Thursday, November 29, 2012

New York Newsboy Newspaper Boys in the 1800's

By Jacob A. Riis

Newsboys eyeing a newsgirl
The newsboys of New York were having their Christmas dinner, and I was bidden to the feast. I stood at the door and saw them file in, seven hundred strong, to take their places at the long ta­bles. Last of all came the little shavers, brimful of mischief waiting to break out. The superintendent pulled my sleeve when he set eyes upon them.

"Watch out now," he said; "they’ll be up to something."

I saw them eye the lay-out as they went down the line, where turkey and mince-pie stood waiting, and make quick, stealthy passes with their hands, but nothing hap­pened until they had taken their seats. Then up went eight grimy fists, and eight aggrieved voices piped out:

"Mister, I ain't got no pie!"

The superintendent chuckled.

"How is that?" he said. "No pie? There was one; I put it there myself, at every plate. Why, what is that?" And he patted each of the little rascals in the region of the bread-basket, where some­thing stuck out in a lump inside the shirt.

"Me pie," was the unabashed reply. "I was afeard it 'u'd get stole on me." There was just the ghost of a wink.

"Well," laughed the superintendent, "we’ll forget it. It is Christmas. Go ahead, boys, with your dinner." And they fell to.

It was great. Talk about the charge of the Six Hundred. These were seven hun­dred, and they used their knives, their forks, and their tongues all at once and for all they were worth. The noise was deaf­ening. You could not have heard your­self think. One alone among them all did no shouting. He devoured his dinner like a famished little wolf, and all the while he never took his ferret eyes from my face. It was in the days when New York had a militant police commissioner, who set the town by the ears every other day with his unheard of ways of enforcing dead letter laws, and rattled its dry bones. All of a sudden the boy snatched his fist from his mouth and pointed it straight at me.

"I know you," he piped in a shrill treble that cut through the Babel of tongues like a knife.

"I seen yer picter in de papers. Ye'r'—ye'r'—Teddy Roose­velt !"

Instantly there was the silence of the tomb in the big hall. Where just before one would not have known that a dray went over the pavement outside, one could all at once have heard a pin drop. Look­ing down the table where the miscreants sat who had tried to get a double allow­ance of pie, I saw something stirring and the stolen pies appeared and were swiftly and silently deposited on the table. The dreaded name had brought them back even on a false alarm.

That was seventeen years ago. Chance carried me past the Newsboys' Lodging-House the other day at the dinner-hour, and I went in to have a look at things. There were no newsboys there. The little shavers with their gimlet wits were gone. The boys who sat about the tables did not hail from Newspaper Row. They were older, and evidently earning their bread in shop and factory.

Crippled newsboy
"Gone," said the superintendent to my question where the little fellows were. "Societies got them, and they don't run in the street. The old times went out a dozen years ago. Before that we had them at six, even at five, and more and more of them up to fourteen. They overflowed from the city's tenements in homeless hordes. They don't any more. The boys we now have average seventeen or eigh­teen; they come mostly from out of town. The lure of the city, the Wanderlust, gets them. Now and then it is a stepfather. Here we sift them, get them work if we can. A few sell papers, but not many. There are not half a dozen newsboys in the house to-day, and its name might as well be changed. Less than one third be­long in New York. Last year when Christmas was coming on we had a talk here, and the speaker touched the string of mother waiting at home for her wander­ing boy.

There was a tremendous demand for notepaper that week, and seventeen run­aways were returned to their homes.

"The newsboy of today is another kind of chap, who has a home and folks. No, Santa Claus has not lost the way. We still have our Christmas dinner. Come and see for yourself."

What he said was true. The newsboy of old, who foraged for himself, who crowded street and alley about the news­paper offices and mobbed the pressmen, who curled up by the steam-pipes or on the manhole-covers in the small hours of the morning for a "hot-pipe nap" till the clatter of the great presses began below, and was rounded up there by the "Cruelty man" in zero weather, is a rare bird now­adays.

In his place has come the commercial little chap who lives at home and sells papers after school-hours, sometimes on his own account, but oftener to eke out the family earnings with what may be the dif­ference between comparative comfort and abject poverty.

Yiddish news lady on Grand Street
 She only sells Hebrew papers
Shorn of his lawless privilege of sleep­ing out and of imperiling his life a hun­dred times a day by jumping on mov­ing cars in his hunt for trade, he is still a feature of metropolitan life, even holds the key to some of its striking phases; for, as the circulation manager will tell you, he is the one who makes the sales. The dealer at the stand merely registers the purchaser's desire for a pa­per; the boy prompts it. He has surren­dered some of his picturesqueness to become a cog in the industrial wheel, small but indispensable.

Like all business in our day, he is being concentrated, capitalized. From an atom he has become an asset, quite without his assistance.

