Newsboys' strike of 1899
The newsboys' strike of 1899 was a youth-led campaign to force change in the way that Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst's newspapers compensated their child labor force. The strike lasted two weeks, causing Pulitzer's New York World to reduce its circulation from 360,000 to 125,000. The strike was successful in increasing the amount of money that newsboys received for their work.
Newspaper boys, also called 'newsboys' or 'newsies', were the main distributors of newspapers to the general public from the mid-19th to the early 20th century in the United States. They were not employees of the newspapers but rather purchased the papers from the publishers and sold them as independent agents. Not allowed to return unsold papers, the newsboys typically earned around 30 cents a day and often worked until very late at night. Cries of "Extra, extra!" were often heard into the morning hours as newsboys attempted to hawk every last paper.
Newsboys were not often well received. In 1875 a popular writer of the period wrote, "There are 10,000 children living on the streets of New York....The newsboys constitute an important division of this army of homeless children. You see them everywhere.... They rend the air and deafen you with their shrill cries. They surround you on the sidewalk and almost force you to buy their papers. They are ragged and dirty. Some have no coats, no shoes, and no hat." However, the common ill-treatment of the newsboys was not a major concern of society.
Causes of the strike
In 1898, with the Spanish-American War increasing newspaper sales, several publishers raised the cost of a newsboy bundle of 100 newspapers from 50¢ to 60¢, a price increase that at the time was offset by the increased sales. After the war, many papers reduced the cost back to previous levels, with the notable exceptions of the New York World and the New York Morning Journal.
In July 1899, a large number of New York City newsboys refused to distribute the papers of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World, and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the Journal. The strikers demonstrated across the Brooklyn Bridge for several days, effectively bringing traffic to a standstill, along with the news distribution for most New England cities. They kept others from selling the papers by tearing up the distribution in the streets. The boys also requested from the public that they no longer buy either paper until the strike was settled. Pullitzer tried to hire older men to do the boys' job, but the men understood their stance and wanted no part in defying the boys. Several rallies drew more than 5,000 newsboys, complete with charismatic speeches by strike leader Kid Blink.
So named because he was blind in one eye, Kid Blink (Louis Ballatt) was a popular subject among competing newspapers such as the New York Tribune, who often patronizingly quoted Blink with his heavy Brooklyn accent depicted as an eye dialect, attributing to him such sayings as "Me men is nobul." Blink and his strikers were the subject of violence, as well. Hearst and Pulitzer hired men to break up rallies and protect the newspaper deliveries still underway. During one rally Blink told strikers, "Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we'se got to stick together like glue.... We know wot we wants and we'll git it even if we is blind." Although the World and the Journal did not lower their 60¢-a-bundle price, they did agree to buy back all unsold papers, and the union disbanded.
Some decades later, the introduction of urban child-welfare practices led to improvements in the newsboys' quality of life.
The newsboys were fictionalized in 1942 by DC Comics as the Newsboy Legion, first appearing in Issue number 7 of Star Spangled Comics and continuing therein through issue 64, as well as also continuing in various forms to modern-day comics.
The events of the 1899 strike later inspired a 1992 Disney film Newsies, including a character named Kid Blink (who wears an eye patch), but in this version of the story the leader of the strike was named Jack Kelly.
The newsboy strike is described in detail in the 2003 non-fiction book, Kids on Strike!
A musical version of the Disney film made its theatrical debut at the Paper Mill Playhouse on September 25, 2011 and opened at The Nederlander Theatre on Broadway on March 15, 2012, closing on August 24, 2014 after 1005 shows. This retelling of the strike also uses Jack Kelly as the leader of the Newsies union.
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