How the Newsboy Strike of 1899 Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert, joined by Sarah Dowdey. Hey, Sarah!

Sarah Dowdey: Hi, Katie.

Katie Lambert: So, I've been trying to get you all morning to agree to do this podcast in dialect, but you won't.

Sarah Dowdey: No, sorry.

Katie Lambert: But you have to at least throw in something for me there.

Sarah Dowdey: I can read some questions in a semi-dialect. How about that?

Katie Lambert: Okay, that's good enough. Thank you. Today, we're doing the Newsboys Strike of 1899, as in the Newsies the musical, but the real story, not the Disney one.

Sarah Dowdey: So, newspapers have been around for a while, obviously, but they really started picking up speed at the beginning of the 19th Century when prices went way down and, consequently, circulation goes up. By the mid 19th Century, there were about 400 dailies and 3,000 weeklies in the US.

Katie Lambert: But there were two big ones.

Sarah Dowdey: Two big ones.

Katie Lambert: The New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, and the New York Journal, owned by William Randolph Hearst, the two big guys in the newspaper publishing business.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and the competition between these two guys gets so intense that they start sensationalizing their stories, just making up stuff, basically.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, tabloid style.

Sarah Dowdey: Libel was not a big deal at the time, but this is the start of yellow journalism, which actually got its name from one of the cartoon characters in a paper.

Katie Lambert: Right. And at the time, Pulitzer and Hearst were busy trying to sabotage one another by stealing away each other's writers and cartoonists. One cartoonist, Richard Outcault - I'm sorry, I don't know how to say his name - came up with the character of the Yellow Kid, and he appeared in one newspaper which was in color, and people loved him. So of course, the other publisher promptly stole him away, and the Yellow Kid became the emblem of yellow journalism, really.

Sarah Dowdey: But these two papers would just go at each other, and they would also kind of create stories of their own or blow stories that did exist out of proportion. They essentially drive the United States into war with Spain.

Katie Lambert: With Spain, yeah.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is pretty unbelievable if you think about it that the Spanish American War is largely the responsibility of two newspaper publishers?

Katie Lambert: Such is the power of the media.

Sarah Dowdey: Right? It's good for sales, apparently, too.

Katie Lambert: We will not start a war in the podcast.

Sarah Do wdey: No, don't worry.

Katie Lambert: But New York City was also home of the newsboys.

Sarah Dowdey: It was, and the first one was probably about 1833, a 10-year-old selling copies of the New York Sun on the street. This is different because before then, newspapers used to be sold in stores or sold through subscription, so you'd have newsboys or paperboys, who would, just like today, come to your house, deliver your paper. That's a subscription that's already existing now. The newsies were out on the street hawking these things.

Katie Lambert: And they bought them wholesale. They weren't working for, say, the New York Journal or the New York World. They had to buy a big bundle of them, like 100, for 50 cents. The papers wouldn't buy back the unsold papers.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, so it's a huge risk.

Katie Lambert: Right. You had to sell all 100 or you were out, and most of these boys were really poor from tenement -

Sarah Dowdey: They're little kids, too, some as young as about six years old.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, six was the youngest one I saw.

Sarah Dowdey: So, imagine them - you have 100 papers that you're trying to sell. You're six years old. You're gonna stay out as late as you can, until the next paper comes out, basically, trying to sell what you have to make your profit.

Katie Lambert: All night. And I like that if they couldn't sell them, they would just make up headlines and start yelling about a bridge collapsing, and so people would come and buy it.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah that's right - and buy it.

Katie Lambert: "Extra, extra, read all about the bridge that never happened."

Sarah Dowdey: its like, "Oh, that's on A-20."

Katie Lambert: So people would buy the papers. But Hearst and Pulitzer saw their profits go down in the summer of 1899.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, which is after the Spanish American War, which they had seen their profits go up?

Katie Lambert: Right, so it's only natural that they would go down, but they decided to take advantage of it, and they didn't want to charge their customers any more money because they didn't they'd go for it. Instead, they came up with the crafty plan to make the newsies pay instead. So, 100 papers were now 60 cents instead of 50 cents, and a dime is a huge difference in 1899 for a poor little newsboy.

Sarah Dowdey: For a newsboy. Yeah, so the boys go on strike, demanding that these two publishing giants lower their prices back to 50 cents.

Katie Lambert: And that was their only real demand. They didn't have anything about working hours or buying back the papers or anything. They just wanted things to go back to where they were, which wasn't even that great. It's not an unreasonable request.

Sarah Dowdey: But New York was kind of the middle of strike fever at this time. The streetcar employees were striking. The freight handlers on the railroad piers, the telegraph messenger boys, so everybody was worked up about better conditions or rights or whatnot.

Katie Lambert: But it didn't work for some of them, like the messenger boys, because they didn't have effective leadership. It was just a bunch of boys yelling about stuff and throwing some stones, and then it ended. But that's not what happened with the newsboys strike.

Sarah Dowdey: No, the newsboys had Little Kid Blink, a kid who was blind in one eye who was basically their leadership.

Katie Lambert: And the boys refused to sell papers, but not only did they refuse to sell, they harassed all the scabs.

Sarah Dowdey: Yep. And for the newsstands that continued to sell the Journal and the World, they would mob them and steal the papers and rip them up. As Pulitzer and Hearst started to fight back and hire these big burly guys to sell papers in front of the publishing houses, the boys even would go after them, create huge mobs to go up against grown men.

Katie Lambert: And it doesn't sound that scary, like 6-year-olds coming up against you with rocks, but most of them weren't. They were a little bit older, like 10 or 11, and they'd all grown up in the streets.

