This 1881 photo shows the first “class” of newsboys for the Minneapolis Journal. These young workers–used by newspapers all over the country to hawk their product–were critical to the rise of the mass media in the late nineteenth century. “Newsies,” as they were called, had an iconic place in the American cultural imagination. Fixtures in the American urban landscape, they were often depicted as Horatio Alger characters, scrappy little men getting their first taste of entrepreneurship. These rose-colored narratives cast them as young capitalists with one foot on the ladder to the American dream. According to this idea, corner sales prepared boys like these for more profitable ventures as soon as they were old enough to wear long pants.
Many famous Americans did begin their careers as newsboys. Here in Minneapolis, legendary sports columnist Sid Hartman loves to remind us how he got his start in the news business.
Yet rags to riches stories mask the more disturbing reality of these child laborers. In an era before child labor laws, many boys began hawking newspapers at an age when they should have been learning to read. Many were recent immigrants who abandoned schooling to earn pennies that kept their families afloat. And a good number of these boys were on their own, using newspaper sales to eke out an existence on the streets, where they lived without adult supervision or assistance. They hustled each day to make enough for bread and perhaps to sleep. On unlucky days, they slept in doorways or parks, stealing smokes and booze to relieve the drudgery. Newsies became a cause celebre for child labor reformers like Lewis Hine, who put photography to the service of social justice in the early twentieth century. He took photographs that documented the plight of child laborers, publicizing these images in an effort to convince Americans that child labor was a social evil. Calculated to show the unvarnished reality of life on the street for these young boys, his images cultivated public outrage on this subject.
Newspaper publishers countered Hine and other reformers by continuing to spin the story of upward mobility. The Minneapolis Morning Tribune, for instance, published regular items about famous men who were once newsboys. It also featured the boys in countless articles that emphasized the benefits of their association with the newspaper industry, which provided them with mittens and required them to attend Sunday school. Each year it published glowing accounts of their annual picnics for the “lively street urchins,” occasions which gave them the opportunity to be “the guests of the Tribune” and fill their “brimming Cups of Happiness.” Industry leaders in Minneapolis were particularly proud of the “Newsboys Band,” they organized in 1897 for these youngsters. “Of 200 ‘newsies’ and street boys who were formerly members of this band,” Tribune executive Frank Thresher declared in 1912, “not one has fallen by the wayside. A record of them has been kept and all are following honest vocations in life. One is a bank teller, some are doctors and dentists, one is a surgeon in the United States navy and others are prosperous in commercial lines.”
Despite the claims of the newspaper industry, autobiographies reveal that the lives of newsboys were governed by violence. These young boys used their fists to defend their papers, their pennies and their corners. Ernie Fliegeltaub was of these “fighting newsboys.” His career as a newsie began at age 6, in 1910, the day after he arrived in Minneapolis from Romania. In News Alley downtown–where the boys gathered to pick up their copies of the Journal, the Tribune and the Daily News–he learned how to battle the other young workers for the bonus free copies given away by the newspapers each day. “You fought on your way to school and from school, as well as your right to be a ‘newsie,” remembered Ernie. The young immigrant did not become a doctor or a banker, as newspaper executives hoped. Instead, he won local fame as a professional boxer.
Image is from Hennepin County Special Collections and was digitized by citizen researcher Rita Yeada. Information for the text was drawn from Gretchen Tselos, “The 620 Club,” from the Twin Citian, reprinted in Downtown, David Anderson, ed (Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2000); “Newsboys Band Purposed; Old Members as Sponsors,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, February 4, 1912; “Newsies at Play,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 8, 1898.