One Uncivil War
“In 1899, the streets of New York City echoed with the voices of Newsies,” Racetrack Higgins starts off the Disney musical Newsies with this line. Newsies is an all-male musical about the Newsboy Strike of 1899 in New York. Higgins was not only a character in the movie, he was also a prominent and well-known newsie himself in 1899. This article will discuss the roles of the newsboys, newspapers, and civilians in the Newsboy Strike of 1899.
“Try Bottle Alley or the Harbor, try Central Park it’s guaranteed, try any baker, bum, or barber, they almost all know how to read,” these lines sung by newsies in the Disney movie, and in real-life 1899 New York City, were popular selling spots for the young newsboys, also referred to as newsies.
In New York City, and many other places in the United States, the newspaper companies had increased the amount of money the newsies had to pay to buy their papers to sell. In New York it was sixty cents per one hundred papers as opposed to the original price that was fifty cents per one hundred. This increased price became the boiling point for the newsboys once they started to feel the harsh effects of it in the summer of 1899 when headlines were tamer than before. The newsboys refused to purchase the New York World and the New York Journal to sell in the streets. Not being able to generate a sufficient and consistent profit infuriated the young vendors already, and an added expenditure from the two publishers worsened their hardened lifestyles more.
On July 18, 1899, the Long Island City newsboys discovered that they had been shorted papers after paying the correct amount of money for more. Thus making their find the first reported action during the strike. The boys had hoped that the publishers of the two papers, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, would go back to their original prices due to less attractive headlines. This was something many other cities around New York had already done. The newsies created a committee, hoping to present their objections to the two publishers and convince Hearst and Pulitzer to lower their prices.
The Newsboys Strike of 1899 officially started on July 21. Newsies tried to set up parades to raise awareness for their cause but were denied permits from the police. This did not stop them however, the boys found a way to hold smaller parades in the street to raise local awareness. “…Several other means of gaining momentum to stop production for the two largest newspapers in New York City [were devised].” One of these means was mobbing and beating the wagons that delivered the two newspapers. The strike gained numbers, and confidence, with each wagon and newspaper they destroyed.
A few newsboys did not support the strike, they were called scabs. A scab was a newsboy selling one of the papers that the papers all of the other boys were striking against. When other boys found a scab they tried to heckle and distract him long enough to steal his papers. Once they were stolen, the boys proceeded to tear the papers up in the street.
Newsies also organized a union that formed a committee on discipline, elected officers, sent out delegates to spread the word to other newsboys, and determined a strike strategy. One of the strike leaders, Kid Blink, inspired the strikers by saying in a speech that, “Ten cents to the dollar is as much to us as it is to Mr. Hearst, the millionaire. Am I right boys? We can do more with ten cents than he can do with twenty-five.”
Two days into the boycott, Hearst was seen having been run off by some newsboys. The July 23, 1899 copy of the San Francisco Call recounted the event:
"William Randolph Hearst was in Herald Square to-night attempting to buy a copy of the Evening Journal. He was soon surrounded by a great mob of boys who hooted him and for a while it looked as if they might attack him. He finally made his escape, followed by the […] strikers."
The original strikers were only 300 boys, but that number quickly rose to 5,000 across the city. 2,000 of these boys were from Brooklyn alone. The strike took place in the summer of 1899. Newsies all across New York forced Hearst and Pulitzer to comply with their demands, something no other vendor had ever done. The strike was comprised of boys who banded together against the two biggest publishers in the newspaper world. During the strike the boys effectively disrupted just about all distribution of the New York Journal and the New York World. Many would say that the strike was actually a direct product of Pulitzer and Hearst’s rivalry.
Pulitzer and Hearst had a big role in the strike, not including the fact that the strike was a direct product of their rivalry. One of their disputes coined the term yellow journalism. This dispute had to do with a comic strip’s legal rights. “Hogan’s Alley” was a comic strip created by Richard Outcault that was first published in the New York World. The comic featured a child who wore bright yellow clothes. Outcault left Pulitzer to start working for Hearst at the New York Journal. Soon after, the New York Journal began printing a comic similar to “Hogan’s Alley” but the name had been changed to “The Yellow Kid.” The two publishers fought over the rights to the comic, because the only difference was the name, and one editor referred to their battle as “yellow journalism.”
Joseph Pulitzer had some of his staff members seek out newsboys who were handing out advertisements about not buying the New York World. “The office sent me out to have any one giving out such things arrested…” said a man from the New York World to a Yorkville Police officer who then arrested the newsie handing out such advertisements. At the Yorkville Police Court, this man tried to make a charge of conspiracy against the newsboy.
The strike was hurting Pulitzer and Hearst’s companies, badly. With no one to sell, or buy, their newspapers, the two giants of publishing weren’t making much money. The men tried to compromise with the young news vendors, telling them that they would bring the price from sixty cents per one hundred papers to fifty-five cents. The newsboys refused their offer.
Newsboys decided to hold a mass evening meeting at New Irving Hall due to the large amount of press coverage they had received in previous days. On July 25, 1899, a copy of The Sun had 2 ¼ columns covering the strike, making the article the longest story on the page. This was not the only time, or the only newspaper, that covered the strike. The newsboys’ actions were consistently covered in the Marietta Daily Leader of Marietta, Ohio; San Francisco Call of San Francisco, California; Omaha Daily Bee of Omaha, Ohio; Saint Paul Globe of Saint Paul, Minnesota; and The Times of Richmond Virginia.
In the Disney movie newsboys were able to get hundreds of civilians and multiple bands to accompanying them on a parade in through New York. Though this event did not actually happen in real-life, the newsboys were able to raise a lot of local awareness about their strike in their communities. Newsies persuaded the people, making it so that the public opinion about the way to stabilize Hearst and Pulitzer’s economic crises was only if they both dropped their newspaper prices back to the original price of one cent for two papers. “[Newsboys] placarded the city asking the public not to buy yellow journals.” They did this not only to advise the civilians about papers who stretch the truth, but to also raise awareness of their cause and gain more support from the public.
Other reports in newspapers said that the strike reached parts of Providence, Rhode Island. The newsies in Providence had created a sympathetic strike and refused to handle the two evening papers that their brethren in New York were having a controversy with. Now not only were Pulitzer and Hearst not selling many papers in New York, but their profit began dwindling even more because of sympathetic strikes like this one.
Even though there were many civilians who supported and helped the newsboys with their strike, there were also people who did not sympathize with the boys. Pulitzer and Hearst were able to get many men together to ruin the newsboys’ rally at New Irving Hall. There these men proceeded to beat up and arrest all of the newsies present. “[Pulitzer and Hearst hired and put] Able bodied men in the streets under pay of $2 per day to sell the papers.” Two dollars was more than an average newsies made in an entire week. Hearst and Pulitzer paid these men instead of employing other, smaller, newsboys in fear that they would be intimated by the strikers.
In 1907, the Newsboy’s Home Club was founded in New York City. One of the directors of this home was Hearst. The home did many wonderful things for the newsies. For example, it cared for the sick and needy newsboys, provided entertainment and agreeable work, and even furnished a camp on Staten Island that all its members were entitled to go to for one week every summer. Even though this home was founded six years after the newsboy’s strike it reminded other generations of newsies that the strike had not ended in vain.
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