Mitchell’s Musings 8-15-16: Not to the Swift

13 Aug 2016 2:30 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 8-15-16: Not to the Swift

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

A profound thought in that quote. It has something to do with accidents of life and uncertainty of outcomes and experiences. When I was a senior in high school – Stuyvesant High School in New York City – I got a job at the Swift Messenger Service – by accident. One of the other boys at the school told me about the job. Stuyvesant at the time was an all-male school requiring an entrance exam to get in and was located in 15th Street west of First Avenue.[1] The Swift Messenger Service was located just west of Fifth Avenue on 47th Street, which is (was) in the heart of the Diamond District.[2]

To get the job, I simply accompanied the guy who told me about the job to the office, spoke to the owner/boss who hired me on the spot and told me to get the necessary New York State working papers, which I did. There was nothing that could be called an “interview.” I walked in on my own two feet which qualified me to be a messenger boy – since the job mainly involved walking around midtown Manhattan.

There still are messenger services in Manhattan. But based on a Google search, only a few. (Uber seems to have one.) There were more such enterprises back then (1960) before the invention of the fax machine, email, etc. Many of the clients of the Swift Messenger Service were advertising agencies. The agencies had their own messengers on payroll, but there was a peak period in the late afternoon when apparently a lot of last minute material had to be picked up and delivered. The late afternoon corresponded to the time when high school kids were available since school let out at 3 pm.

In some cases, there appeared to be an ongoing business relationship with particular agencies and there were dedicated phone lines by which they could call Swift. But a lot of the business came from sporadic callers. The sporadic callers had the idea that when they called for a messenger, he would pick up their package and deliver it directly to where they wanted it sent. “It” typically was a manila envelope. If they were in a hurry, they could pay extra for “rush” service.

Actually, the Swift Messenger Service ran like a post office. Messengers were sent out on routes to pick up packages from addresses in particular areas. All of the packages were brought back to the office on 47th Street; they were not directly delivered. When a pile of packages accumulated in the central office, delivery routes to particular areas were made up and boys were sent out again. The only thing that rush service seemed to buy was a label on the package that said “rush.”

Messengers would arrive from school around 3:30 pm and sit on a bench in the office. As orders came in, boys would be dispatched on routes. Messengers were paid the minimum wage, then $1 per hour. But the “clock” didn’t start when you came in. It started when you were dispatched. So if business was slow, you would be on the bench longer and weren’t paid for the waiting time.

Before coming back to the office after completing pick-ups or deliveries, you were required to phone in from a pay phone (there was no shortage of pay phones back then). Calls cost a dime for which you were reimbursed. But you were supposed to make sure you had a dime for the call with you. When you called in, you might be told to go to some new addresses for pick-ups near to where you were that had been requested during your travels.

The office on 47th Street was staffed by the owner/boss plus a couple of other adult workers. Owner/boss sometimes took the day off and went to the races – or somewhere – leaving the others in charge. There were also one or two adult messengers who appeared to be “cognitively impaired” (if that is the correct term nowadays) and seemed to be used for special trips, such as overnight trips to Philadelphia.

OK. You now have a basic outline of the enterprise and its practices. But note that it is a rich source of labor market anecdotes and issues, some of which I used to cite in my labor markets class.

Let’s start with hiring. Note that there was no formal posting or advertising of jobs. It was all word of mouth. And incumbent workers just brought in friends when there were vacancies. In more recent years, this type of recruitment via network has been particularly identified with immigrant labor markets. But obviously it has existed for a long time. In my own case, I wasn’t particularly looking for an after-school job. The potential workforce is typically divided between 1) the employed, 2) those looking for work but without jobs (the unemployed), and 3) those out of the labor force (and not actively looking for work). Studies indicate that jumps from the third status to the first, i.e., recruitment of people into employment among folks who were not actively seeking a job, are common.

