The Disney live action musical Newsies was a big time flop at the box office in 1992 losing millions of dollars and generating a mini-crisis for the studio. It turns out people would not pay to see singing and dancing urchins play out class warfare on the streets of old New York. Since then the movie achieved a minor cult following largely because the intrepid young hero was played by Christian Bale, who grew up to be the Dark Knight. The last installment of that franchise will coincidentally open in theaters tonight.
After languishing mostly in obscurity for twenty years, the writer and composer conspired to bring it to Broadway this year with some success.
The real life Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 was less charming and far more dangerous. It was another chapter in the grim class war that was a staple of turn of the 20th Century life, albeit with a somewhat happier ending than many conflicts.
The 1890’s was a period of heavy competition among the 15 major daily English language newspapers published in Manhattan and others in Brooklyn. Respectable broadsheets like the Post, Herald, Tribune, Times, Morning Sun, and American were challenged by the more sensational Yellow Journalism sheets, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s Morning and Evening Journals.
The battle for circulation, particularly between the Hearst and Pulitzer papers, was often literally fought out on the streets with gangs of thugs hired to wreck delivery wagons, burn piles of papers at distribution points, and assault vendors on the streets. Even the “respectable” papers engaged in this activity to one degree or another.
There were about 10,000 newsboys—and a few newsgirls—on the streets of Manhattan and thousands more in Brooklyn and outlying areas. They were both cannon fodder and ground troops in the circulation wars.
Depicted in popular literature as plucky little businessmen rising in the world, most of the newsboys, some as young as six years old and ranging to their late teens, were desperately poor. In fact the majority were homeless—orphans, run-a-ways, abandoned cast offs. Many slept on the streets. Some found refuge in homes for “waifs.” Some squatted in empty buildings. Others slept dozens to a shared room in some of the city’s worst slum tenements. Some still lived with large, impoverished and usually immigrant families who need all hands to eke out a living.
The kids were generally hungry, dirty, and cold. They were also tough as nails and regularly brawled for control of the best locations both with and without the encouragement of company circulation agents. Contemporary writers sneeringly compared them to feral dogs.
Kids lined up as early as 4:30 in the morning outside circulation docks. They bought their newspapers by the bundle of 100. That was about all smaller children could carry. Some had wagons or carts and were able to take several bundles. Before 1898 they paid 65 cents a bundle and sold them for two or three cents apiece, depending on the paper. The papers were un-returnable and kids generally stayed out until the sold the last one. Often on the streets for fourteen hours, a street hawker might make 30 cents a day, barely enough to eat.
Conditions had generated conflict for years. The first recorded newsboy strike was way back in 1866 and there had been strikes, mostly for reduced cost for bundles, again in 1884, 1886, 1887, and 1889. But none had been well organized or lasted more than a day or two. Papers had no trouble using the natural gang-like rivalries among the sellers themselves, hired plug-uglies, and blackballing strike leaders to crush the strikes.
The Spanish American War was a bonanza for the newspaper business. Hearst had practically created the war himself with dramatic accounts of the Cuban Insurrection and the explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor. Lurid accounts of action caused papers to literally fly out of the vender’s grimy hands. Taking advantage of the situation, all of the papers raised their prices to 85 cents a bundle. Despite the increased costs, newsboys were able to marginally prosper on vastly increased sales.
When the war was over, newspaper sales plummeted to pre-war levels or even lower. All of the papers except those owned by Pulitzer and Hearst returned to pre-war pricing. The papers probably expected trouble, but were confident that they could handle it. They were wrong.
The street urchins had evidently been learning something from watching labor struggles unfold in front of them on the streets, particularly recent street car and Teamster strikes. They learned the value of mass picketing and of going after all avenues of the papers' circulation. And they may have been listening to street corner orators about the value of solidarity.
Although sometimes portrayed as a spontaneous action, the refusal of newsboys to handle Pulitzer and Hearst papers on July 20, 1899 seems to have been well planned in advance. Manhattan vendors secured the cooperation and support of newsboys in Brooklyn, then considered almost a different world. For several days thousands of boys from both sides of the East River massed on the Brooklyn Bridge snarling traffic and blocking circulation to the entire of Long Island. Similar actions around trains bound for New Jersey blocked circulation on the other side of the Hudson including markets in suburbs like Yonkers, Up-State New York, and Connecticut.
Almost daily rallies of as many as 5000 vendors clogged key points in the city.
Amused and delighted at the misfortune of their rivals, other papers, especially the Times sympathetically chronicled the struggle, particularly the rousing speeches of the strike leader identified only as Kid Blink for his eye patch. Estimated to be 13 or 14, he was credited with the organizing skills of a mini-Napoleon. Whether he was the strike true “leader” or just a colorful spokesperson, the Times loved to record his speech in exaggerated street argot:
Me men is nobul, and wid such as dese to oppose der neferarious schemes how can de blokes hope to win?
Friens and feller workers. Dis 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 papers fought back with everything they had. Goons attacked rallies and tried to pick of individual strikers. Police were roused to bust heads and make arrests. Calls went out for scabs, confident in the popular maxim of railroad robber baron Jay Gould that he could always hire half the working class to beat up the other. But the strikers held firm. And scab peddlers met with rough justice from the fists and clubs of strikers.
As the strike dragged on, circulation of the Pulitzer and Hearst papers plummeted while their rivals profited handsomely from their losses. It was reported the circulation of the World dropped from 360,000 papers daily to less than 125,000.
After two weeks the press tycoons ran up the white flag. Although they refused to lower the bundle price, they did agree to buy back unsold papers, which made peddling them marginally profitable again. The competing papers, with their lower bundle prices, also felt compelled to start buying back copies, lest the ire of the newsboys turn on them.
The reform was lasting. Unfortunately the newsboys’ organization was not. It disappeared along with Kid Blink and other colorfully monikered figures like Barney Peanuts, Race Track Higgins, Crazy Arborn and Crutch Morris.
But their victory lived on. And, I guess, that is something to sing and dance about.