Immigrants were streaming in by the millions back then—between 1890 and 1900, the population of New York grew from 1.5 million to 3.4 million—and the city strained to accommodate the growing number of children. Most attended school in overcrowded classrooms (as many as 70 kids per class) and slept in tenement rooms without windows, fresh air, or sometimes beds. Some were even less fortunate: Over a span of 70 years, nearly a quarter-million children were loaded onto “orphan trains” and shipped as far away as Alaska (where one orphan subsequently became the state’s governor). At the Museum of the City of New York, you can find dozens of pictures of “Street Arabs,” those gangs of dispossessed and shoeless kids who, to keep warm, slept on grated vent holes with one eye open (“like rabbits in their burrows,” in the words of Jacob Riis). At the DiMenna children’s museum at the New-York Historical Society, there’s a haunting, yellowed list, circa 1874, that carefully documents the reasons 100 boys applied for beds at a newsboy lodging home: Half were orphaned, twelve had mothers in prison, and two had mothers in the hospital. Four had parents who were homeless themselves. Nine were deserted by their parents; seven described their parents as drunkards. Three had fathers who’d run off with someone else, three had stepfathers who’d turned them out, and four had fathers at sea.
Yet in spite of the overcrowding, the hardships, and the danger, New York City, at least in Nasaw’s opinion, was one of the better places to be a kid in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States. “I’m not saying that there weren’t city kids who were victimized and ragamuffins,” he says when I call him to ask about this somewhat contrarian point of view. “But the vast majority of the kids who worked in the cities by then had homes, hats on their heads, and enough to eat.”
Country kids, explains Nasaw, were locked inside mines and textile mills. They worked long hours in sugar-beet and cotton fields. They started working at much younger ages than city kids and had to walk miles to get to their schools—if indeed they went at all. Whereas city kids always lived relatively close to their schools and stayed enrolled until they were older. Most important, New York children had social capital. Because they were forced from their tenements and into the streets, they wound up claiming ownership of them; the streets became their city-within-the-city, their world-within-a-world. In 1913, according to Nasaw, 95 percent of New York City children played in the streets, climbing lampposts and stealing blocks of ice for sport. They were known by all the local merchants and often drove them mad; in Children at Play, Brown historian Howard Chudacoff describes a simple diversion called “hares and hounds,” in which a child tore through a shop and into the back alley, trailed by a gaggle of friends. Kids thought nothing of swimming in public fountains or the East River (this at a time when most did not know how to swim).
The autonomy children had was made all the more glorious by the emergence, at the same time, of a new consumer culture. Immigrant families might have been poor, but they were surrounded by staggering abundance. There were sweets and fruit and ribbons to buy; nickelodeons and penny arcades to haunt. Turn-of-the-century children were earning money at the moment that American capitalism was starting to develop amusements especially for them. Most children were expected to direct all their earnings into the family till, but most parents weren’t watching closely enough to enforce the rule.
To some extent, this freedom to roam remained true of city kids through the early fifties, at least if they lived in the safer neighborhoods of the outer-boroughs. The Columbia historian Kenneth T. Jackson mentions the 1953 classic film Little Fugitive, in which a 7-year-old takes the el train to Coney Island and spends the afternoon wandering around, all by himself. “That the entire city was not searching for him is amazing,” says Jackson. “Essentially, nobody on the trains or alleyways pays any attention.”
At the very moment that New York City children were playing and working in the streets, however, reformers were agitating for more stringent labor laws to protect them. In fact, the historian Steven Mintz, author of a classic, comprehensive history of American childhood, Huck’s Raft, argues that the protected childhood we know today had its origin in cities, because here was where child poverty, child abuse, and exploitative labor practices were most visible.
New York was particularly fertile ground for reformers. The earliest settlement houses for the poor were big boosters of kindergarten, English classes, and summer camps. The overcrowded tenements—as well as the high number of automobile fatalities—convinced progressives of the need for public playgrounds, supervised by adults. Many self-proclaimed child savers recoiled at the amusements working-class children discovered for themselves (penny arcades, music halls), finding their vulgarity corrupting.