In Columbus, at the corner of North High and W.N. Broadway there was an Isaly’s store in the 1950s. This popular dairy store served their famous Skyscraper cones, sundaes, sodas, shakes and sold cheeses and cold cuts, included their famous Chipped Chopped Ham. Since Isaly’s was right next to the Clinton Theater, they did a good business after every show. I gave them my business for another reason.
If you walked west on W.N. Broadway about half a block, you would come to an alley, and just up the alley on the left was a small frame building painted dark green. It was maybe 10’ x 16’ in size and locked with a padlock much of the day. But around 3pm, the Station Manager opened the building so you could see shelves running down each side and a counter in the rear. This is where I and other paper boys (there were soon some paper girls, too although not at that particular substation) picked up our papers every afternoon.
Columbus, in the mid-1950s was a city of about 380,000 (Greater Columbus was probably half a million) and had three newspapers: the Columbus Dispatch, the Columbus Citizen and the Ohio State Journal. The Dispatch and Citizen were evening papers and the Journal a morning paper. Each of these were at that time independently owned, with the Columbus Dispatch, the largest in circulation and advertising being held by the powerful (and somewhat secretive) Wolfe family.
The Columbus Citizen was part of the Scripps-Howard media empire, and the Journal was held over the years by a number of owners.
Politically, Ohio was definitively a Republican state and the Dispatch was clearly a rock-ribbed Republican newspaper. Ohio went for Eisenhower in the 50s and for Nixon over Kennedy in 1960. Only a few counties around Cleveland went for Kennedy. However, by 1964 most of Ohio went for Johnson over Goldwater. But after that, Ohio has remained Republican most of the time until Obama, although considered a “swing state” by some currently.
I lived at the end of East Longview in Columbus, but our modest 3 bedroom 1-bath house faced the Walhalla ravine and had a Walhalla address. From there I could easily bike to Clinton Elementary School, just a few blocks away, and later to Crestview Junior High when I entered seventh grade. It was about that time that I became a paper carrier. I think that the paper sent notices to the classes of rising seventh graders inviting them to apply for paper carrier jobs, and I applied.
In any case, soon after I started Junior High in the fall of 1954, I began my paper route. I would bike home, leave my schoolbooks and grab my paper bags and bike down to the substation behind Isaly’s. Many days I beat the truck that left the papers off at the substation. We’d all be sitting around on the shelves waiting until some sharp eyed boy spotted the truck and called out “Papers!” We’d all grab the bundles out of the truck and bring them into the station, where the young station manager, Jim Lawson, would count them into groups and hand them out to each of us, more or less in the order we had arrived.
While we could go off right away to deliver the papers, many of us stayed to fold the papers to make them easier to throw onto a customer’s porches. We could use rubber bands, but most of us learned how to fold newspapers quickly by tucking the folded section into the opening on the spine side of the paper. A quick twist and these papers were very stable for throwing without messing with rubber bands. It became a point of pride among the carriers to be able to fold your entire route’s papers in a couple of minutes before setting out. I only used rubber bands to secure the Sunday papers, which were a bit larger.
I did stop off at Isaly’s from time to time, and in June they had a Dairy Month special: half price ice cream sodas! They cost 12 cents! I usually had more than one that month.
My paper route
My first paper route on East Lakeview Ave was a relatively small one with only 34 subscribers. The street looks much the same today. The Citizen (and the Dispatch for that matter) cost 5¢ a copy daily and 15 cents on Sunday. Of that, we got, I think a little over 2 cents a paper, and probably a bit more for the Sunday paper. (I later learned that Dispatch carriers were paid a bit more, closer to 3 cents a paper.)
I folded all the papers, put them in my saddle bags and set off about 4 blocks south to Lakeview. Usually, I put some folded papers in my shoulder bag and walked up one side of the street and back down the other delivering papers. Most houses in this era had covered wooden porches, and if I could toss the paper on the porch, it was pretty safe from the elements. Some customers had specified “In the door,” ot “In box” and we had to walk up and deliver these in person.
Then I rode my bike up to the next block and repeated the process. The last part of Lakeview made a left turn and ran along the Walhalla ravine. These houses were below street level and a bit harder to get to. Sometimes this engendered small tips, but that was pretty rare.
Sometimes there were mishaps: you got a paper wet or accidentally tossed it into the bushes. But since I added my parents’ house to my route, I always had an extra. In one particularly wild mishap, a wild throw left a paper on the customer’s porch roof. Fortunately, that was Jim Lawson’s parents’ house, and we had a good laugh over it.
