Though still a grind for modern reasons, like that media consolidation has led journalism into an abysmal downward spiral, the newspaper hustle has never been more of a rough and tumble bloodsport than around the turn of the 20th century. And of all the dirty industrial epicenters where the baddest of bad boys (and men and women, though mostly young men, as romanticized in musicals and city folklore) fought with rival rag-slingers for prime urban selling turf, it should surprise nobody that Boston was among the most hardscrabble hubs.
With general unrest and this week’s nationwide fast food worker strike, organized by the group Fight for $15 in more than 300 cities including this one, it seemed appropriate to wax nostalgic about Boston’s newsies. In addition to the adorable scrappiness of it all, the story of the truants who slung ink stains is a tale of youth exploitation as well. Ann Piper set the scene in her excellent book, Child Labor in Greater Boston: 1880-1920:
Newsboys were forbidden to be on the streets before 6:00 a.m. and had to stop working by 8:00 in the morning in order to get to school. They were required to attend school “during some portion of the day [or] attend the newsboys’ school at least two hours each day.” By 1910, there were 5,000 licensed newsboys in Boston. Two newsboys’ schools were established with special hours so the boys could sell the morning and evening editions of the papers.
The Newsboys’ Reading Room opened in 1870 at 16 Howard Street, Boston, for the use of “all licensed newsboys without regard to color or sect.” Frederick Gray Frothingham bequeathed $30,000, and in 1909, the old Children’s Mission was purchased and renovated as the Boston Newsboys Club. Soon, the club had 3,000 newsboy members.
Through the warts and beauty of it all (but mostly the warts), street photographer, sociologist, and activist Lewis Wickes Hine focused on the seedy underworld of child news distribution for the National Child Labor Committee. His work in the poverty realm was part of a larger project documenting child labor across the country; the artist was of the belief that photography had the ability to change the course of history, and he highlighted the horrors of capitalist greed begetting the conscription of children into dangerous factories, or in the case of newsies, the releasing of unsupervised kids onto dangerous streets. Hine was an ace talent who simultaneously captured the vitality and misery of these times. The NCLC, which gives an award in his name, remembers him thusly:
Lewis Wickes Hine is well-known for his work photographing child labor practices. Beginning in 1908, Hine became a staff photographer for the NCLC with a difficult and unusual assignment. Often hiding his camera and tricking his way past bosses, Hine even learned to write with his hand inside his pocket in order to get accurate captions without giving himself away. His work—famously never touched up for effect—depicting children laboring in sweatshops, coal mines, textile mills, and on farms outraged the public and shamed the government into acting. His photographs provided the NCLC with the leverage it needed to advance the enactment of state and federal laws to protect the rights of children in the workplace, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which was the first major Federal child labor law ever enacted.
Two of Hine’s trips to Boston, one in 1909 and another in 1915, have survived the slog of time and made it to the digital archives at the Library of Congress. In these photos we see kids, both innocent and impossibly hardened. We see the gritty and dirty city they called their home, as well as their workplace and their playground. The images alone are enough to explode the heads of helicopter parents from Jamaica Plain to Newton, though it should warm hearts to know that some area newsies-turned-philanthropists looked out for the lads. From Piper’s Child Labor in Greater Boston:
Hersh Baraznik was a Russian immigrant who started selling papers in 1903. A few years later, his fellow newsboys voted him the winner of a scholarship to Suffolk University. Hersh changed his name to Harry E. Burroughs and went on to a successful career in the law. In 1927, he raised $230,000, established the Harry E. Burroughs Newsboys Foundation, and built a new Newsboy’s Club.
As for Hine… you might say that his photographs of kids selling newspapers didn’t sell many newspapers. Mostly supported by NCLC, his motivation ran somewhat counter to the interests of big commerce, and his work never penetrated the commercial realm. Hine would continue to lend his skill and eye to social causes, including to the WPA during the height of the New Deal, until his death in 1940. Sadly, there was a declining interest in his work after child labor laws were strengthened, and he died in poverty. If that’s not depressing enough, imagine if instead of fading into broke obscurity, Hine had the foresight to know that his photographs would still be relevant a whole century later in the age of fast food.
Sean L. Maloney is an author in Boston. Look out for his upcoming 33 1/3 book The Modern Lovers’ The Modern Lovers.
This throwback was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. For posts connecting old headlines with contemporary news stories, check out medium.com/binj-reports/tagged/throwbacks