In the spring of 1985, I was 14 years old and wanted money to spend at the mall. I babysat for the neighbor kids since I was 11, but I was no longer interested in that gig. I wanted a job job.
Because I wasn’t old enough to work at Pizza Hut or Atomic Records, I got a paper route. At that time, Milwaukee still offered two daily papers: the Sentinel in the morning and the Journal in the evening. The two print publications consolidated in 1995.
I split my route, which was near my house on Morris Boulevard in Shorewood, with my best friend Jenny (most girls were named Jen or Jenny in 1985). Every day after school Jenny and I waited for the truck to drop off bundles of papers for us to assemble – or “sub” as those of us in the paper delivery biz say. Then we’d load up our bright yellow Journal bags and walk the four blocks to the route.
On Sundays, the Journal was delivered in the morning, so we woke at 4:30 a.m. and either did the route ourselves in the dark or, if we were lucky, with my dad. Many Sundays he let us stack the papers in the back of his Ford Escort. Not only was this quicker and easier, but it always ended with donuts from Mister Donut on Locust Street.
Successfully managing a paper route was enough work experience to land me a job in a popcorn wagon the following summer. And that job led me to a gig at a movie theater and, eventually, to the work I do today as a professional writer, like writing this article.
But, as we all know, times have changed and teenagers in need of mall money and ambitious 11-year-olds with wagons don’t deliver the newspaper anymore. By the mid 1990s, “paperboys” and “papergirls” were replaced by adult men and women.
The shift in carriers’ age was due partly to the disappearance of evening newspapers that provided student-friendly delivery times. The accessibility of internet news, growing concerns for the safety of un-escorted kids, and new distribution procedures also affected the change.
“To remain profitable, we phased out the ‘neighborhood shacks’ and home drop offs and migrated to larger distribution centers dealing solely with adult distributors,” said Ronald Zinda, distribution supervisor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of 45 years.
Today, newspaper deliverers must be 18 years old with a valid drivers license and a car. Thus, the cap-wearing boy on the street corner shouting “Extra! Extra!” or the girl on her Schwinn tossing papers onto her neighbors’ doorstep faded into the past.
With the age adjustment for carriers, young folks lost the chance to hone their enterprising skills and sense of responsibility. And the community lost out, too. The youthful presence of earnest laborers, eager to deliver the nightly news on – or at least near – the welcome mat was gone. An element of wholesomeness that would not be replaced.
And yet, whereas the job no longer exists for kids, paper delivery memories live on with the carriers, now adults.
Many famous politicos and celebrities had paper routes, including Martin Luther King, Jr. (for the “Atlanta Journal Constitution”), actor Tom Cruise, entertainer Bob Hope, supermodel Kathy Ireland and president-elect Joe Biden. For Biden, the job was particularly meaningful because it forced him to improve his speech impediment by talking to customers when collecting payments.
“I lived in dread of Saturday mornings when I had to go collect [money] from people I was just getting to know," Biden said. “[I] learned to anticipate the conversation to come.”
Marc Revenson – aka the musician “Lil Rev” – held a Milwaukee Sentinel route from 1980 to 1984 at 76th and Capitol Drive. He got the job when he was 12 years old.
“I delivered papers on foot, on my BMX bike and with a pushcart,” said Revenson. “I usually had my portable cassette player blasting AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Doors, Ozzy, Black Sabbath at 4:30 a.m.”
Revenson made between $40 and $50 a week delivering papers, which was plenty of money for him at the time.
“I always had money in my pocket. I could go to Kitt's Frozen Custard and treat myself and my friends whenever I wanted,” said Revenson. “And I saved money for things like skateboards and bikes.”
Jim Stingl, a local newspaper columnist who retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after 33 years, foreshadowed his career as a journalist with two paper routes that he shared with his brother from 1966 to 1971.
“My first route was near Dineen Park off of Keefe Avenue. Later I upgraded to a bigger route near John Marshall High School that included my own house,” said Stingl.
Like Revenson, Stingl also fondly remembers the feeling of making and spending his very own money.
“I was the richest kid I knew! I went from a childhood allowance of 25 cents a week in our large working class family to like $30 a week on the route,” Stingl said.
Gillian Lester-George de Montesinos was a Journal carrier from age 12 to 16. The route, which she shared with her brother, was in Riverwest on Humboldt and Keefe Avenues. They kept the route until 1994 – the tail end of the era of child paper carriers. She still has one of her paystubs from the job:
“My brother and I never used the designated Journal crossbody bags because they hung awkwardly and made it uncomfortable to walk. We preferred to carry the papers in our arms. This meant wearing dark clothes that would not be ruined by the ink that rubbed off on them,” said Lester-George de Montesinos. “I often wonder if this is when I unofficially developed my penchant for black clothing.”
Sunday morning paper deliveries are some of Lester-George de Montesinos most cherished memories from the experience because they include her mom.
“After we finished our deliveries, my mom would take us to buy donuts or hot ham and rolls for breakfast,” she said. “We would all read the paper as we sat around the kitchen table and ate whatever we had decided on that week.”
For many kid carriers, their parents played a large supporting role – especially on morning routes.
