Past and Present: Selling Newspapers in New York

Are you still reading newspapers? How do you get them? Photo by Jon S. Click on image for license and information.

Are you still reading newspapers? How do you get them?
Photo by Jon S. Click on image for license and information.

New York City takes pleasure in assaulting your senses. You turn a corner and hit a wall of garbage bags that have timed a particularly pungent release just for you. Or you stumble from the train half asleep in the morning and find yourself in a maze of gridlock. You might find questionable substances dripping on you from above where old air conditioning units are holding court. Or you might get to the landing in the stairwell in the subway and encounter an almost tangible odor of urine. Make no mistake: these are calculated attacks. But occasionally the abrasiveness gives way, and under the grime you'll catch glimpses of the harmonies that help shape the New York City. Newspaper hawkers are one such thing.

It starts on the stairs to the Seventh Avenue exit at Penn Station. About halfway up, your ears begin to ring with a melody: "Good morning! Good morning! Good morning! AM New York! AM New York! AM New York! AM, AM, AM, AM, AM!" And then, as a sub-harmony, cries of "Metrooooo!" make the sing-song quality of the call more complex and more complete. Slowly the names of other independent papers are added, and it's truly spectacular. These are the City's present-day newsboys—and newsgirls. Their cry seeks you out and sticks to you, stubbornly carrying on the long tradition of street hawkers in New York's City.

In 19th-century New York, newsboys (there were few newsgirls) were numerous: between the 1850s and 1860s, there were about 500 newsboys in New York and Philadelphia. This number grew immensely over the latter part of the century as the number of daily publications and Sunday specials quadrupled. Yes, quadrupled. It's hard to imagine in today's technologically-inclined world, but there was a time when news was spread by newspapers. Newsrooms scrambled to meet demand so they issued multiple daily editions to capture as much news and as many readers as they could. It was an around-the-clock business, drawing labor from a growing population of immigrants. By the beginning of the 20th-century, there were more than 5000 newspaper hawkers in New York, Boston, and Chicago.

The sheer volume of newspaper hawkers created a situation that demanded regulation. But in 1903 New York extended child labor laws to newsboys for another reason: to maintain their respectability. There was a growing concern that children engaged in the adult world would have their judgment altered—it's a variation of "let's let kids be kids." The London Economist (Hall 1911) summed it up as such:

Here are some 40,000 children who are being allowed to endanger their whole prospect of becoming decent citizens in order to earn prematurely a few pence which are, for the most part, ill spend. The work they do is not particularly useful and might be done almost as well by adults or by the newspaper shops. Do no economy and efficiency, as well as humanity require that boys and girls who ought to be learning useful trades should be saved from such risk, to become better citizens and better wage earners?

A concern for the future of society had taken hold, and these youngsters, who were widely viewed as vagrants and beggars had become its focus.

The concern wasn't unfounded. Newsboys could be as young as six year old. While many lived at home with their parents, it was a somewhat fragile arrangement: the birth of a new baby, job loss, and domestic violence could easily disrupt home life, requiring an additional or new source of income. Thousands of children lived and worked on the streets in New York City during this period, but times were changing and they were gaining visibility they didn't have before.

Where did all this concern come from?

Streetlights.

No, really. Streetlights changed New York. They still make a difference today, too. Think about it: Areas where there are lights are more attractive. They tend to be more populated, and businesses stay open later to cater to the crowds. Streetlights signal security making it easier to stay out at night. These hubs would have been great places to sell papers too! And the newsboys knew it. As streetlights extended the times that New Yorkers could enjoy their spaces, the newspaper industry followed, and they were led by their fearless salesmen. Saturday nights were be their busiest nights; the opportunity to boost sales with the early Sunday edition wasn't something serious newsboys could pass on.

So streetlights allowed newsboys to occupy spaces that they might not have access to, but these spaces were regarded as adult spaces, and middle class families led the cry for change. Regulation grew out of campaigns to shield children from premature exposure to adult knowledge. But these efforts cast newsboys as poor and desperate; in truth, they were actually shrewd businessmen. They haggled for their allotment from their newspapers. And some older boys ran operations where they took large orders of papers and then hired younger boys to help with distribution.

The opportunity for newspaper hawkers came from an economical shift. As factories gained ground, options for apprenticeships dwindled and factories and sweatshops replaced workshops and crafting households. Selling newspapers offered an alternative employment option. Not too much has changed in that regard. AM New York and the Metro—both free daily newspapers in New York City—hire people to help with distribution. Charged with handing out up to 1200 free newspapers, particularly to rushing commuters, today's hawkers start at 4 am or 5 am and work through about 10 am. But it's work for people who might not be able to otherwise find work, and there's something to be said for being handed the news in the morning. As more outlets turn to digital channels, there's a heavy push of marketing at work here. Both of these outlets are vying for your attention, and it falls to the hawkers to convince you that they have news worth reading.

Street hawkers have always provided a valuable service by providing goods where you need them. They've been integral developing the the expectation of convenience in metropolitan areas, and in a city that prides itself on being a capital of convenience, that's no small legacy.

Have you had a run in with a modern-day news hawker?

Referenced:

"Nocturnal Habits and Dark Wisdom": The American Response to Children in the Streets at Night, 1880-1930."
Peter C. Baldwin, Journal of Social History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring, 2002), pp. 593-611

"Street-Rats and Gutter-Snipes: Child Pickpockets and Street Culture in New York City, 1850-1900."
Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Journal of Social History, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Summer, 2004), pp. 853-882

"Newsboy Funerals: Tales of Sorrow and Solidarity in Urban America."
Vincent DiGirolamo, Journal of Social History, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 5-30

"The Newsboy."
George A. Hall, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 38, Supplement: Uniform Child Labor Laws (Jul., 1911), pp. 100-102

4 responses so far

  • Fascinating post! I always enjoy seeing the freebie daily hawkers in subway stations. My impression, however, is that they are mostly older people, at least in their 40s, and many substantially older.

    • kdcosta says:

      PP, that's a definite change from the history of these types of street vendors. History shows us that this was a job held by younger folks, and that adults were the exception. However, I suspect that the reasons these jobs were attractive to youngsters at the time (economic and social freedoms) are what makes them attractive to a certain subset of the population now. In many places, these jobs are held for the homeless, and I suspect that these new hawkers in New York City are lower income as well.

  • […] has done so, the there has been a ripple effect. For example, did you know that one of the reasons newsboys were so prolific in New York City in the 19th-century was due to a decline in artisan trades? The […]

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