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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Days of the Paperboy

A recent conversation with a neighbor prompted me to wonder when I last saw a paperboy on bicycle delivering the news. Nowadays, it's an adult in a car slinging papers out the window, aiming for but not always hitting the driveway.

When I was ten years old and my brother twelve, he wanted a paper route. One evening, a man from the newspaper office came over and talked to my parents and brother about the work of a paper route and Sev eagerly accepted a route in our neighborhood.

Every morning, except Saturday, a bundle of one hundred flat papers were delivered to our porch around 4 a.m. Our daily paper had about ten pages and the Sunday paper had about twice that with special editions and the funnies. For the first few mornings, my mom and I helped Sev roll the papers, snap rubber bands around them, and load them into canvas bags that hung off the handle bars of his bicycle. The bags were emblazoned with the name of the newspaper and had to be evenly loaded in order to steer the bicycle. Also for those first few mornings, my mom followed along in the car until he learned the route and got the hang of riding with such a load. And of course, I rode along too since I was already awake, so I learned the route too.

The papers had to be delivered by 6 a.m. or the phone at the newspaper office started ringing. And then our phone started ringing. In those days, the paper had to be thrown onto the porch. Not the yard, not the driveway. The porch. And if it wasn't, the phones would ring. A few times when Sev was sick, I delivered his route since I already knew it, but I didn't have the arm for throwing papers. I had to ride up to the front porch. If I tried to throw from the street, I spent more time fishing a paper out of the bushes. So I rode to the porch. I probably rode through front yards too, but I don't recall any phone calls from irate customers about that. Come to think of it, I'm don't think I ever got paid for being his substitute.

I think Sev had seven blocks on his route, with about ninety customers. There were always extra newspapers in case something happened to a few, like throwing them onto the roof. There was one lady who called the office nearly every morning reporting that her newspaper hadn't been delivered. When the office called our house, Sev had to deliver another paper to them on his way to school. After a few mornings of this, Sev insisted he had delivered the paper there, so once again mom and I followed along in the car. After Sev delivered that paper, mom and I parked across the street and watched. Turned out that the next door neighbor, who didn't take the paper, let his dog out in the morning and the dog went next door, retrieved the paper, and took it home. So the neighbor was getting a free paper, and the customer really did open her door to an empty porch, well, except for the milk but that's another story. After that, Sev put her paper inside the screen door even though it took longer. And a few days later, the neighbor signed up for newspaper service.

Probably the worst part of the job for any paperboy was doing the collections. The newspaper office didn't bill the customer, that was the job of the paperboy. When someone signed up for service, they were given a small card with a square for each month. Every month, the paperboy had to go door to door to collect for the newspapers he had delivered that month, and when paid, he punched the square for that month. I guess people were pretty honest back then, as no one on Sev's route ever tried to punch their own card and get out of paying. We kept our punch card stuck behind the corner of the light switch cover by the front door, and I think Hubby's parents did the same. That made it easy to find when the paperboy came to collect. Still, there were plenty of people who either couldn't find their card or their money and Sev had to make another trip or two to get paid. There was probably someone at the newspaper office to turn to if a customer never paid, but that never happened to Sev. Like I said, I think people were pretty honest back then. Plus, it was a small town and these were our neighbors.

Sev began his paper route in the summer, and he enjoyed the money it immensely. But we lived in a part of the country where winters were cold, with snow, ice - the works. We had the kind of weather where it snowed several inches one day, melted the next, and then froze into sheets of jagged ice every night for several weeks. We usually had our first frost by the first of October and our first snow by the first of November. Along about Christmas, probably after he had bought everything he had been saving for, and right about the time the uneven weight of the bags of newspapers caused his bike to fall on that jagged ice for the hundreth time, Sev decided that delivering newspapers didn't pay enough and he wanted to quit. But my parents made him stick it out through the end of his year.

Before you feel too sorry for Sev, when the snow was very deep, or the streets very icy, my mom drove him. And I doubt she ever got paid for it either. After helping Sev roll papers and drive him around his route, she still had breakfast on the table by 7 o'clock. Every morning of my life, save two or three, my mom made bacon and eggs for breakfast, usually with toast and orange juice.

When Sev and I were much younger, our paperboy was a boy who lived several blocks away. His name was Mike, and he was saving for a car. He was our paperboy for three or four years, and it was his route that Sev took over, so I guess that was the year Mike turned fifteen or sixteen and had enough saved for his car.  At that time, we had a fat, little dog who turned into greased lightning when she got out the front door. Several times, Mike found her several blocks away and brought her home in the canvas newspaper bags on his bicycle. After that, I think the dog ran away just so Mike would give her a ride.

Maybe the paperboy disappeared because, like Sev, they didn't want to be out in the freezing cold before dawn, or maybe newspaper owners found that adults with cars were more reliable than boys on bicycles, or maybe it just became too dangerous for boys on bicycles to be out alone in the dark. In any case, they're gone, and half the people in the U.S. today have never even heard of them.



  1. I remember paper boys, but having no older brothers, didn't get the first hand experience you did.

  2. great story. At my parents house we had the same paperboy for years. I think he had the route through college. Anyway, when my kids were little, we lived in a large planned community where the home owner's association produced a paper weekly or maybe bi-weekly. When my oldest was maybe 13, we decided to see if they could get a route. I don't think we ever got a permanent route, but there were always people out so we would be the subs. They had to be delivered in the afternoon so we would get the papers, either rubber band them or put them in bags, load them in the car and then drive to whichever neighborhood it was. It was a way for them to make money. Although I did a lot of the work, I never took any of the money. I don't know what they did with it, but they didn't save any (my fault). But it does give fond memories.

  3. Loved this story. My brother delivered papers on his bike too but I was never a part of it. I liked my sleep far too much to get up that stinking early. Still do.

    1. I guess it's easier for kids to wake up early, but I don't know how my mom did it. I'm not a morning person any more, not that I ever really was one, and certainly couldn't do that now.

  4. I love this story Marti! I remember when paper boys delivered papers to do the door step. And when the milk man delivered milk to the door step (we had cows so our milk was delivered in the barn :-) Your mother must have been exhausted by noon!

  5. Yes, that used to be a great first job for kids. Love that story!

  6. What a sweet story, Marti, and it brings back memories. My brothers were paperboys, but they always quit before really cold weather and then got another route in the spring. I had forgotten about having to collect! My brother was trying to save for a nice guitar but it was a slow process the newspaper route way (can't imagine saving for a car, but then again, you could get a fairly decent couple hundred dollar car back then). So one year, he started trapping muskrat instead. It paid $7 a pelt--way more than delivering the paper--and he got his guitar in no time. My other brother bought a drum set that way too!


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