Newsboys & Newsgirls

Newsboys and Newsgirls

Newsboys and newsgirls became a common site in American cities of the mid- and late-19th Century. Often made up of older boys and young teenagers, this unprotected, vulnerable workforce hawked newspapers through late night shifts, sexual abuse, severe weather conditions, and long hours. In 1903, Jane Addams led an investigation into the issue in Chicago, uncovering a deep-rooted and previously ignored problem in regards to child labor.

In 1833, the New York Sun newspaper and its publisher Benjamin Day issued a help-wanted advertisement calling for newspaper sellers in an attempt to expand the reach of the paper, which was only available from the newspapers’ offices at the time. Expecting adults to apply for the new jobs, Day instead received a majority of applications from children. His first “newspaper hawker” was a 10-year old Irish immigrant named Bernard Flaherty. Newsboys, or newsies, as they came to be called, were a common fixture on street corners throughout major cities by the turn of the twentieth century. They usually worked as independent contractors, not as employees of the newspapers, and as such faced greater risks and received less pay and protections.

In Chicago, newsboys were not seen as an issue of child labor and thus not included under the legal protections provided to other working children. This was because newsboys worked in the open, on street corners and in city parks. The issue of “child labor” was stereotyped as children working in dark, dangerous factories and sweatshops, not out on the city sidewalk. In a pamphlet Addams wrote describing a two-day newsboy and newsgirl investigation, she stated, “The newsboy becomes part of our city environment.” 12% of newsboys in Chicago in 1903, the year of the study, were under 10 years old. Most were Italian and collectively, they earned $41.30 per day, or an average of 32 cents per boy. They worked 3.5 hours shifts each day.

Many were exploited by parents that were barely scraping by. Some faced sexual violence, working on the street until late at night. A former superintendent of a Chicago school is quoted in the same report as saying, “One-third of the newsboys who come to the John Worthy School have venereal disease, and that 10 percent of the remaining newsboys at present in the Bridewell, are, according to the physician’s diagnosis, suffering from diseases due to unnatural relations with men. The newsboy is in a class by himself in this respect, for the rest of the boys are comparatively free from disease of this kind.” Newsboys’ physical development was also hindered by the long hours and lack of sleep, and many were considered truant from school. Still others became involved in gambling and grew to be semi-vagrant, sleeping outside the newspaper offices.

Young girls also sold papers. Investigators in the 1903 study found 20, and moderate estimates for the city of Chicago put the total number at around three times that amount. Also mostly Italian, they often earned around 50 cents per day, and commonly sold papers in saloons.

Many strikes by newsboys occurred, including a major one in 1899 in New York City. The 1899 strike reduced the circulation of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper from 360,000 to 125,000 and ended in success with a pay raise for the newsboys. This strike was recounted in the 1992 Disney film and its 2011 Broadway musical adaption Newsies.

As a result of this strike and increased attention given to the plight of newsboys and newsgirls, legislation was passed in New York State regulating the sale of newspapers by children. Similar legislation was proposed by Addams in her report.


Photo: Lewis HinePreus Museum Flickr