Delivering papers was pretty quick once you got the hang of it, but Sunday papers were a bit more of an effort. The papers were heavier and hard to manage, and most carriers, including me, talked their parents into driving them on Sundays. You picked up the papers, I think, between 6 and 7am and were expected to have them all delivered before 8am. And yes, on Sunday, I used rubber bands.
Collecting from customers was one of the bigger pieces of drudgery in what at first seemed like a halcyon experience. Carriers were given half-size 3 ring notebooks with a page for each subscriber, and it was up to you to collect weekly and keep records of whether they had. Generally, we collected Thursday evening after dinner, when people would be home. Daily subscribers paid 30 cents a week, daily and Sunday paid 45 cents, and those who ordered magazine subscriptions through the Citizen paid an additional 15 cent a week. So, you collected 30, 45 or 60 cents per subscriber per week.
This took some time but wasn’t too hard. There were almost always a few you had to go back to because they didn’t seem to be home or didn’t want to answer the door, or didn’t have change. I had one of those belt change dispensers loaded with nickels, dimes and quarters. This is the same sort of changer that came up in the testimony of Anthony Ulasiewicz, one of Nixon’s White House Plumbers, who testified that he carried a changer to make all those phone calls from pay phones.
The second year, the Citizen came up with subscriber pages with little postage stamp sized tear-off tabs to give the subscribers as receipts. While this might have seemed like a good idea to someone, that meant there was little space to write notes about subscriber requests, and they weren’t all that sturdy.
Paying your bill
Every Saturday morning, a bunch of bleary eyed paper boys, carrying little canvas bags of money showed up at the substation to pay their paper bills. They didn’t want change or checks, so you had to have your parents launder the checks and If you had a bunch of coins, you eventually had to take them to the bank.
My bills that first year were around $11.50, meaning that I got to keep around $3 a week. Not really a big haul, but this was worth a bit more in the 1950s than it is now.
After about a year I got the chance to switch to a larger route on Clinton Heights, with about 56 subscribers. This took longer to deliver, but I made almost twice as much money, about $6 as week. And the route ended up only a block from our house. Clinton Heights had some larger houses, especially at the top of the street, but most wealthier people preferred the Dispatch.
Looking back at my childhood in Columbus, I tend to think of the smell of new-mown grass, fresh morning dew and hot summer days. But Columbus did have winters, and sometimes significant snowfalls. I don’t recall exactly all we did, but I do remember pushing my balloon tire bike through the snow as it carried the papers for me. I also remember that that little green carrier’s substation had a stove in it, and on cold afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings, Lawson would build a fire in that metal stove, vented through the roof. And that heat was really welcome.
One truly unwelcome feature of being paper carrier was the Citizen’s insistence on our canvassing for new subscribers. One night every month or so, we’d meet at the station about 6pm and jump into cars provided by Lawson and our district manager. They’d take us to unfamiliar neighborhoods and give us a pep talk about the wonderful trips we could win if we sold enough subscriptions (and magazines). The Dispatch did not require its carriers to canvas. But according to my friend Jeff Luce, who carried the Dispatch at the same time, they were required to sell accident insurance policies to their subscribers.
Some of the boys on these canvases came up with amusing, fictional trips instead such as rides on the Goodyear Blimp and alligator rides. Sometimes we went in pairs, egging each other on to enhance the fictions we were spinning. Sometimes, the customers found it entertaining enough to order a subscription.
Other times we were turned away because the Citizen was a “damned Democrat” newspaper. It certainly wasn’t as Republican as the Dispatch (in local argot pronounced DIS-patch) and it seemed more centrist to me. However, since Scripps Howard’s syndicate was wide ranging, some of the stories were probably less parochial. Later when I was back in Columbus for graduate school, I did compare the papers with a better eye to their politics, and as this was during the Vietnam war era, the differences were fairly plain. The Dispatch was far less forgiving in any stories about war protests and the Citizen much more neutral. Few of the nationally known liberal columnists appeared in either paper.
In those simpler days, newspapers still sold extras on the street when a major story broke mid-day. I was called out of classes at Crestview to sell extras twice. The major one was the conviction on December 21, 1954 of neurosurgeon Dr Sam Sheppard in the murder of his wife Marilyn. I was given a bag of papers and a spot on North High street where I was to hawk the extras. I think I may have sold 6 or 7.
