February 23, 1908 Newsies

For thousands of homeless children, newspapers were all that stood in the way of an empty belly.

During the early colonial period, American newspapers were “wretched little” sheets in the words of America’s “1st newsboy”, Benjamin Franklin.  Scarcely more than sidelines to keep presses occupied.

Newspapers were distributed by mail in the early years, thanks to generous subsidies from the Postal Act of 1792. In 1800, the United States could boast somewhere between 150 – 200 newspapers.  Thirty-five years later, some 1,200 were competing for readership.

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Lithograph from the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

Today we hear a lot about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.   The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from the Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, one of the best known astronomers of the time.

Whatever it took, to sell newspapers.

Two years earlier, Sun publisher Benjamin Day ran a Help-Wanted advertisement, looking for adults to help expand circulation. “To the unemployed — A number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper. A liberal discount is allowed to those who buy and sell again“. To Day’s surprise, his ad didn’t produce adult applicants as expected.  Instead, the notice attracted children.

Today, kids make up a minimal part of the American workforce, but that wasn’t always so. Child labor played an integral part in the agricultural and handicraft economy, working on family farms or hiring out to other farmers.  Boys customarily apprenticed to the trades, at 10 – 14. As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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Brooklyn newsboy, ca. 1910 Photo by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day’s first newspaper “hawker” was Bernard Flaherty, a ten-year-old Irish immigrant. The kid was good at it too, crying out lurid headlines, to passers-by: “Double Distilled Villainy!” “Cursed Effects of Drunkenness!” “Awful Occurrence!” “Infamous Affair!” “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

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Hordes of street urchins swarmed the tenements and alleyways of American cities. During the 1870s, homeless children were estimated at 20,000 – 30,000 in New York alone, as much as 12% of school-age children in the city.

Lewis Hine - Indianapolis Newsboys waiting for the Base Ball edition, in a Newspaper office. Bad environment. Tough negroes etc., 1908
Indianapolis newsies, waiting for baseball edition

For thousands of them, newspapers were all that stood in the way of an empty belly.

article-2467498-18D8276800000578-777_964x699Adults had no interest in the minuscule income, and left the newsboys (and girls) to their own devices.  “Newsies” bought papers at discounted prices and peddled them on the street.    Others worked saloons and houses of prostitution.  They weren’t allowed to return any left unsold, and worked well into the night to sell every paper.

article-2467498-18D8273A00000578-282_964x688For all that, newsies earned about 30¢ a day.  Enough for a bite to eat, to afford enough papers to do it again the following day, and maybe a 5¢ bed in the newsboy’s home.

Lewis Hine - Have been selling 2 years. Youngest, Yedda Welled, is 11 years old. Next, Rebecca Cohen, is 12. Next, Rebecca Kirwin, is 14. Hartford, Connecticut, 1909
“Newsies” were not always, boys. These are Yedda Welled, 11 years old. Rebecca Cohen, 12. and, Rebecca Kirwin, 14. Hartford, Connecticut, 1909. H/T historyinphotos.blogspot.com

Competition was ferocious among hundreds of papers, and business practices were lamentable.  In 1886, the Brooklyn Times tried a new idea. The city was expanding rapidly, swallowing up previously independent townships along the Long Island shore. The Times charged Western District newsboys a penny a paper, while Eastern District kids paid 1 1/5¢.

The plan was expected to “push sales vigorously in new directions.” It took about a hot minute for newsies to get wise, when hundreds descended on the Times’ offices with sticks and rocks. On March 29, several police officers and a driver’s bullwhip were needed to get the wagons out of the South 8th Street distribution offices. One of the trucks was overturned, later that day.

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That time, the newsboy strike lasted a couple of days, enforced by roving gangs of street kids and “backed by a number of roughs”. In the end, the Times agreed to lower its price to a penny apiece, in all districts. Other such strikes would not be ended so quickly, or so easily.

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New York, 1896 Alice Austen newsboys

In those days, the Caribbean island of Cuba was ruled from Spain. After decades spent in the struggle for independence, many saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and America’s own Revolution of the previous century.  In 1897-’98, few wanted war with Spain over Cuban interests more than Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, and New York publishers Joseph Pulitzer & William Randolph Hearst.

