”Preston De Costa, fifteen year old messenger #3 for Bellevue Messenger Service. I ran across him and took photos while he was carrying notes back and forth between a prostitute in jail and a pimp in the Red Light district. He had read all the notes and knew all about the correspondence. He was a fine grained adolescent boy. Has been delivering message and drugs in the Red Light for six months and knows the ropes thoroughly. “A lot of these girls are my regular customers. I carry ‘em messages and get ‘em drinks, drugs, etc. Also go to the bank with money for them. If a fellow treats ‘em right, they’ll call him by number and give him all their work. I got a box full of photos I took of these girls – some of ‘em I took in their room.” Works until 11:00 P.M.” -Hine
Location: San Antonio, Texas. Date Created/Published: 1913 October. LOC original medium: 1 photographic print.
Between 1908 and 1924 an investigative reporter and photographer named Lewis Hine documented the lives and conditions of children in the labor force and put his life’s work into creating reform. Today we have child labor laws to protect the most vulnerable among us in the United States because of the horror that these photographs instilled in Americans. Today, we send our labor abroad where we don’t have to contend with the daily evidence of labor exploitation.
There’s a lot to be said about this whole topic. While looking through these photographs, I did get to find out a lot about the early history of bike messengers. Today, the bicycle is a hip way to get around the Bay Area and messenger chic is all the rage. That isn’t to say that it’s entirely safe to get around San Francisco on a bike but the culture and industry thrives even now for quick local transport. Bikes still have the ability to get around town quicker than a car because of the traffic and parking problems and they’re still quite often the cheapest option in town.
What I didn’t know is just how engrained bike messengers were to the daily functioning of red light districts. Packages were sent to and from brothels, drugs were delivered across town with bike messengers who did not operate as government officials. The teenage bike messengers existed in between an image of the innocent youth (and with the overall conditions of child labor in factories and mines, which adolescent could be “innocent” in the ideal way we would like to think?) and the vice trade. Messengers c0uld be counted on to lead men to the hidden brothels and speakeasies.
Hines made it a point to ask his photographic subjects about their exposure to the “red light” district as he took their portraits. In fact, running errands for the red light and vice districts wound up being regarded as a more dire ill to children then many of the other hazards from factory or mine work. It was easier for the public to support shutting down a red light district by taking out the support staff that helped it function than to support children by taking them out of the mines and factories where they were killed and maimed regularly because that labor supported the country as a whole.
Looking through the archive, the youth seemed to have little negative to say about their clients in the vice district aside from the novelty of reading the scandalous notes passed between sex workers and their clients or pimps. Although it may be alarming to read about their transfer of drugs, formal drug prohibition was a hazy thing in this country. Plenty of good drugs we can only dream about were totally legal and well in the public circulation when these photos were snapped despite the fact that people knew the common recreational uses of everything.
It’s kind of a reminder that drug and sex trade prohibition is not a static issue in the country and that sometimes even vice is powered by bikes.