It was neither the change from the jo­vial Irish to the sunny Italian, nor from him to the sharp-witted Jew, that wrought the transformation. It was something more potent than either or both. It was the Spanish War, with the great boom of the sensational papers that set a new pace in the press-rooms. Where there had been one afternoon edition, half a dozen grew. It was clearly impossible for the boy to go down-town every half-hour for his papers; he would be traveling all day if he did. So he stayed where he was. The clamor­ing crowds about the newspaper offices dis­appeared. Pony expresses and automobiles carried the editions up-town, throwing them off at points where news dealers and boys were waiting. Year by year the routes were extended and they are grow­ing yet. The old distribution centers un­der the equestrian statue in Union Square, in Greeley Square, Times Square, Colum­bus Circle, and at the Grand Central, have been multiplied many times. In this rush of development the little fellow has been caught up as in a whirlwind, and is being carried on with a speed that leaves him and, for that matter, the rest of us lit­tle chance to think or ask where he is go­ing.

In in-climate weather
Thus lassoed by the big business of the time, what sort of lad has the little pirate of the past become? And what is he, with the training of the street, in the way to be­come? It depends on the angle from which he is seen, and angles he has in plenty. Let it be said at once that the boy who weeps in the street at night, appealing to the tender-hearted with an armful of unsold papers, whatever he was once, is not now the typical newsboy. He can re­turn his papers now, if "stuck," or at any rate a fair share of them. "Nine chances to one the tearful one is a preposterous lit­tle fraud. If he confronts you with a plea for a quarter, "to make the dollar and a half he needs to go to the camp," the tenth chance is gone. He does not have to pay a dollar and a half to go to camp. The Newsboys' Home Club gives him all its privileges, including the summer camp, through the whole year for a quarter. He is the crafty little rascal upon whom the "Cruelty man" keeps a wary eye, for he knows that he will encounter him in the Children's Court someday or, rather, that he will take him there. It is this lad who is responsible for the showing of the reformatories, that more than half of the prisoners "sold newspapers" in their day. Doubtless they did, and they made short change to begin with, and picked pockets a little later on. But they are no more representative of their class than the get ­rich-quick swindlers, to whom the post office authorities forbid the mails, repre­sent the honest business of the land.

There is evil enough abroad in the streets. Its touch, with all that is cheap and tawdry and vulgar, from the peren­nial cigarette to the vile bar-room and worse that open upon it, sharpens the lad's wits and too often tends to dull his mor­als. Seen from that angle, he gives the philanthropist concern with cause. De­spite child-labor laws, he is on the street at too early an age and too late an hour. The law now forbids him to cry his extra after ten o'clock if he is under fourteen. This winter an effort will be made to shorten his hours by two and send him to bed at eight, while raising his age to sixteen. Even then there will be mis­chief enough and to spare in his path. School licenses and badges do not banish it. The lad does not always take them seriously:

“Where is your badge?" asked a man suddenly of a little fellow who pushed a paper at him. He was dirty and out at elbows. The rent in his trousers was mended with a bent nail.

"Left it home on the pianner," he grinned, and dodged a venge­ful grab.

Veteran newsman on Park Row
Seen from the angle of his friend in the "club," he is an honest lit­tle fellow whose earnings out of school help make both ends meet at home. The very independence that is arraigned as tending to defi­ance of authority, to irregularity and loose habits, in his view helps make a man of him early, "if it is in him." He will point to the lad who just left his desk after arranging to take his week in camp in Sunday doses, and tell you the reason: he cannot get away from business. A Jew has set up a stand on his corner, and it is up to him to meet the compe­tition, which he does by hiring an­other boy to way­lay the customer in the middle of the block while he forages at the crossing. That other boy over there is going into a silk house on the first of the month, and his younger brother will take over his route. That boy began, as most of them do, by mak­ing six or ten cents a day. For a long while now he has brought home five dollars a week to his fa­ther, who presses clothes for a living; and weekly earns little more than that the year round.

From the point of view of the circulation manager, who, after all, perhaps knows him best, it being to his interest, the lad is just a boy who, if he goes crooked, goes fast and far, but who grows straight in ninety-nine cases out of a hun­dred, and, whether the one or the other, can take care of himself. The one needs no one to weep over him; the other will "do" you while you are at it. It is the circulation manager who has housed him in his own club, once the dignified home of the Historical Society, at Eleventh Street and Second Avenue, sends him to camp in summer, has culled the chaff from the wheat generally, and given him a social footing be­cause of the commercial one he has conquered.

Fresh from its humanizing influence, I corralled one of the species on the avenue and catechized him, investing at intervals in his stock to hold his attention. He was thir­teen and had no badge. "My boss has one," he said. The boss proved to be an older boy who "had the corner" and bought the papers at two for three; that is, for every two one-cent papers he paid for, he received one free. That was his profit. My boy was hired for, the hours between half-past four and seven on all school-days at a wage of sixty cents a week. Here then was the capitalist at the beginning of things.

Christmas dinner in a newsboy’s Bowery lodging house
"Why don't you get a cor­ner yourself?" I asked.

"They're all took."

The boy was German, and it seemed safe to ask:

"He has no more right to the corner than you have; why don't you fight him for it?"
"He's my boss," was the dogged reply.

"But suppose some stronger fellow drove him away?" The answer was prompt: "I'd get other boys and get it back for him."

