Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Paper Route

Growing up in working class Youngstown, most of us got working experience early! What allowance I received just didn’t cover baseball card collecting, accessorizing that old Western Flyer bike, or, as you became aware of girls, buying the clothes that you thought would make you look good. [Truth be told, I wasn’t always all that good at this last.] So when I was 10, I started cutting grass for 8 or 10 neighbors in the area. And by 12, I added a Vindicator paper route to the mix, which provided year round income.

One of the papers I delivered. Image scanned from Pages From History (c)1991, The Vindicator Printing Company.

One of the papers I delivered. Image scanned from Pages From History (c)1991, The Vindicator Printing Company.

This blog was inspired by a comment to one of the previous blogs asking about my memories as a paper boy. So here goes.

The route: I learned that how you got a paper route was to contact the route manager, who you paid for your papers each Saturday at the fire station. So I went down and met him. I learned that route 1525 was going to be available, which consisted of subscribers on N. Maryland and N. Belle Vista Avenues between Oakwood and Mahoning Avenues, and a few homes on Mahoning Avenue. All told, I delivered papers to 65 to 70 subscribers. Training to be a paperboy consisted of going around for a couple days with the current paperboy, learning where everyone liked their paper, and figuring out who owed him money, and who had paid ahead, and whether I owed him money, or he owed me. I think I owed him. So upfront, I had to pay him money, and a “bond” with the manager so that one way or another, the Vindicator would get its money.

The customers: Nearly everyone took the newspaper, and there were even a few I persuaded to start.The Vindicator used to have contests for new subscribers. I think all I ever won was a new paper sack. Men were interested in the sports page. Women in the society page and the ads. Older people watched the obituaries to see who they had outlived!  There were a few who were fussy and wanted their paper in a very particular place. Most were pretty easy going. In our day, you learned to fold papers (except for the Wednesday and Sunday papers which were real thick), and just toss them on the porch. Got pretty good at that–only threw a few on roofs, and never broke any windows! I still fold papers almost instinctively after I’ve read them!

Collecting: Most customers paid for the paper by the week, which as I recall, cost 62 cents when I started. I think we made about 15 to 20 cents per customer on that, which on my route amounted to $12 to $15 dollars a week. Beyond that, you got to keep any “tip” income. Many customers simply paid a dollar, some 75 cents and let you keep the difference. There were the stingy ones who required exact change, who often were also the ones that never seemed to be around when you tried to collect. Usually I collected Maryland on Thursdays and Belle Vista on Fridays. The good customers would leave payment out for me if they weren’t home. One lady would always leave me a foil wrapped package of hard candy along with her payment!

The paper stop: Papers for our area were delivered near the corner of Oakwood and Steel Street late in the afternoons or around 6 am on Sundays. Usually you could time when the papers would be delivered. They came in bundles with your route number on them and in the quantity you ordered with Circulation. That’s how it worked when everything went right! Sometimes, they delivered the bundle to the wrong stop, usually the one before, which was just a few blocks away. It seems that at least a few times a month they were late, which meant hanging out with the other paper boys. We often had paper sack fights with each other. (I still have a piece of lead in my wrist from a pencil in one of our sacks whose point embedded itself there.) In colder weather, we waited in one of the service stations nearby and often emptied their pop machines. From the stop, it was a four block walk uphill on Oakwood to my route (not particularly fun in hot weather or on Wednesdays or Sundays with heavy papers). On Sundays, I used a wagon because there was too much to carry.

Winter: You delivered the paper, like the mail in all kinds of weather. Winter was the worst, especially on sub-zero Sunday mornings of which I remember a few. Most of the time, I delivered the papers on my own, especially during the week and in warmer weather. But on those winter Sunday mornings, dad drove with me to pick up the paper, put the ads into the paper, and then, I would deliver one side of the street, and he’d drive down to meet me with a fresh sack of papers for the other side. It was a good memory warming up in that car and having dad’s help. Perhaps the most challenging weather was when summer storms came up and you had to try to keep your papers dry. Sometimes you just waited it out on someone’s porch. If it didn’t look like stopping you tried to keep the papers dry with the flap of your sack, which was never quite big enough! Occasionally, I’d get calls to replace papers that were a bit too damp.

Hazards: The biggest hazard was a few of the dogs on the route that were protective, and didn’t always like the “thud” of a tossed newspaper on a porch. Most just barked or chased you off the property. Only once was I bit, and that just a nip. Otherwise, the worst hazard were the few older guys who sometimes came to the door in their underwear. On the other side of it, occasionally in summer, when you were collecting some of the teenage girls would come to the door in bathing suits!

Christmas: You never wanted to give your route up just before Christmas because people would tip especially big. I think the biggest tip I got was a crisp new $20. It was not atypical to average $150 for the route. Many would give you Christmas cards.

Looking back, I realized that paper routes were a great way of teaching you how to work: to show up every day, to handle money well, to save from your earnings, to learn to relate to all kinds of people, to work under all kinds of conditions.  For many of us, our families needed the extra income, and most of our parents, who grew up in the Depression had started working even earlier. It was just kind of expected. And the physical nature of it prepared many for harder physical jobs as laborers. While we certainly had our share of fun, you grew up early.

For others who had paper routes, what were your memories of that experience?