Sarah Dowdey: Tough kids.

Katie Lambert: They were pretty tough kids, and they were not gonna stand for it.

Sarah Dowdey: Still, you get - there's one episode at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt with 50 strikers going against some of these big goons of Pulitzer and Hearst's, another with 300 strikers, so even they're six years old, that's a lot of kids.

Katie Lambert: Still, that's a lot of kids.

Sarah Dowdey: And if you've ever been attacked by a small child as well.

Katie Lambert: And they, I think, even took papers out of citizens hands who bought them.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, this one episode with the 300 strikers, they see five men selling. They jumped them and scattered the papers all over the street. Then, these people start picking them up and reading, kind of cheapskates I guess, picking the papers up off the ground, and the newsies grab the papers out of their hand and rip them up.

Katie Lambert: And they had publicized their strike pretty well. They put up signs everywhere. One of them I read said, "Kill the guy what sells the extras," so seriously don't buy. And they were explaining to people what the problem was. But we did their code of ethics very much.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, they didn't go after the older women who sold papers. A lot of the women weren't joining the strike. It was kind of a youth movement, I guess, and they didn't attack them. And Kid Blink even said that he didn't like it. He wished that they wouldn't sell the Journal and the World, but he wasn't gonna go after a woman.

Katie Lambert: He was quoted in the paper as saying, "A feller can't soak a lady."

Sarah Dowdey: Right. There's Katie's kind of dialect.

Katie Lambert: It's not real dialect, y'all. Another time, we'll convince Sarah to do it. But they did have some support.

Sarah Dowdey: They did. The Harlem newsboys actually organized into a union, and several of the boroughs send delegates to a newsie board, basically.

Katie Lambert: They also got some support from the News Dealers and Stationers Association, and ex-assemblyman Philip Wissig told them, "Now, keep up the fight. Don't violate the law. Don't use dynamite, but stick together, and you will win."

Sarah Dowdey: I'm not sure if that was a provocation or what. It's like, "Now, now, don't use dynamite."

Katie Lambert: Like, "You could use dynamite." The other papers were thrilled that the Journal and the World were going against each other like this because they were having to sell more.

Sarah Dowdey: And actually, it's paid off because Katie and I did a lot of our research through the New York Times for this.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: Which has archives from 1899 where they're covering the story.

Katie Lambert: The strikes.

Sarah Dowdey: Because the actual papers couldn't, really, or wouldn't.

Katie Lambert: And the newspaper accounts are really weird. We both had a really good time reading them this morning, that's why we keep talking about dialect because they printed the kids like that.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, they actually - all the quotes are written in dialect.

Katie Lambert: So instead of, "certainly," they say, "soitenly." And you're reading it like, "Really?" But that's what they did. It's kind of patronizing, like they didn't take them seriously and wanted to paint them in this sort of way. But the other side of me, it's kind of Dickensian and adorable.

Sarah Dowdey: I doubt AP style permits that now. But it does go along with the sensationalism too.

Katie Lambert: Right, making it as picturesque as possible.

Sarah Dowdey: You have great quotes if they're in dialect.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, but a lot of kids during this strike are going hungry because a lot of them are homeless, and some of them worked to support their own families, so all this time they're not making those nickels and dimes is a big deal.

Sarah Dowdey: And it's going on for a while. The Journal and World keep on saying that they're doing fine. They're not having any problems.

Katie Lambert: But they weren't.

Sarah Dowdey: But they really are hurting. Their sales go down 60 percent, and they're getting to the point where they've got to break some kind of deal with the newsies.

Katie Lambert: And so, they come to an agreement that the price for that stack of 100 papers is still gonna be 60 cents. They're not gonna bring it back down to 50, but they will take back unsold papers for a refund. That kind of leads into child labor concerns because if they can return these papers, then that might mean they don't have to stay up until past midnight, a 6-year-old selling papers.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, it kind of gives you the option to give up at the end of the day.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdey: If you're not selling, if the stories aren't good, to just cut your losses.

Katie Lambert: And after the strike, people did start meeting to find out what the plight of the newsies was and realized how young some of these kids were and how dangerous some of the conditions were. They were jumping trolley cars to get around, and many of them lost limbs that way. They were poor, and they were staying up too late. There was no effort at all to regulate any of it.

Sarah Dowdey: No, and some of the suggestions at the time, this doesn't sound very progressive nowadays, but one was to not allow boys under 10 on the street after 9:00 p.m. or to get parental consent from all the boys' parents. Then, a suggestion that sounds pretty good, actually, that they should all be badged and uniformed.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. So, you'd think it would make it a little safer. A lot of them used to go around and selling at places like saloons and would say that drunk men said bad things to them, but they would also tip them well, so that's where they went. But clearly, most people don't want a 7-year-old in a saloon.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a problem. But industrialized states did start to have some child labor restrictions in the late 19th Century, but most didn't start until the Depression, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 finally set a minimum working age of 14 and 16 with certain conditions.

Katie Lambert: Right. And there were a lot of other industries that were going through this as well at the time. Mill workers were notoriously badly treated.

Sarah Dowdey: Actually, the newspaper industry itself starts to change a lot after this, so something like the newsies plight would become less of an issues anyway over time as newspapers started to have syndicated columns, syndicated comics, just little things you could plug into your paper that were available nationally. Sensationalized journalism was less of the selling point.

Katie Lambert: Right. And we had, at the time of the strikes, found a little ad that we enjoyed that said, "Please don't buy the evening Journal and World because the newsboys have striked," so it's something to remember. If you'd like to learn more about strikes and labor unions, come to the website and check out the blog on our homepage at www.howstuffworks.com.

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