My Newspaper Route: Child Labor?

5 years (grades 4-9) I spent delivering The Winnipeg Tribune in all kinds of weather year-round 6 days a week. Sometimes in -35 F windy blizzards and torrential summer downpours. 2 streets, 3 long blocks each and onto the prairie 100 yards or so out in the open.

We were poor, like so many people then after the war, 1959-64. For me, it was a chance to make some spending dough to buy candy and later 45 rpms. That first Christmas after working from January on, I had enough saved up to buy our family a Brownie camera. A big deal.

I got to meet a lot of people, especially with the hassle of bi-weekly collecting. It also gave me insights into how other people lived ranging from even tougher poverty to reasonably well-heeled middle class people living in the new houses that began to pop up as prosperity kicked in for some in the area.

There were days when I was so sick, my heroic mother delivered papers after she got home from work. It was a largely thankless job to make a few bucks every week, doing work for peanuts no adult would have ever considered, unless desperate.

The route amounted to 1 1/2-2 hours being tied up after school. There were dogs, frozen wooden steps (perfect for winter falls in my moccasins), and customers who made me come back for payment. But there were also nice people and kind women who took pity on me on the coldest winter days and took me in to get warmed up. Quite a range of humanity and my introduction to adults in depth.

Looking back, the newspapers obviously had no pangs of conscience about sending out young boys to get lead print on their hands and freeze their buns off in winter, especially carrying heavy bags of Saturday papers.

Years later when I read Dickens and William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper”, I easily identified with the child characters.

We were so poor somedays, a couple of times, there was no actually food in the cupboards except for cereal, and one Sunday afternoon, my mother made up a meal from just the several basic cooking ingredients on hand! There were days, too, when she borrowed money from me to pay a bill. In some ways, that paper route was family outcome–what I could make and save up.

Today 63 years later, another cold day, and I will not go outside yet again. Looking back, I don’t know how I survived those winter days, delivering the papers dressed to the teeth, returning to that big old drafty WW1 house with a slow and sometimes out-of-coal chain-pull furnace.

Paper boys were the life-blood of newspapers for decades. Seen a certain way, they, too, were exploited as cheap labor to keep newspapers running and financially successful.

On the other hand, the experience toughened me and made me harder. I am not sorry for the responsibility it gave me plus an ‘allowance’ I never got unlike other kids. The majority of the kids I knew never had that experience; it was one-of-a-kind, and it stopped happening after papers went to morning deliveries.

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