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Newsboys: How Child Labor Helped Build the U.S. Newspaper Industry

Thousands of children and teenagers worked as newsboys in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They sold newspapers on city streets, on moving trains, in frontier towns, and even on Civil War battlefields. Many were sent to work by their impoverished immigrant families. Others lived on the streets or in group homes run by social welfare organizations. Publishers relied on newsboys to get newspapers into customers’ hands, and the news industry successfully fought efforts to ban newsboys as child labor. Instead, newspapers promoted newsboys as symbols of the American dream who overcame poverty through hard work.

This fascinating history is laid out in a new book, Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys, by Professor Vincent DiGirolamo (Baruch College). DiGirolamo details how these newsboys (and some newsgirls) lived and worked, but he also explores how their labor helped build the news business, and how they were perceived in the culture at large.

Often the newsboys’ workday began well before dawn. They’d collect papers hot off the presses, then aggressively market them to customers by yelling out (and sometimes embellishing) the headlines. To preserve this cheap workforce of children, some as young as 5, newspaper owners “instituted an amazing array of welfare schemes, such as newsboy banquets, excursions, bands, teams, reading rooms, and night schools, to silence critics and better discipline the children’s labor,” DiGirolamo said in an email interview. Through articles, editorials and ads, publishers and editors also promoted the notion that working as a newsboy was a path to success.

In fact, many famous Americans started out as newsboys, among them Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini, Frank Capra, Walt Disney, Jack London, Jack Dempsey, and Al Smith. But those famous names may be more an indication of the occupation’s ubiquity than anything else. “It was one of the most common, if not the most common, childhood occupation,” DiGirolamo said in a podcast for the Gotham Center for New York City History and New Books Network. The phrase “once was a newsboy” often turns up in 1920s obituary headlines, he added.

But for every newsboy success story, there were just as many accounts of destitution. Many newsboys were homeless, hungry, and deprived of an education. Others landed in jail or fell victim to sexual predators or deadly accidents.

DiGirolamo says he initially hoped to “answer the question of whether news peddling provided a path to success or a road to ruin.” But in the end, he found that “the self-made man narrative is just that–a story wielded selectively to laud individual initiative and ignore underlying structures of opportunity.” As “workers and symbols,” he added, newsboys represented both “a social evil and a public good.”