The Progressive Era
|Digital History ID 3136|
In the movies, scrappy, urban newsboys hawk papers with screaming headlines, shouting, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" Real newsboys in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, were very different from the Hollywood image of lovable street urchins singing and dancing in the streets.
Newsboys first appeared on city streets in the mid-19th century with the rise of mass circulation newspapers. They were often wretchedly poor, homeless children who often shrieked the headlines well into the night and often slept on the street.
In 1866, a reformer named Charles Loring Brace described the condition of homeless newsboys in New York City:
I remember one cold night seeing some 10 or a dozen of the little homeless creatures piled together to keep each other warm beneath the stairway of The [New York] Sun office. There used to be a mass of them also at The Atlas office, sleeping in the lobbies, until the printers drove them away by pouring water on them. One winter, an old burnt-out safe lay all the season in Wall Street, which was used as a bedroom by two boys who managed to crawl into the hole that had been burned.
In 1872, James B. McCabe, Jr., wrote:
There are 10,000 children living on the streets of New York.... The newsboys constitute an important division of this army of homeless children. You see them everywhere.... They rend the air and deafen you with their shrill cries. They surround you on the sidewalk and almost force you to buy their papers. They are ragged and dirty. Some have no coats, no shoes and no hat.
In 1899, several thousand newsboys--who made about 30 cents a day--called a strike, refusing to handle the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Competing papers lavished coverage on the strikers, who were depicted as colorful characters who spoke in an oddly rendered Irish-immigrant dialect and had names like Race Track Higgens and Kid Fish. The news accounts gave much attention to the exhortations of a pint-sized newsboy and strike leader named Kid Blink (because he was blind in one eye). The New York Tribune quoted Kid Blink's speech to 2,000 strikers:
Friens and feller workers. Dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we'se got to stick together like glue.... We know wot we wants and we'll git it even if we is blind.
The lot of newsboys began to improve as urban child-welfare practices took root, and publishers began competing for newsies by giving them prizes and trips.