Great Kids in History: The Kids Go on Strike!

Newsboys often worked late at night, such as this child working in NewYork in 1910.By Michael Williams

Kids in History. During the 1890s, there were many orphan and homeless children living on the streets of most major cities across the nation. In New York alone more than 10,000 children had no place to call home and many slept on the streets. They were ragged and often dirty. Most had no shoes, coats or hats to protect them from the harsh New England winter.

They lived by making a few cents a day selling newspapers. These boys were known as “newsies.”    The boys, whose ages ranged from six and up, purchased newspapers from the publisher, such as the “New York World,” and sold them for a small profit. They were never employees of the paper, but contractors. The boys usually earned an average of 30 cents a day. To make this amount of money they worked many long hours running up and down the streets of the big cities shouting, “Extra, extra, read all about it!”

That amount of money seems small today. But, in the late 1890s, it was enough to feed a person for a day. Because many of them were parentless, there was no one to protect their interests and were often mistreated by many who didn’t want to be bothered by the young workers. As a result they discovered they would have to look out for each other to survive. Their ability to stick together in difficult times helped them win a contract dispute and overcome some incredible odds.

In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain in what became known as the Spanish-American War. There was no television or Internet in those days. As a result, the only means for keeping up with the war was the newspaper.

The war proved to be very profitable for the newspapers as sales skyrocketed. Most Americans wanted to know what was going on and many who seldom bought newspapers began buying them.

Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the “New York World,” and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the “New York Journal,” saw an opportunity to increase their profits by raising the price of the papers being sold to the newsies.

The two publishers raised the price from 50 cents per bundle of 100 papers to 60 cents per bundle. For the most part, the boys never complained because the increased price was offset by the increased sales.

The war lasted just four months and the sales of newspapers went back to previous levels. Unfortunately, for the newsies, both Hearst and Pulitzer refused to lower the cost of the newspapers to the boys. This cut deeply into their profits.

Frustrated by their lower pay for the same amount of work, the boys held a meeting and began to devise a strategy. Hundreds of newsies came up with a plan to force the publishers to lower the price of their papers so that the boys could make a modest living.

After the meeting the newsies put their well-laid plan into effect. They began to approach their most loyal customers and explained to them how the publishers were charging them more and they were making less money. They asked each customer not to buy a paper from anyone except them. Most of the customers agreed to do so.

In July of 1899, the newsies went on strike. They refused to distribute the newspapers. The strikers demonstrated across Brooklyn Bridge bringing traffic to a halt for several days. Several rallies drew more than 5,000 newsies.

One charismatic boy, known as Kid Blink, who was 13 or 14-years of age, so named because he was blind in one eye, made several speeches encouraging the boys to stick together.

The two publishers quickly decided they were not about to give in to a bunch of kids. Incredibly, the two publishers sent out men to break up rallies, sometimes resorting to violence. But, the newsies refused to be intimidated.

“Me men is noble,” Blink told the crowd of boys. “Friends and feller workers, dis is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is a time when we’se got to stick together like glue….we know wot we wants and we’ll get it even if we is blind.”

Unable to break up the strike, the two publishers sent their men out on the streets to sell the newspapers. Convinced the boys were not needed and could easily be replaced, the adult carriers walked up and down the streets of the city trying to sell papers. But many of the loyal customers remembered the promise they had made to the boys and refused to buy papers.

Within days the publishers were frantic. The circulation of the New York World plunged from 360,000 a day to 125,000 a day. Thousands of unsold papers sat bundled up piling up in the company’s warehouse.

Left with no alternative, Pulitzer and Hearst agreed to meet the boys half way. They refused to lower the price of the bundles of newspapers but they did agree to buy back all unsold newspapers.  Satisfied with the deal, the boys broke up the strike and returned to work.

The success of their strike inspired later strikes by other newsboys. In 1914, the newsboys of Butte, Montana went on strike as did the newsboys of Louisville, Kentucky in 1920.

The strike of 1899 led to major changes in child welfare and labor laws that improved the quality of life for the newsboys. The newsies became the subject of a Disney movie titled, “Newsies.” The musical was later adapted to a stage play that debuted at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011.

Most importantly, the newsboys proved that kids can accomplish anything if they unite together and stay true to their objectives.

  Michael Williams is the author of “Great Kids in History,” a collection of 22 amazing stories of incredible kids that have accomplished amazing things. The book is wonderful reading material for parents and children alike and would make an excellent gift for the great kid in your life. “Great Kids in History” is available in Kindle or in print at  Amazon.

Check out the Tennessee Star Journal for more stories of Kids In History.

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