the corruption of newsboys

Children of the City: At Work and at Play Does selling newspapers lead to a life of crime?

It may sound absurd, but that’s exactly what some Progressive Era reformers asserted, at least when the sales “men” were actually salesboys — specifically newsboys, or “newsies” as they were called at the time.

In his 1985 book Children of the City: At Work and at Play (the book that inspired the Disney musical Newsies), historian David Nasaw explains both the misimpressions and realities that concerned the reformers. For example, the newsies were frequently seen around drunken men:

The reformers feared that the boys hung out at saloons because they wanted free drinks. The truth was different. The boys knew that the drunker the customer, the easier it was to shortchange or coax a tip out of him.

Worse yet, these preadolescent boys kept the company of les filles de joie:

Prostitutes were also big tippers. Harry Golden, who “hawked papers from the corner of Delancey and Norfolk,” made regular trips to Allen Street, the Lower East Side’s red-light district, where he earned his tips by running “occasional errands for the whores who lived there. They always gave me an extra nickel for delivering the paper and another nickel for running to the grocery store or the soft-drink stand.” In Chicago, investigators for the Vice Commission were startled and upset by similar business arrangements between prostitutes and the children who ran their errands and delivered their newspapers.

Nasaw sees a different source of corruption — the market itself:

It is easy to ridicule the reformers for their fears. Twelve-year-old newsies … were not in training for careers as pickpockets and hoodlums. They were, however, as the reformers understood, being swiftly corrupted by their success. The children were learning that there was no such thing as morality in the marketplace. Whatever sold goods and elicited tips was fine with them. They had absorbed the very worst lessons the business world had to offer: how to cheat, lie, and swindle customers. Eleven-to fifteen-year-olds who should have been getting their moral instruction from school, church, and, if they were fortunate, home, were growing up on the streets with the morals and values of sideshow barkers and snake oil salesmen.

If you think you sense a certain bias in his description of “the business world,” you’re probably right. Nasaw is a founder of the Radical History Review, which claims to publish “the best marxist and non-marxist radical scholarship in jargon-free English.”

But don’t be scared away by the author’s dark view of commerce. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the newsies and their peers, but his book is a celebration of what they accomplished.

“I have tried to write about the children of the street from their perspective," says Nasaw, "not that of parents, teachers, child labor reformers, settlement house workers, or juvenile justice authorities.”

And with good reason:

While the reformers — to elicit action from public and politicians — painted their picture of urban youth in the most dismal tones, the narrative accounts and oral histories, with few exceptions, presented the subject in a very different light. They described the dirt and the dangers of urban life, but also the fun, the excitement, the hope for the future that the children experienced at the turn of the century.

Nasaw may not want to "ridicule the reformers" (which is certainly my inclination), but he’s happy to debunk their claims — and who doesn’t enjoy a good debunking?

Of the dozens of newsboy studies, [only a handful] attempted to figure out the percentage of city boys who sold papers. The others were more concerned with collecting data to reinforce their contention that street trading led directly to juvenile delinquency. To provide themselves with evidence establishing the connection, child labor reformers scoured the juvenile courts, jails, asylums, houses of refuge, and reformatories for ex-newsies. They found what they were looking for. A 1911 memo from the secretary of the New York Child Labor Committee summarized the findings that would be used again and again to prove the connection between street work and juvenile crime:

  • New York Juvenile Asylum (1911), 31% were newsboys.
  • Rochester, N.Y., Industrial School (1903), 75% were newsboys. (Buffalo boys only counted.)
  • Hart’s Island, N.Y.C. (1906), 63% were newsboys.
  • Catholic Protectory, N.Y.C. (1911), 50% were newsboys.
  • House of Refuge, at Randall’s Island, N.Y.C. (1911), 32% were newsboys.
  • Glen Mills, Pennsylvania (1910), 77% were newsboys. (Philadelphia boys only counted.)

“The data were impressive," Nasaw concedes, "but they proved nothing” (emphasis added).

NewsiesPosterWhat the reformers either did not understand or conveniently ignored was that most city boys, delinquent or not, sold papers on the street. As Justice Harvey Baker of the Boston Juvenile Court reported to a New York Child Labor Committee investigator, it was “very difficult to determine what part, if any, the selling of papers plays in the delinquency of the boys who come before this court. Since most of the Jewish boys … sell papers, if we are to have any delinquent Jewish boys at all, we are bound to get a large number of newspaper sellers among them.” The judge’s remarks could have been generalized to other city boys. Since most had, at one time or another, sold papers, most of those in trouble would have had a history of paper-selling.

I’m enjoying Children of the City. I’m sure I’ll have more to report as I progress through this book.

(Postscript: We watched Disney’s Newsies over the weekend. What an evil movie. I’ll have more to say about it later.)


2 Responses to the corruption of newsboys

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    Loving a wholesome bit of Disney-bashing far more than most, I look forward to your putting the Five-Star Final boot in Newsies.

    And lacking a Twitter Feed of One’s Own, “one” cannot help, after a recent episode in serial self-plagiarizing [et seq.] beneath another’s post on sez-you “censorship” from my sub-marcusian comments from earlier this year, linking to a Post of Hizzone in response to your Tweet from today on C17 Japanese history:

    Beating your samurai 侍 swords into car shares, or, Shōgun, Wheel Travel

    By such off-topicalities does One mark His territory as One who in two months will have been a bkm commenter in frequent (and, on self-critical occasion, good) standing – if arguably far more often lying down – these last eight years, dating, of course, from a post that, devoted as it was to Austrian puns (topping, serially after its sequel, the Amazon charts for the phrase), surely deserves a sequel, for those among us with a tooth for Viennese pastry, in the form of one devoted to Austrian buns.*

    *And no, I don’t mean one adorned with snaps of Arnold flexing in fearsome gluteal earnest at one or another of the six (1970-1975) Mr. Olympia competitions that guaranteed him a well-oiled spot among the bodybuilder immortals, as that would merely out me as one who, for three years across his teenaged wasteland, subscribed to Muscle Builder magazine (and so, reading from such publishers in my still-unmuscled pasty-limbed aspect, revealing my Weider shade of pale, take pains though the ex-magician in me did to assure all for some reason still on listening terms that it was merely a pallor trick), and Greyhounded it with a buddy from Cincinnati to Columbus for the 1977 contest (at which Arnold signed my copy of his self-titled Bildungsroman, subtitled, with an anti-Nockian latitude of the loosest, The Education of a Bodybuilder), before only twelve months or so later discovering that the Austro-Hungarian empire had managed, if some decades before, to midwife forms of ocean-crossing titanism no less Olympian, if rather more above the neck, and thus not immediately discerned to burst through the upper arms of their bearers’ shirtsleeves after the fashion of what Clive James once likened to “a condom stuffed with walnuts”.

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