Gateway Index LinkCurrent Issue LinkLast Issue LinkBook Reviews LinkThesis Abstracts LinkArticle Catalog LinkSubmissions Link

Gateway Logo

An Academic Journal on the WebBook Reviews

Gregory Downey
Telegraph Messenger Boys:
Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850-1950

New York: Routledge, 2000

Reviewed by Carrie Sanders
Carleton University

        The Telegraph Messenger Boys:Labor, Technology, and Geography 1850-1950, is a fascinating analysis of the intermingling of the social and technological. Downey portrays the messenger boy as a part of the telegraphic product- the telegram, “not only advertising it to the world, but carrying with it an aura of importance and urgency that kept it distinct from the products of the competing information networks, the slow letter and the hurried telephone call”(192). Thereby, Downey argues that the telegraph industry was not a ‘purely scientific’ technology, but instead a technology of negotiated labor where the messenger performed different duties at different times. 

Downey takes the reader through a journey that uncovers the ‘black box’[1]of the telegram highlighting the social relations and labour embedded in its functioning and success.This analysis demonstrates that a product is only successful when it is accepted by and incorporated into peoples’ everyday activities, for example the telegraph industry, although antiquated, survived long after new communication technology had been created because of the reputation that the telegram, and ultimately the messenger, held for the consumer.Therefore, the development of the telegram was a collective and continual process that required the telegraph companies to redefine the use, purpose and image of the telegram as time passed and new communication technology, such as the telephone and post office, were created.[2]

Downey illustrates this collective and negotiated process through an analysis of the messenger boy.The telegraph messengers, and particularly their identity, were entrenched in the survival of Western Union and the telegraph industry.Downey’s analysis illustrates how the messenger boy was implicated in the shaping of occupational identities, the development of information products, the evolution of technological systems, and the production of technological spaces (13).The historical account of the messenger worker illuminates the multiple skills (such as: mathematics, geography, and problem solving) demanded in telegraph messenger labour, while further illustrating how their image, work and leisure activities were controlled by the industry itself.

Downey creates an image of the messenger as a labour that involves multiple skills, blurred gender identities, and a downgraded reputation (for example, school drop out, unskilled, “slow, stupid, and even criminal”) by the rest of society (162).This historical analysis shows how the messenger boy was a ‘boundary worker’ who performed many duties inside the telegraph industry (including delivering telegrams, operating machinery, general deliveries, and advertising “relied on messengers image and tales of messenger heroics”), as well as outside the industry by becoming a key worker within the communications internetwork (i.e. telephone, post office, and telegraph industry) (93).

Therefore, the telegraph messenger was an internetwork boundary-worker who was “crucial in connecting this analog internetwork; they enabled the emergent pattern of multimodal message delivery and dealt with all the problems that thwarted that delivery”(146).This image enables one to see the messenger boy as multi-skilled and the key player in the success of the telegraph industry, however these skills were difficult to see by the customers and instead many people did not understand the complexity involved in transforming information from a virtual form into a physical telegram.Thus Downey provides a descriptive account of how messenger work was ‘downgraded’ by the industry (through poor wages and lack of union recognition) and the competition (for example, “this Electric Messenger never idles - never loses or misdelivers messages - never meets with injury”).This reveals how the identity of the messenger boy was tightly woven into the telegram itself (87).[3]

By focusing on the telegraph messenger Downey demonstrates how Western Union attempted to govern their employees through their training, uniforms, labour hours, wages, and vocational education, which all aided Western Union to control the behavior and inevitably the image of their messenger boys.Uniforms served two purposes, they acted as a form of advertisement for the telegraph industry while simultaneously instilling a respectable and important image for the messenger boy.At the same time that uniforms became mandatory, new spaces were being created and designated for messengers boys behind the scenes to ensure that customers would not see them sitting around.These tactics were employed by the telegraph industry because a customer not only purchased the technology, they also “purchased the personal care the messenger boy would take with it”, and this meant that the messenger had to appear respectable and trustworthy (96).This is just one example of how the messenger boy was pivotal in the production of the telegram, technological spaces, and the evolution of technological systems.

Downey uncovers how the messenger boys became the focus of child labour laws, the development of continuation and vocational schooling, as well as the central players for the production of information from its virtual form to its physical form.This book covers fascinating and important theories of technology and labour, while further highlighting the social construction of both space and time.Although this is an intriguing historical and sociological account there are two aspects of this research that I believe, remove the authenticity of Downey’s claims, these are his description of data and gender analysis.

