in the Roaring Twenties, the messenger’s employers managed to transform him into the much-advertised image of the smiling, uniformed, industrial soldier, ready to not only deliver a holiday telegram with a smile, but competent to carry out product surveys, to deliver direct-marketing samples and even to cover the office phones while the boss was away. And soon after World War II ended, a century after the first telegraph messenger appeared, finding any messenger image at all – save for a nostalgic one – was all but impossible.”

It was probably for the best. Boys at that age should be in school and not gallivanting recklessly around town on a bicycle. Our winsome little fellow would have been forgotten had it not been for someone – perhaps an employee of the Exeter Gazette – grateful enough of his quick delivery of news from the depot, who snapped his picture on dusty old Water Street one day.

Photo: An unknown messenger boy poses sometime in the 1890s on Water Street in Exeter. The Folsom Tavern can be seen behind him in its original location on the corner of Water and Front Street.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What Color Should an Old House Be?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 13, 2015.

The Ladd-Gilman House, c. 1860
In 1876, Charles Bell described for the Ladies Centennial Levee the appearance of the town of Exeter in 1776. “The character of the buildings was generally inferior. To be sure the best of them were spacious, handsome and constructed from the choicest materials, as a few surviving specimens still attest; but probably the major part of them must have been comparatively small and poor. Unpainted houses were the rule then; they are the exceptions now.” When purchasing an old house – or attempting to make a new house blend in to an old neighborhood – the question of paint color is often raised. Our collective vision of New England’s old neighborhoods yields street after street of tidy houses painted in ‘New England Up-Tight White,’ but is this what the town actually looked like back in colonial days? Probably not, but it most likely looked like that one hundred years later.

It is possible to do a paint analysis to determine the original color. This can be time consuming and expensive. Not to mention that, as Charles Bell pointed out, it was uncommon for most colonial buildings to be painted. Even by the early 1800s, unpainted buildings seem to have been the rule in town. Elizabeth Dow Leonard mentions, in her reminiscence of childhood in Exeter during this time period, the Second Parish Church – which one might think was a rather prominent building – was, “guiltless of trees or any other ornamentation, two stories in height and unpainted.” Her own family house, described by her as “the old mansion,” was painted white. Other buildings in town, if the color is mentioned at all, are usually described as red. Dr. William Perry mentions several houses in his memoir of the 1830s: “the house was old and much faded as I recollect it, and painted originally red,” “on the next lot was an old two-storied house, originally painted red, but much faded.” A few others where white, but red or unpainted seems to be the most common colors mentioned for houses in town.

The Exeter Historic District Commission offers some advice on appropriate colors for old houses. These can be found on their website. The colors correspond with age of the house – old houses have fewer options: red, white, various shades of yellow. James Garvin, long the state architectural historian, gives us some insight into these choices in his A Building History of Northern New England, “When painted, houses were often covered with inexpensive yellow and red paints made by mixing dry, pulverized earth colors with linseed oils. Such buildings sometimes had their exterior trim picked out in white lead paint. Not infrequently, the facades of houses were wholly painted in white lead, but the sides and backs were covered with cheaper red or yellow. In other cases, rare enough in the eighteenth century to excite comment, houses were entirely painted in expensive white lead, either pure or tinted by the addition of colored pigments.” All of these choices were fairly durable over time, but white painted had the unfortunate downside of being toxic to the apprentices and painters who worked with it.

If white paint was expensive and uncommon, why do we associate it with traditional New England? The answer to that takes us back to the centennial Charles Bell participated in and a period of faddish delight that followed known as the ‘colonial revival.’ At the time of the nation’s centennial a wave of nostalgia swept across the country and white became the popular color for anything perceived as colonial. Oddly, there was also a great deal of snobbishness associated with all things British, and it became de rigueur to connect with one’s English roots. One popular urban legend – still promoted by many localities today – was that of the ‘Tory chimney.’

A Tory chimney was one that was painted white with a band of black at the very top. The legend usually suggests that locals who were loyal to the crown would have their chimneys painted in this fashion to alert the invading British and avoid having their house destroyed. There is no evidence for this in practice and if you think about it, alerting the British would also alert all your angry patriot neighbors, so it wouldn’t be a particularly great idea. Garvin is unconvinced on the practice, commenting, “the spurious nature of this legend is clear when we reflect on the inaccuracy of eighteenth-century bombardment and the impossibility of targeting or sparing individual buildings. The result of naval bombardment during the Revolution was usually a conflagration that consumed the entire town, as at Falmouth.” So forget about that old chestnut and accept that black-banded white chimneys are simply pretty.

So, before you pick up all that white paint for your old house, keep in mind that there are a few other options. Garvin would encourage the use of the earthier tones, “earth colors offer a limited palette of rather dull but pleasant hues. Mixed with a white metallic pigment, these same colors produce a wide range of hues that are highly appropriate for older houses.” Exeter’s Heritage Commission will be hosting a program on historic house painting this spring at the Exeter Historical Society to provide more guidance – notice of the event will be forthcoming.

Image: The Ladd-Gilman house in Exeter, now the home of the American Independence Museum, seen in a stereo view taken by William Hobbs about 1860. Although it is difficult to determine the color of the house, it is clearly not white. White paint was expensive and even a building as important as this – the state treasury during the Revolution – was often painted in earth tones or not painted at all.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Our latest Exeter History Minute - Daylight Saving Time

Are you a fan of springing forward and falling back? Or are you apt to grumble to a co-worker or neighbor about the time change for a day or two? Have you ever wondered how this odd practice began? In this episode - click here to watch - Barbara looks at the history of Daylight Saving Time, from Benjamin Franklin to the Uniform Time Act of 1966. This history minute is generously sponsored by Stratham-Newfields Veterinary Hospital. (And special thanks to Chester Battarbee for playing the role of the trusty canine.)

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute