Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Newsies

Chicago, 1900


…The works of religion and charity have everywhere been manifest. Our country through all its extent has been blessed with abundant harvests. Labor and the great industries of the people have prospered beyond all precedent…”
— President William McKinley,
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, 1900 

Woolf’s clothing store, situated on State Street across from the luxurious Palmer House, closed early on the day before Thanksgiving in 1900, as it had done for years, in order to get ready to serve a holiday dinner for the poor of Chicago. It was unseasonably cold that afternoon; the temperature had already dropped into the teens when the store clerks sprang into action. In what had become a well-orchestrated ritual, they stored away the goods and removed the counters from the main floor. Next, the table were brought in, covered with marbled oilcloth, and decorated with flowers, fruit, and pyramids of small cakes.1 After carefully arranging a thousand place settings, reportedly with as much precision as you would find at a fine hotel, the clerks donned white aprons and jackets just before opening the doors at 6 PM, ready to serve old-fashioned turkey dinners to the multitudes who would begin filing in from the frigid weather.

Woolf's Clothing House

The tradition began in 1882 when owner Isaac Woolf invited about a hundred newsboys to join him for Thanksgiving dinner. Called “newsies,” the boys were employed as the main distributors of newspapers to the general public. Typically earning about thirty cents a day, they were wretchedly poor, often sleeping on the streets. Having been a penniless newsboy himself, Woolf understood their plight and that of others who were impoverished.2 Paying for the meals out of his own pocket, the kind-hearted retailer expanded his annual dinner to include other poverty-stricken families and destitute elderly couples, as the ranks of the poor swelled during the severe economic depression of the 1890s.2 By 1895, Woolf was providing over 10,000 dinners each year to those in need on Thanksgiving eve.3 Everyone was welcome.  

Even as the event grew, it was still the newsies who captured the popular imagination. Although Woolf was generous to a fault, he was not oblivious to the merchandizing potential of the newsboys' dinner, as evidenced by the advertisement below declaring that every article in the store must be sold to make room for the annual event.



Some of the interest in the newsies was sparked by a strike in New York City in 1899, when thousands of boys refused to handle the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The strike lasted two weeks, causing the circulation of Pulitzer’s New York World to drop by almost two-thirds. In the meantime, the newspapers not affected by the strike had a field day lavishing attention on the newspaper boys. Phonetically quoting them to replicate their Irish-immigrant dialects, these papers portrayed them as colorful characters with nicknames like Barney Peanuts, Race Track Higgins, Crutch Morris, and Kid Blink, the charismatic strike leader who was blind in one eye.

“Ain’t that ten cents worth as much to us as it is to Hearst and Pulitzer who are millionaires? Well, I guess it is. If they can’t spare it, how can we?...I’m trying to figure out how ten cents on a hundred papers can mean more to a millionaire than it does to newsboys, an’ I can’t see it.”
– Kid Blink, 1899



Chicago had its own notable newsies, as shown in this promotional booklet entitled “A Few Sketches from Life,” printed in 1900 for the eighteenth annual dinner. Describing this Thanksgiving feast in terms of its massive quantities of food, this brochure features six full-page portraits identified by name; each depiction includes a small vignette showing an activity for which the newsboy was known. Perhaps following New York’s example of the previous year, it appears that these poor, homeless boys were regarded as local celebrities. Still, these caricatures are disturbing, particularly when viewed with modern-day sensibilities.










Discouraged by the harsh economic conditions, U.S. lawmakers retrenched in the 1890s, leaving social problems to private charities. However, such efforts were not sufficient in addressing the myriad of problems that were accumulating as the United States transformed into an urban, industrial nation. With almost half of the children in the country living in poverty, the need to find more systemic solutions became a priority by the turn of the century when the economy was improving. By the time of Isaac Woolf’s untimely death in 1906 at the age of fifty-four, there was an optimistic spirit sweeping through the country. Public-spirited progressives began to tackle the backlog of social issues with renewed energy, passing legislation in many areas.4 No longer perceived as picturesque street urchins, the newsies began to disappear from the American scene as child-welfare practices took root.


Notes
1. Chicago Tribune, 27 November 1895.
2. Children also worked in the tobacco fields, canneries, mines, and mills. During the punishing economic conditions of the 1890s, child labor grew significantly in some regions of the United States, increasing the national number of children employed to 1.75 million by 1900.
3. Isaac Woolf spent about $5000 a year on the charitable dinner. Public school teachers earned $325 per year in 1900; workers in the building trades were paid about 37 cents an hour.
4. Established in 1904, the National Child Labor Committee began a vigorous campaign to protect the next generation of children.

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