When Children Raised Their Voices in Protest
The Newsboys Strike of 1899 and Its Consequences
Child labor was a major issue in our nation’s history, from its founding through the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1900, United States census records counted at least 1.75 million children who were “gainful workers,” (that is, worked for pay), comprising six percent of the nation’s workforce. (Many others may not have been reported.) Most child laborers worked in agriculture, but many children did domestic work (such as preserving food, taking care of children, cooking, and cleaning) while others were employed in industrial situations (most commonly in the glass and textile industries, as well as mining) (History of Child Labor; Credoreference.com). In the city, poor families often would send their children off to work as servants and helpers at ages as young as nine or ten years old. Other typical city jobs were selling candy, shining shoes, making deliveries, and carrying messages (Nasaw 42). One of the most common jobs children took to earn money for themselves and their families was selling newspapers. Known as “newsies,” these boys (and a handful of girls) were a familiar sight and sound on city streets, their voices hawking the latest scandal splashed across the tabloid papers of the day. It is hard to know how many newsies there really were. Even the U.S. Census Bureau admitted, “The characteristics of the occupations of newsboys are such that accurate enumeration of the workers is extremely difficult” (Nasaw 69). Many newsboys did not have licenses to sell papers and would lie to statisticians, thereby invalidating the data. Most historians agree, however, that about eighty percent of boys eleven to fifteen sold papers. Cities with high newsie numbers were New York City, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Dallas (Nasaw 68). At the turn of the century, these young workers fought a David-and-Goliath battle in New York City that would transform how child labor was perceived around the country. Many newsies in New York City were “street waifs” — orphaned or homeless children — but most went to school and had homes to which they could return. These were the children of poor immigrants, three-quarters of them either Russian-Jewish or Italian (Nasaw 68). Due to the increased demand for afternoon and evening papers, children would have time to relax after school for an hour or two before starting the competitive work of selling papers. But before they could sell them, the children first had to buy the papers, which cost fifty cents for a bundle of one hundred newspapers. Each paper sold for one cent. The kids had to consider many factors before making the purchase, such as headlines, weather, sports scores, and how many papers they had sold the night before. They had to estimate carefully, because the unsold papers were not refundable. In 1898, newspapers were booming because of the Spanish-American War. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, managers of the New York Journal and the New York World, respectively, hiked the price of 100 newspapers to sixty cents to profit from the increased demand. The newsboys accepted this, but when demand once again waned, they insisted that the new prices be overturned. Most newsboys made 25 to 30 cents a day, and ten cents was vital to their livelihood. As they saw it, if the raise was that important to the millionaires, then it was all the more important to them. Pulitzer and Hearst, however, refused to lower the prices. The newsboys debated amongst themselves about how to respond. On Wednesday, July 19, 1899, they gathered in City Hall Park to announce that they had created a union, and would be going on strike. The boys assembled, determined their strategies, and elected leaders for the strike. The year 1899 was a popular one for child strikes in New York City. First were the messenger boys. They were upset at the unpredictable hours and the irregularity of...
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