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This was the height of the Yellow Journalism period, and newspapers clamored for war. Hearst illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba, to document “atrocities”.  On finding none, Remington wired: “There will be no war. I wish to return”.  Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” President McKinley urged calm, but agreed to send the armored cruiser USS Maine, to protect US “interests”.

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The explosion that sank the Maine on February 15 killing 268 Americans was almost certainly accidental, but that wouldn’t be known for decades. Events quickly spun out of control and, on April 21, 1898, the US blockaded the Caribbean island. Spain gave notice two days later, that it would declare war if US forces invaded its territory. Congress declared on April 25 that a state of war had existed between Spain and the United States, since the 21st.  Soon, newsboys were shouting the headline:  “How do you like the Journal’s war?

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The Spanish-American War was over in 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, but circulation was great while it lasted.  Publishers cashed in, raising the cost of newsboy bundles from 50¢ to 60¢ – the increase temporarily offset by higher sales. Publishers reverted to 50¢ per 100 after the war, with the notable exceptions of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

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Now, newsboys of the era weren’t the ambitious kids of a later age, hustling to make a buck after school.  These were orphans and runaways, with little to count on but themselves.  The half-cent profit on each paper was all each had to get through the day, with some held back to buy more papers.

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Newsboys selling papers by the Brooklyn Bridge, February 23, 1908 H/T UK Guardian

50¢ to 60¢ for the same bundle was an insurmountable increase.   On July 18, 1899, a group of Long Island newsboys overturned a distribution wagon, refusing to sell Hearst of Pulitzer newspapers until prices were returned to 50¢.  Newsboys from Manhattan and Brooklyn joined the strike, the following day.

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Louis Balletti,”Kid Blink”

Boys and men who tried to break the strike were mobbed and beaten, their papers destroyed.

Competing publishers such as the New York Tribune couldn’t get enough of the likes of strike “President” Dave Simmons, the boy “prize-fighter”, Barney “Peanuts”, “Crutch” Morris, and others.

The charismatic, one-eyed strike leader “Kid Blink”, was a favorite:

“Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind”.

The newsboy strike of 1899 lasted two weeks, in which Pulitzer’s New York World plummeted from 360,000 papers a day, to 125,000.  Women and girls had more success as strike breakers than boys and men.  As Kid Blink put it, “A feller can’t soak a lady.”  In the end, it didn’t matter.  Most news readers took the side of the strikers.  Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever dropped their price, but both agreed to buy back unsold papers.

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Some worked well after midnight, to sell every paper

The New York newsboys’ strike of 1899 inspired later strikes including Butte, Montana in 1914, and a 1920s strike in Louisville, Kentucky.  In time, changing notions of urban child-welfare led to improvements in the newsboys’ quality of life.  For now, street kids had precious few to look out for them, beyond themselves.

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Brooklyn’s “Racetrack Newsie” “Dutch” Johnson caught cold, in 1905.  The illness soon turned more serious.  He was found unconscious on a pile of catalogs.  Brought to Bellevue Hospital by the East River,  the 16-year-old was informed it was pneumonia.  This was before the age of antibiotics.  There was no hope.

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“It goes”, Dutch said, in a voice so soft as to be barely audible.  “Only I ain’t got no money and I’d like to be put away decent”.

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H/T http://newsieshistory.tumblr.com

Bookmaker “Con” Shannon offered to take up a collection for the burial.  He could’ve easily produced hundreds from bookies and gamblers, but Dutch’s diminutive successor “Boston”, spoke up.  “Naw”, he said “we’re on de job and nobody else”.

So it was that “Gimpy”, “Dusty”, and the other urchins of Sheepshead Bay pitched in with their pennies, their nickels and dimes.  $53.40 bought a plot in the Linden Hill Cemetery, with a little stone marker.  Dutch Johnson would be spared the plain black wagon and the nameless grave, in some anonymous Potter’s Field.