Sheppard was exonerated in a second trial and released from prison in 1966. The judge blamed the media circus atmosphere for influencing the jurors in the first trial. Columbus papers had stories nearly every day about “Dr Sam” and his sensational trial, but the Cleveland papers practically tried and convicted Sheppard in their articles. The television series The Fugitive seemed to be loosely based on Sheppard’s case, but this was always denied by its creators.
I did win one trip to Washington, DC with the newsboys when I was about 12, selling subscriptions. It was a really successful trip and we had a great time. We saw the usual sights: the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and yes, I and most us did climb all 800-some steps to the top of the monument. We also saw Monticello, Arlington Cemetery, and I think, part of the Smithsonian.
I was selected a Carrier of the Year my last year in the job and took a bus down to the Citizen office and have my picture taken along with a handful of other lucky carriers. We got our pictures in the paper and a snow globe with a gold paper carrier in it, that sadly I seem to have lost some time since. In my 2-1/2 years as a paper boy, I had only one “missed” delivery, so I had a pretty good record, but it probably didn’t help me much with my college applications.
Time to Go
Partway through 9th grade at Crestview Jr High, I realized that it was time to leave the paper business as North High School was approaching, and it would make more demands on my time. So, I submitted my resignation. And, in the place for a reason, my wise-guy parents suggested I put down a biblical reference: I Corinthians 13:11. The quote is:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Like Peyton Place, no story would be complete without some sex. You would probably like to read about some flamboyant affair with a customer or wife or something, But I was 14 then and that never happened. The best story I can tell you is the Susie Scott lived on Clinton Heights and I saw her once or twice and took her out at least once. That was to go to a Teen Dance Party TV broadcast one Saturday afternoon. And yes, we did dance, so I can say this was my (our) TV debut as dancers: an event never repeated.
The Isaly family retired in the 1960s and many of the beloved stores closed with them. The delicious Klondike Bars remain, now made by Unilever. Most of the Ohio Stores closed by the 1990s, and one or two remained longer in the Pittsburgh area.
The little green substation is gone now, and that space looks to be a parking lot. Isaly’s seems to have been replaced by a Kroger and, sadly, the elegant Clinton Theater, where I saw lots of kid’s matinees has been torn down. Right now, there is just a patch of grass there.
In 1959, Scripps Howard merged the Ohio State Journal with the Columbus Citizen and the Citizen-Journal was published as a morning paper under a Joint Operating Agreement with the Columbus Dispatch, using the same press facilities, and some of the same back office staff. This was possible because of a recent law that was intended to save struggling papers, and did for a while. But in 1985, recognizing that evening papers were passé, the Dispatch terminated the operating agreement and the Citizen-Journal, lacking a buyer, closed. The Dispatch became the morning paper the next day.
By the third generation, the children of the powerful Wolfe family were less interested in running the family businesses. In addition, the newspaper publishing business was no longer all that profitable and in 2015, the family sold the Columbus Dispatch to Gatehouse Media. In 2016, the new Dispatch owners endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, although Ohio went for Trump. This was only the second time the Dispatch had endorsed a Democrat. Their other endorsement was of Woodrow Wilson.
The family patriarch John F Wolfe died in June, 2016, and The Wigwam, the Wolfe family’s hunting lodge and retreat was sold to Violet Township in 2018 by the Wolfe family at a substantial discount from its valuation, bringing to an end some of the power of the Wolfe clan. They still owned broadcast media, substantial real estate holdings and investment banking businesses, but Wolfe’s philanthropic leadership and strong opinions were no more.
2 thoughts on “On being a paper boy in the 50s”
The paper station you described in the article was located in the backyard of the 3-story house located at 3287 North High St. I lived in that house from 1953 until 1960, and throughout that time I was a gadfly at that paper station. I still remember the smell of the potbellied stove stoked by tightly rolled up newspaper which warmed the tiny shack and cold winter days. My mother was the ticket-taker at the Clintonville Theater, also described in your article, where I spent endless hours being frightened to death and by the ever present second run sci-fi and horror features that played there through the late 50s. Thank you for bringing back the fondest memories of my early youth.
Great article Gary! I delivered as well in eastern Washington state Seattle pi on sundays only, walla walla union bulletin, Spokane daily chronicle , spokesman review, tricity herald and Columbia basin news. Not all at once! How did we fold papers in a triangular shape for most accurate throwing? Th