There were no child labor laws in New York in 1899. No rules identifying what an acceptable work day for a child, or the conditions in which that work should take place. As you can imagine, it was messy and hard, and if you were unfortunate enough to be an orphan or a runaway, well things were just that much harder. One labor force that was largely made up of such children were newsboys, or newsies.
Newsies in this time period led a precarious existence. Newspapers printed in Manhattan and Brooklyn, upwards of 15 different publications, took part in a literal battle for circulation. Gangs of Thugs hired by the papers, including Pulitzer and Hearst, routinely set fire to paper distribution centers, wrecked wagons and assaulted vendors. In the middle of all of that mayhem were destitute and often homeless children who peddled the papers for survival.
At the time, in New York it’s estimated that there were roughly 10,000 newsies, ranging from age 6 to their late teens. These working kids would purchase a pile of 100 newspapers for 65 cents. Then spend long days shouting out newspaper headlines to the public in order to persuade them to buy the paper for one penny. If they sold all the papers, they would make 35 cents. This money would help them afford luxuries such as crusts of bread and perhaps, if they were lucky, a bed for the night in one of the boarding houses. Keep in mind, they also had to have money leftover to pay for more papers the next day. Needless to say it was a bleak existence for a child.
So why did they strike? Well, if you’ve seen the movie or the Broadway production of Newsies, than you probably already know the answer. During the Spanish-American War, newspapers upped their price to the newsies to 85 cents per hundred, which would have left the children in dire straights, but because of the increased sales and captivating war stories, the newsies were able to scrape by. However, after the war, as life was going back to normal in New York, the newspaper circulation numbers plummeted, and tycoons such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst refused to bring the price of papers back down. In turn the working children of New York were pushed into even greater depths of poverty.
As a result of the largest papers in the city refusing to bring their prices back down to pre-war prices, the newsies began to organize. It started with a boycott, refusing to buy or sell the papers. This then lead to more large scale meetings to convince more of the newsies of the importance of action and the boycott. They quickly organized hundreds of others.
In addition to not buying newspapers, the newsies tried to stop the businesses from making any money at all by staging a massive strike. Hundreds of kids participated in these demonstrations, which were highlighted by angry speeches by some of the more colorful newsies. Over several hot summer days they marched onto the Brooklyn Bridge, halting traffic for hours, making it very difficult for deliveries of papers to occur. It surely was an inconvenience to the city and attracted the attention of a lot of people.
Though most papers refused to feature the newsies in their publications, the Times was delighted with their competition’s misfortune. (They themselves had lowered the price to newsies back to where it was before the war.) They sympathetically covered the struggle of New York’s working children, particularly speeches given by their strike leader. No, not Jack Kelly, Kid Blink was identified by the Times as the strike’s “mini-Napoleon”. Kid Blink, so named because he wore an eyepatch was known for giving rousing speeches and was only 13 or 14 when he gathered the newsies and other child laborers of the city to his cause.
Pulitzer and Hearst both struck back against the strikers with vigor. Hiring goons to attack rallies and rallying the police to “bust heads” and make arrests when they could. The child strikers didn’t back down though, keeping up the fight no matter how many were injured or taken.
Eventually both Pulitzer and Hearst were forced to admit that their organizations would not survive if the strike carried on. While their competition flourished during this time, it was estimated that the circulation of the World dropped from 360,000 papers daily to less than 125,000. So after two weeks the newspapers agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsies, though they would not lower the overall price, this made selling papers somewhat 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.