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