James Smart's Philadelphia
Of All Things
April 17, 2019
by James Smart
The days of newspaper homing pigeons
A recent item in Time magazine reported, with a tone of astonishment, that a champion Belgian racing pigeon named Armando was sold at auction for $1.4 million.
I wasn’t surprised. I worked close to thoroughbred homing pigeons in my first job, right out of high school, with the old Evening Bulletin.
My assignment was with a daily column written for and by high school kids, but we shared a big office on the 11th floor, the highest, of the old Bulletin building at Juniper and Filbert Sts. The other operation there was a homing pigeon loft, and the desk of a pigeon expert, Charles J. Love.
That loft was designed to be seen by visitors. About 30 pairs of pigeons lived there. The females frequently produced little pigeons. They and the fathers took turns sitting on the eggs, to give their mates a chance to join the flock circling high above City Hall, from about river to river.
On the roof, not accessible by the public, was another loft with about 300 more pigeons who also flew daily. Those birds were thoroughbreds, a few with 200 year pedigrees, (mostly Sions, Stasarts and Trentons, for pigeon fanciers who may be reading this.) They started living at The Bulletin in 1939.
Charles J. Love was born in South Philly in 1888. His father, John, was a pioneer homing pigeon racer, a founder and long-time president of the International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers, with members all over the United States, Canada and Cuba.
Charles followed his father as a pigeon expert, and as a young man began giving talks on the subject. He would tell school children about the birds’ lives and racing, and present relevant information to veterinarians, ornithologists and American Medical Association meetings, to Friends gatherings about doves as peace symbols and military veteran groups about wartime message carrying.
In 1939, The Bulletin’s promotion department hired him to make his talks on behalf of the newspaper. On his many visits to schools; after his presentation, he distributed paper “pigeongrams” for pupils to write messages, put the papers in aluminum tubes strapped to some pigeons’ backs, and lead a delegation of kids to the schoolyard to release the birds.
They would fly home to The Bulletin, where someone would collect the messages, because just after school, children, sometimes a phone booth full, would be calling to ask if their messages had arrived.
Mr. Love designed the elastic harness that held the tubes, originally from expensive cigars, on a homing pigeon’s back. Bulletin photographers carried a black bag, in which they could remove exposed film from the old Speed Graphic cameras without exposing it to light, roll it up and slip it into a tube.
The pigeon took it home to The Bulletin building, at about 60 miles an hour. In the 1940s, The Bulletin dark room would have negatives from Shibe Park in five minutes, Garden State Park in 10 minutes.
Charles J. Love died in 1953. Wartime shortages were over, and electronics had arrived that were faster than homing pigeons.
And incidentally, they are not carrier pigeons. Carrier pigeons were a different breed. And they are not the same birds as their non-thoroughbred distant relatives you might see in the street. Homer fanciers disdainfully call street pigeons “cornies.”
I could tell you many stories about homing pigeons in the days I shared an office with them, but I’ve hit the bottom of the page.