“I remember my father twisting my ear to wake me up on Sunday mornings at 4:30 a.m.,” said Mike Bieser, who had a Journal route in 1974 on Milwaukee’s West Side.
To this day, Bieser still remembers the robins and the early morning light from his early newspaper delivery shifts.
“Paper boys were like dairy farmers - there was no escaping the daily duties of the job,” said Stingl. “Sports and other after school activities were for other kids. We carriers as young as 12 learned to handle the responsibility of peddling a dry paper to every customer every day, even in the crappiest weather. And handling money. And learning human nature from demanding customers and those who ducked you when it was time to pay.”
Stingl’s parents were indirectly involved in his paper carrying. When he was short a paper at the end of the route he would have to give up his family's paper, which perturbed his dad and mom.
His mom has issues with the route for other reasons, too.
“My mom would say for years that she thought my brother and I grew up too fast on those routes, especially at the shack where older kids smoked and swore and who knows what else,” said Stingl. “I'm also ready to confess that we once got hold of a carton of condoms and slipped them into the newspapers of a particularly conscientious carrier. Imagine the shock of his customers to get that bonus item. So, yeah, maybe my mom was right.”
I too, am ready to admit that I tampered with a customer's newspaper on the last day of my route. Jenny, who I shared the route with, and I had a crush on a preppy-looking 20-something at the end of the cul-du-sac, so for his final paper from us, we sprayed every section with perfume. (Considering it was the 80s, I'm guessing it was Love's Baby Soft, but I can't remember for sure.)
Sura Faraj had her first paper route when she was 13 and a second one many years later as an adult. She took the job as an adult because she had a positive experience delivering papers as a teenager.
“I remember it was kind of scary at first: learning which houses, and where to put the papers. Approaching yards with dogs in them. Knocking on doors to collect,” said Faraj. "But after a few weeks, at 13 years old, it was the first time I really felt proficient at something.”
Today, most adults working as newspaper carriers do it as a second job. Such is the case for Bill, a 61-year-old from Milwaukee who asked that his last name be withheld so his primary employer could not identify him.
“(Delivering papers) works with our schedule because it’s so early in the morning, before the other jobs. It gives us extra money for groceries or bills,” he said.
In Milwaukee County, there are currently 281 routes held by 260 adult carriers (some carriers have multiple routes), according to Zinda.
“We have a vast range of carriers from 18 to 80 years old,” said Zinda. “The average age is 35 to 40. It’s an ideal second income for a lot of people, but we also have current carrier force ranging from self-employed, housewives, professionals, unemployed and retirees.”
The average Milwaukee County route has approximately 100 daily customers and 200 Sunday and Wednesday customers. According to ZInda, carriers’ wages range between $250 - $300 per week, plus tips.
“The days of having to go knock on doors to collect weekly from their customer’s is something current carriers don’t do, but probably something every youth carrier will never forget because it truly was a life lesson in both finances and people skills rolled into one,” said Zinda.
The December holiday season was – and still is – the most lucrative time of the year for newspaper carrier. In the mid-to-late 20th century, carriers gave calendars to customers for the upcoming year as a free gift that also inspired many to tip more heavily than usual.
“A quarter would be considered a generous tip, plus maybe a buck at Christmastime for the calendar we provided,” said Stingl.
As early as the 18th Century, paper carriers – often referred to as “newsies” – gave New Year’s “greetings” to their customers, such as little books of poetry with clever verses thanking them for their business.
Here’s a poem that appeared in a New Year’s greeting from the newsies in an early 1868 Sentinel:
What of Milwaukee? City of our love!
Ranked of all the cities, O! So far above!
In the brief moment that to us remains,
How shall we sing thy praise in filling strains?
Behold the streets encompassing the soil;
Behold thy rich reward of honest toil;
Behold the rising homes and stores and spires;
Behold Bay View and its industrial fires;
Behold thy store of wheat! Proclaimed it stands;
The great primal market of all the lands.
Milwaukee! Here she is! Come walk her round;
And every step her welfare shall resound!
Pride of Wisconsin! Nobelist, fairest, best –
Milwaukee Hail! Cream City of the West!
Newsies were regularly profiled in the newspapers themselves. These stories about the life and aspirations of the young carriers were often tales about how boys as young as 7 had the paper routes to help out with family finances or pay for their school books and uniforms.
Today, paper carriers are usually faceless to their customers because they deliver so early in the morning. They certainly do not play the same role in a neighborhood that they once did. Although October 10 was declared by the newspaper industry as International Newspaper Carrier Day, few customers or carriers are aware of this.
In some communities, finding adults to fill newspaper delivery jobs can be a challenge. Last year, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram publisher Lisa DeSisto had 27 newspaper routes open and resorted to asking former carriers to come back to the job for more money.
“To deliver a morning paper these days you must be at least 18 and own a car, and be willing to work from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., dodging deer while searching for house numbers in the dark,” said DeSisto.
The paperboy and papergirl, like the switchboard operator and milkman and (for the most part) bowling pinsetter, is now extinct. And it's likely that newspapers will eventually go completely digital, and paper delivering will become an obsolete job for kids and adults alike.
“I am so glad I got to be a part of an age-old tradition before it disappears from Milwaukee,” says Lester-George de Montesinos. "It's a great childhood memory."
Vintage photos courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.