Another point to note is that all the messengers were boys. Was that because the network was linked to an all-boys high school? Or was it that girls in 1960 would not have wanted to be messengers? Or that the Swift Messenger Service just didn’t hire females? (None of the adult workers were women.) Interesting questions. There were no laws at the time that would have prevented an employer from discriminating on the basis of sex. If you were to look at help-wanted ads in the newspapers of that era, you would find male and female jobs listed separately.[3]

What about the lack of a real interview? Since the job really required very little that could be called “skill,” that lack wasn’t surprising. If you could read an address and walk to it, or on rare occasions take a bus or subway to it, you were “qualified.” So there was little risk to the employer of a bad hire. If you nonetheless turned out to be a bad hire, you could be fired. No big deal. And the fact that an incumbent worker – who was presumably OK or he wouldn’t have been incumbent – brought you, was a kind of screening. Why would he want to bring someone who wouldn’t work out?

The pay system also has some lessons. First, there is some question about the process of having workers sit on a bench unpaid until dispatched. It at least skirts on the edge of illegality. A lawyer would probably want to examine the degree to which you were required to arrive by a certain time, even if no work was available. But note that if the practice was illegal, i.e., you should have been paid from the time of arrival, who was going to enforce the law? The amount that would have been due to any particular worker would have been trivial. And workers would have had to file complaints – assuming they knew about the law and where complaints had to be filed.

Moreover, the Swift Messenger Service was a small business. So if the practice was illegal, there was at least a good chance the owner/boss may not have known that it was. There were no lawyers on staff. It is one thing to enact labor laws; it is another to enforce them.

Second, you were paid on a time wage, $1 per hour. When I first got the job, the boy who recruited me took me aside and the following dialog ensued:

Mitchell, do you know what the motto is of a Swift Messenger Boy?


Don’t be Swift!

What we have here is a classic principal/agent problem associated with paying by time. The faster you accomplished your task, the less you were paid for it. So there is an incentive not to be swift. One remedy used in some jobs for this problem is to pay by the task, not by the time. But in the case of messenger boys, the task varied from assignment to assignment. Moreover, one could form at least a rough idea how long it would take to walk to the various addresses and then phone in. So “too much” dawdling would have become apparent. Even without detailed monitoring, while there was no incentive for messengers to be superfast, a snail’s pace would have been detected.

The practice of reimbursing dimes for phone calls also exposed an agency problem. There was a draw full of dimes used to reimburse the messengers. And there was what nowadays might be called a problem of “corporate culture.” The adult workers in the office hated the owner/boss. When he went off to the races or wherever, leaving them in charge, they would “reimburse” us for dimes we hadn’t spent. Giving away the owner’s money gave them pleasure. We didn’t complain. When you make $1 per hour, an extra dime is 10% of your hourly wage.

And talking about being reimbursed for dimes we hadn’t spent, there was yet another perversity entailed in the practice. But it was a negative externality borne by the telephone company, not the Swift Messenger Service. Word got around the messenger boys that you could make calls from payphones without a dime.

What you needed was an uncurled paper clip. You would shove one end into one of the little holes on the microphone and touch the other and to the body of the phone. A contact would be made and you would get a dial tone. You could then call into the office as required and get reimbursed for the 10 cents that you hadn’t paid. Of course, that was 10 cents less for the phone company. Moreover repeated sticks of the paper clip into a phone’s microphone damaged it, worsening the sound quality until finally it was unusable. The phone company was aware of the problem and was in the midst of replacing phones – or at least phone microphones – with ones where the trick wouldn’t work. But the messenger boys passed word around about where there were still phones in operation which were vulnerable.

Apart from the labor market lessons embedded in this tale, there is also one more about misinformation in the marketplace that is more general. Remember the folks who believed that the messenger they summoned was taking their package directly to its destination (and not back to the central office)? Or those who paid extra for “rush” service that they didn’t get? The lesson is clear: Caveat emptor.


[1] The school became coed in 1969 and is now located near the World Trade Center. (It was closed for an extended period after 9-11 during the clean-up.)  


[3]I used to run a video in class illustrating attitudes toward working women in the 1950s:  

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