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February 17, 1895 Yellow Journalism

Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing papers using anything possible to get an edge. Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

YellowKidMickey Dugan was “born” on February 17, 1895, a wise-cracking street urchin from the wrong side of the tracks.  “Generous to a fault” with a “sunny disposition” Mickey was the kind of street kid you’d find in New York’s turn-of-the-century slums, maybe hawking newspapers. “Extra, Extra, read all about it!”

With his head shaved as if recently ridden of lice, Mickey was one of thousands of homeless urchins roaming the back lots and tenements of the city, not so much an individual as an archetype. Mickey Dugan was a cartoon character, the child of artist and “Buster Brown” creator, Richard Outcault.

Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” strip, one of the first regular Sunday newspaper cartoons in the country, became colorized by May of 1895. For the first time Mickey Dugan’s oversize, hand-me-down nightshirt was depicted in yellow.  Readers soon forgot his name.  He was simply “the Yellow kid”.

000789.1LOutcault worked for Joseph Pulitzer in those days, owner of the New York World Newspaper. Arch rival William Randolph Hearst hired the cartoonist away to work for Pulitzer’s cross-town competitor Journal American, but the pair soon learned that there was no copyright protection on the Yellow Kid. Soon the character was simultaneously appearing in both competing newspaper strips, where he would remain for over a year.

Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing papers using anything possible to get an edge.  Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

The Yellow Kid ceased to be of interest by 1898, but he lived on in a way, in the style of newspaper reporting which came to be known as “yellow journalism”.

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After two wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States. From the Spanish perspective, Cuba was more of a province than a colony, they were not about to relinquish a foot of territory. When the Cuban Rebellion of 1895 broke out, don Valeriano Weyler’s brutal repressions killed hundreds of thousands in Cuban concentration camps.

In America, some saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, in their own revolution of a hundred-odd years earlier. Fearing the economic repercussions of a drawn out conflict, shipping and other business interests put pressure on President McKinley to intervene. Meanwhile, the yellow papers kept the issue front page, whipping up popular fury with tales of the noble Cuban revolutionary and the barbaric Spaniard. There were even tales of American women being publicly strip searched by Spanish authorities.

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USS Maine

The armored cruiser USS Maine left Key West headed for Cuba in January 1898, to protect US interests and to emphasize the need for a quick resolution to the conflict. Anchored in Havana Harbor on February 15, a massive explosion of unknown origin rocked the Maine, sinking the cruiser within minutes and killing 266 of the 355 Americans on board.

The McKinley administration urged calm. Conditions in Cuba were bad enough, but front page headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine” accompanied sensationalized accounts of Spanish brutality. War became all but inevitable when US Navy findings were released that March, stating that an external explosion had doomed the Maine.

MaineThe Spanish-American War began the following month, directly resulting in the Philippine-American war.

There is a story, that illustrator Frederic Remington said there was no war brewing in Cuba. Hearst is supposed to have replied. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The story may be apocryphal. The media can’t tell us what to think, but they can certainly control what we think ABOUT. Hearst and Pulitzer had clamored for two years for war with Spain, and they were happy to take credit when it came. Besides, it was good for circulation. A week after the Spanish-American War began in April, Hearst’s American Journal ran the headline “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Front page, above the fold.

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War Propaganda

It’s been said that you should never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. I disagree. I have broken that dictum myself and recommend the practice to anyone so inclined. For all the Wizard of Oz antics of the print and electronic media, there remains only the one man behind the curtain. President Reagan once said of the Soviet Union, “doveryai no proveryai” (trust, but verify). He might have said the same of an information industry whose business model it is, to rent an audience to a sponsor.

In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire which ignited its ammunition stocks, not by Spanish mine or act of sabotage.

Small consolation it was to 3,289 Americans and an estimated 90,000 Spaniards, killed in “the Journal’s war”. Nor to the loved ones, they left behind.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 15, 1898 Yellow Journalism

We hear a lot today about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing newspapers using anything possible to get an edge.

