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Little Grown-ups and Their Progeny

New York and the invention of modern childhood.

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On the evening of July 24, 1899, newsboys were pouring into the Lower East Side from every direction—uptown, the Battery, the Brooklyn Bridge. Decades later, these kids would be enshrined in black-and-white film and on Broadway as lovable little urchins, falsetto town criers as essential to city life as gas mains or the horse. But on this particular day, they were far more agitated than adorable. They’d just formed a union and were striking against William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, owners of the New York Journal and World, respectively.

At first, the two newspaper magnates didn’t know how seriously to take the threat. According to Children of the City, written by CUNY historian ­David Nasaw, the first memo Pulitzer received about it assured him this situation “was well in hand.” The next day, however, his managing editor had to concede that the strike had “grown into a menacing affair.” And by the end of the week, his managing editor’s conclusion was unambiguous. “The loss in circulation,” he wrote to Pulitzer, “has been colossal.” By ripping up newspapers, tipping over the wagons that carried them, and snatching copies from customers’ bare hands, the ­newsboys—whose ages, generally, ranged from 7 to 12—had managed to squelch circulation by almost two thirds, to just 125,000 copies a day.

The boys had luck on their side. The police were preoccupied with the Brooklyn streetcar operators’ strike, and the competing papers enjoyed making toothsome hash of their rivals (“5,000 Strikers Swarm in and Around New Irving Hall,” read the subhead from the Sun on July 25. “No More Violence Their Orators Tell Them, and a Voice Responds, ‘Oh Soytenly Not!’ ”). Perhaps the most important factor in their success, though, was this: Newsboys were indispensable. They were the primary means of newspaper distribution throughout the city. There was limited home delivery, and not nearly enough newsstands to serve everyone. And so these boys, these little boys—who played marbles in their spare time and spent their earnings on sweets, whose strike tactics included throwing rotten fruit and whose organizers went by the names of Racetrack Higgins and Kid Blink—brought two of the city’s most prominent moguls to their knees. It’s hard to imagine gangs of young boys accomplishing anything today, even if they were similarly disgorged by the thousands into the streets—­other, that is, than getting lost.

Today, we think of New York City children as fragile, vulnerable creatures, sensitive to sunlight and best stored in Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap. But perhaps the greatest irony about childhood in New York is that parents are protecting their kids from a metropolis that’s never been safer or more prosperous. For most of this city’s history, kids were an independent, adventurous, and far tougher species, and regarded by their parents with much less sentimentality, even when the city was more treacherous.

Of course, children were once much harder to protect. Before vaccinations and modern hygiene, children across America died more frequently—from tuberculosis, cholera, and typhus, not to mention measles, mumps, and smallpox—but New York children, living cheek by jowl, were especially susceptible to disease. They were exposed to other dangers, too, like the occasional industrial accident (most famously the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire) or the constant chaos of street traffic (it was not uncommon for small children in New York to be trampled by horses or, later, run over by automobiles). City kids learned early on that life was harsh and vulgar. In the late-nineteenth century, they often played on the same blocks that prostitutes walked—which meant, on occasion, teasing them or running their errands. As late as the early-twentieth century, dead horses would lie unattended for days in the streets. Nasaw says children would cut off their tails and weave them into rings.

And city children worked. This was true of children across the country: Until the end of the Second World War, they were considered economic assets and expected to contribute to the family economy, rather than drain its resources. In New York during the Industrial Revolution, many kids worked as runners in stores, until the introduction of the pneumatic tube. Others worked in sweatshops or did “outwork,” taking industrial tasks like sorting feathers and hemming skirts into their homes. (New York, being tight for space, was always a factory town low on factories.) But it was during the turn of the century, when the newsboys mounted their rebellion, that children became the city’s most visible laborers, because they worked in the city’s most visible place: the streets. The boys sold newspapers, blacked boots, scavenged for junk, and shuttled messages and goods. Girls scavenged, too, and watched their younger siblings from the stoop. “Little mothers,” they were called.


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