HISTORY-MAKING KIDS: THE NEWSBOYS STRIKE OF 1899

Newsboys On Brooklyn Bridge (1909)

One sure way to attract kids to history is to find some that involves kids. Before child labour laws succeeded in making it illegal for children to work in the U.S.A., city streets were full of youngsters selling newspapers. Known as newsies, the kids rose early and picked up bundles of newspapers which cost them 50¢, and could be sold for a penny each, giving them an average profit of about 30¢ a day as they only got money for the papers they sold and there were no refunds for unsold papers. During the 1898 Spanish-American war, however, newspaper publishers capitalized on public interest by raising the price of the newspapers, and, in consequence, the price of the bundles, which went up to 60¢. After the war, many newspapers brought their prices back down, but some, notably those owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, did not, and newsies found it difficult to make enough money to live on.
Tiring of this, the kids (mostly boys, but there were some girl newsies), went on strike in July, 1899. In addition to refusing to buy and distribute the newspapers, they stopped and sometimes even overturned, the wagons carrying them and handed out leaflets asking the public to boycott the newspapers, resulting in a two-thirds drop in circulation. They also marched on Brooklyn Bridge and other key places to call attention to their plight, often bringing traffic to a standstill. A rally at Irving Hall was attended by over 5,000 newsies. Some, with a gift for oration, even made speeches, thus proving they could do more than shout out headlines.
Not all newsies participated in the strike, and those who persisted in trying to sell papers were (rightfully) regarded as scabs and attacked by the striking newsies. (Unless they were girls – back then, even the most militant newsboy would not have hit a girl.)
The strike lasted a couple of weeks, and while it was not the first, or the last such strike, it did force Pulitzer and Hearst to recognize the Newsboys Union and agree to refund money for unsold copies.

2 comments

  1. I saw something about this on PBS or History (though History is becoming redneck central). I knew about it, and the Broadway show “Newsies”. The most appalling thing is how evil the Hearst and Pulitzer. Ripping off kids for a penny a paper. Looks like we (North America) is fast returning to the days of the Robber Barons.

  2. Unfortunately, ripping off people (especially those who could least afford it), and exploiting powerless workers was how a lot of rich people got rich, and stayed rich. And do now, too.

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