The first critique that I will make is regarding the methodological approach taken. Downey states that the study “strives to let the messengers’ own voices be heard”, through the analysis of:hiring records, work rules, union contracts, management minutes, employee interviews, advertisements, popular advertisements and dime novels (6).The problem arises when Downey neglects to explain how he analyzed the data.Many people can take the same data and look at it from a different perspective and come up with a different analysis. Therefore the arguments presented throughout the text would be stronger had Downey explained how he reached them.[4]

Of more concern to me was the use and conception of gender, gender identity, and masculine/feminine ideals.Downey spends most of his time critiquing the telegraph messenger boy as occupying a “blurry gender position which enabled them to perform both masculine and feminine tasks in both the masculine and the feminine spaces of the city”, however he never defines gender and masculine/feminine tasks (124).Throughout the book I felt that gender referred to the biological sex of the messenger, however gender is more than sex, it incorporates the socially constructed aspects of men and women (Marshall, 1994/1998).Downey defined neither gender nor masculinity and femininity even though he based most of his analysis, as well as an entire chapter, around these conceptions. Downey explains that the blurry gender identities of the messenger boys enabled them to be successful boundary workers because:

Masculine gender definitions of duties and working-class hopes of future careers, based on the idea that a working boy would soon grow into a working man, were key to creating a messenger force that could function effectively in the public business sphere of the city.But more feminized gender definitions, linked not only to class but to age and motherhood, were key to extending messenger work into the woman’s domestic sphere at the same time. . . . Age and class were key in maintaining this gender position, because the mythical future opportunities of the messenger were intended to compensate for his present subordinate status (124).

This is an intriguing explanation for the predominantly male messenger force, however it is difficult to fully accept without providing the definition of gender and more specifically what it means to be masculine and feminine.

        Had Downey placed more time and consideration into explaining his process and definitions I believe his argument would have been more valuable.Nevertheless, Telegraph Messenger Boys, is a fascinating journey through the mixing of technology and labour.The research provides a compelling tale of messenger heroics and how the messenger worker was the secret tool behind the success of the telegram.It enlightens the readers by demonstrating how technology is composed of social relations and continual negotiations[5] that worked to create its own space and time through the aid of the young messenger boy.

[1] Black box, as Bruno Latour 1987 explains is “an expression from the sociology of science that refers to the way a scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. . . . Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become”(304)
[2] For a better understanding of the collective process of fact and object building see Latour, 1987; Bijker, 1995; and Pickering, 1995.Each of these analyses’ demonstrate how objects (such as bicycles, air pumps, and scientific facts) are the result of a continual process where different people at different times engage and shape the objects.They further illustrate how the success of an object is the result of different social groups incorporating the object into their activities, therefore “it is not only collectively transmitted from one actor to the next, it is collectively composed by actors”(Latour, 1987:104).
[3] From this example of downgrading messenger labour we can begin to see the similarity between this form of labour and the labour of telephone operators, dispatchers, and clerical workers.For another description of downgraded labour see Reimer 1995 who explains that “clerical work is documented in such a way that the specialized knowledge and contributions of women in advanced clerical positions are drawn upon while not being made accountable as performance in a position”(207). Reimer’s research on downgraded clerical work has many similarities to Downey’s depiction of the telegraph messenger.
[4]Mauthner and Doucet (1998), have done excellent work regarding the importance of data analysis, they explain how some researchers are nervous about explaining their data analysis because each person interprets methods differently and they may be concerned that they did it improperly, they explain how “there can be no ‘pure’, ‘real’, or ‘authentic’ experiences or voices of respondents because of the complex set of relationships between the respondents’ experiences, voices and narratives, and the researchers’ interpretation and representation of these experiences/voices/narratives” (140).
[5] Marc Berg, 1997 has also completed fascinating research on medical technologies and their negotiated uses.His analysis demonstrates how pieces of technology can reinforce organizational hierarchies as well as create negotiated labour between the employees and the technologies uses.


Berg, Marc (1997).Rationalizing Medical Work:Decision-Support Techniques and Medical Practices.The MIT Press:London.

Bijker, Wiebe E.(1995).Of Bicycles, Bakelites, And Bulbs:Toward A Theory Of Sociotechnical Change.The MIT Press:London.

Latour, Bruno (1987).Science In Action.Harvard University Press:Cambridge.

-----(1999).Pandora’s Hope: Essays On The Reality Of Science Studies.Harvard University Press:Cambridge.

Mauthner, N. and Doucet, A. (1998).“Reflections on a Voice-centred Relational Method:Analysing Maternal and Domestic Voices” Pp. 119-145 in Feminist Dilemmas In Qualitative Research .Sage Publications:London.

Pickering, Andrew (1995).The Mangle Of Practice: Time Agency & Science.University of Chicago Press:Chicago.

Reimer, Marilee (1995).“Downgrading Clerical Work In A Textually Mediated Labour Process” Pp 193-208 in Knowledge, Experience, and Ruling Relations.University of Toronto Press:Toronto.


Gateway encourages its readers to contact us with
any comments, questions or concerns.


| Gateway | Current Issue | Last Issue | Book Reviews|
Thesis Abstracts | Article Catalog | Submissions |
Academic Links