Yellow kid, Outcault_4th_ward_browniesMickey Dugan was born on February 17, 1895, on the wrong side of the tracks. A wise-cracking street urchin with a “sunny disposition”, Mickey was the kind of street kid you’d find in New York’s turn-of-the-century slums, maybe hawking newspapers. “Extra, Extra, read all about it!”

With his head shaved as if recently ridden of lice, Mickey was one of thousands of homeless street urchins roaming the back lots and tenements of the city, not as much an individual as an archetype. Mickey Dugan was a cartoon character, the child of artist and “Buster Brown” creator, Richard Outcault.

Yellow_kid001Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” strip, one of the first regular Sunday newspaper cartoons in the country, became colorized in May of 1895. For the first time, Mickey Dugan’s oversized, hand-me-down nightshirt was depicted in yellow.  Soon, the character was simply known as “the Yellow kid”.

Outcault worked for Joseph Pulitzer in those days, owner of the New York World Newspaper. Archrival William Randolph Hearst hired the cartoonist away to work for Pulitzer’s cross-town competitor Journal American, but the pair soon learned that there was no copyright protection on the Yellow kid. Soon, the character was simultaneously appearing in competing newspaper strips, where he would remain for over a year.

YellowKidWe hear a lot today about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing newspapers using anything possible to get an edge. Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

The Yellow kid character had died away by 1898, but he lived on in a way, in the style of newspaper reporting which came to be called “yellow journalism”.

After two wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States. From the Spanish perspective, Cuba was more of a province than a colony.  They were not about to relinquish a foot of territory. When the Cuban Rebellion of 1895 broke out, Spanish colonial administrator don Valeriano Weyler’s brutal repressions killed thousands in Cuban concentration camps.

In America, some saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and the United States’ own revolution of a hundred-odd years earlier. Fearing the economic repercussions of a drawn out conflict, shipping and other business interests put pressure on President McKinley to intervene. Meanwhile, the yellow papers kept the issue front page, whipping up popular fury with tales of the noble Cuban revolutionary and the barbaric Spaniard. There were even tales of American women being publicly strip searched, by Spanish authorities.

imperialism-the-spanishamerican-war-and-yellow-journalism-11-638

The armored cruiser USS Maine left Key West headed for Cuba in January 1898, to protect US interests and to emphasize the need for a quick resolution to the conflict. Anchored in Havana Harbor on February 15, a massive explosion of unknown origin rocked the Maine, sinking the cruiser within minutes and killing 268 of the 355 Americans on board.

The McKinley administration urged calm. Conditions in Cuba were bad enough, without front page headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine”, accompanied by sensationalized accounts of Spanish brutality. War became all but inevitable when US Navy findings were released that March, stating that the sinking had resulted from an external explosion.

1890s_Spanish_Misrule_Cartoon-Dalrymple-Puck
“Spanish Misrule,” Puck, 1890s, by Louis Dalrymple

The Spanish-American War began the following month, directly resulting in the Philippine-American war.

There is a story, that illustrator Frederic Remington said there was no war brewing in Cuba. Hearst is supposed to have replied. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The story may be apocryphal. Newspapers then couldn’t tell us what to think any more than today, but the media certainly controlled what the public thought ABOUT.  For two years, Hearst and Pulitzer had clamored for war with Spain.  Both were happy to take credit, when war came. Beside that, it was good for circulation. A week after the Spanish-American War began that April, Hearst’s American Journal ran the headline “How do you like the Journal’s war?”  Front page.  Above the fold.

It’s been said that you should never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. I disagree. I have broken that dictum myself and recommend the practice to anyone so inclined. For all the Wizard of Oz antics of the print and electronic media, there remains only the one man behind the curtain.

President Reagan once said of the Soviet Union, “doveryai no proveryai” (trust, but verify). He might have said the same of an information industry whose business model it is, to rent an audience to a sponsor.

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In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the explosion aboard the USS Maine was likely caused by a fire which ignited ammunition stockpiles, not by Spanish mine or act of sabotage.

Concerning what to say to the families of the 20,603 dead, wounded and missing from the Spanish-American war, the newspapers were and remain, silent.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.