Does that help you to un­derstand the following of Big Tim Sullivan and such leaders?
Big Tim was a newsboy once, and he sticks up for them always. I tried once more.

"Did you ever hear of any one taking a boy's corner—just taking it?”

"I heared of it. but I never knowed it. It is his corner."

I felt for the tribal instinct on another tack. The boy had been to camp. It is on the salt water.

"Can the fellows swim?" I asked.

"Most on 'em."

"Is there any one to save those who can't if they get in too deep?"

"Pinochle does—Pete's his name. He pulled some out already."

Boys are no longer permitted to board the street cars

"If he shouldn't be there, and a boy be drowning, would any of the others go in to help him?"

"They'd all go." It was plain that he was not boasting; he stated a simple fact.

Starting out young
Some kingdoms have rested on no better claim than the boss's corner. There was one boss who took the title with the power, but neither lasted long. Jack Sullivan, "the King of the Newsboys," lies in the Tombs at this writing, mired in the infamy that bred the Rosenthal mur­der. His was the choice of the gutter that is always handy to the street, but it was not typical. Neither is that of the news­boy, now grown to man's size, who owns the route on which I live and counts me among his subjects. Knowing that I have become a farmer, he lingers whenever he finds me at home, to hear the news of po­tatoes and crops. He dreams of them, asleep and awake, and he has saved nearly enough to buy his farm, beside raising a family of little children. When he has it all, he will sell his route to another boy as young as he was when he began and, let us hope, as honorably ambitious. He is not typical because it is not often that the newsboy's longing takes the shape of a farm, though I know of at least one, a graduate of one of the Children's Aid So­ciety's lodging-houses, who did the same. He is a settlement worker now when he is not farming. Another, who came out of the same place, is superintendent of a boys' club in a New Jersey town. And there is one, a cripple, of whom some of the read­ers of this article have doubtless bought papers, whose domain lies on the north side of Forty-Second Street and yields him a revenue of five dollars a day, so they say in the Forty-fourth Street lodging-house in which he used to live, and which he now supplies with papers.

But the newsboy's ambition is more apt to run to business or the professions. There are clergymen, lawyers, and bankers in New York who began their careers crying newspapers in the street. I know of a distinguished physician on Madison Ave­nue who so paid his way through college. At the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge one sells newspapers today who is in his last year in the medical school. Another, around in Fulton Street, will be gradu­ated with the next class from the dental college, and up at the Grand Central, I brush against one who is taking his sec­ond year's course in the law school. All these are still at their posts, making the money that pays for their education; but I past them all by, when bound up-town, and buy my paper or magazine of one who stands at the corner of Twenty-Third Street and Fourth Avenue. Let me tell you his story.

Checking his funds, to see
 if he has enough for lodging
From his window across the street one of the officers of the Gerry Society saw a boy with a crutch and an armful of papers dive into the hurrying crowd on the cross­ing and snatch a customer from under the very nose of a big, bearded man, also a news-vender, who in revenge struck him an angry blow that sent him sprawling in the dirt. The boy picked himself up and limped back to his corner, where the offi­cer found him brushing off his coat and attending to business as though nothing had happened.

"It is all right," was Fred's only comment; "I wasn't hurt, and I guess it was his sale, anyhow."

The boy had just passed fourteen: He had no time to waste in fighting, for his father was sick at home and the support of the mother and three younger brothers was upon his frail shoulders. That was fifteen years ago, and he still sticks to the corner that is his by right now. And this is how he met his responsibility, for the father died without ever earning another dollar: one brother is a capable engineer connected with one of the great electric companies, another is in the employ of an express company; the third is a stenogra­pher. Fred's earnings brought them all up and gave them their start. One of the brothers helped him sell papers when not in school. The family have left the tene­ment where the father died, and live in a nice home. Fred, as I said, sticks to his corner. It is the key-note of the man, as it was of the boy—to stick it out. He has seen the tide of little Italians succeeded by a flood of Jews, big and little, but through it all has held his own serenely. Best of all, he no longer walks with a crutch, though he still limps. Open air plus his dogged grit has triumphed also over this obstacle and made him whole.

A good many years ago word came to the office of the "Sun" that there had been an accident in which a newsboy was hurt. I went out and asked the old news-woman at the bridge entrance who it was. I re­member, as though it were yesterday, her answer:

"Little Maher it was."

"Well, where does he live? Who looks after him?"

"Oh, no one but God; and I guess He is too busy with other folks' boys to mind him much."

The little Mahers of that day are hap­pily no more. Society has taken over the duty of looking after them, and attends to it. Their successors follow business prin­ciples, but that they have not lost either their wit or their spirits in the change you will discover before you have kept their company long. Last autumn I went to New Haven to lecture and, stepping off the train at dusk, had a paper poked at me by one of the tribe. On the front page was my picture.

"Who is that?" I asked the boy, point­ing to it. He took one look at it and at me.

"Oh," he said, "some old duffer. There's lots of 'em here."

With his own newsstand

From The Century Magazine – 1912.


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