The Street Boys 1868

 
 
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You can scarcely walk a single block without your attention being drawn to one or more of the class called "street boys."

The Newsboys

Every morning, by times, and every afternoon between one o'clock and dark, if you chance to be in the neighborhood of Printing House Square, you will see throngs of boys rushing frantically out of the cellars of the printing houses of the daily journals. They have barely passed the portals, when they set up their morning cry, in a shrill, sharp tone, "'Ere's your ''Erald,' 'Mornin' Times,' 'Buy a Tribune?'" etc.

In the afternoon, they scream into your ears the names of the "News," "Mail," "Express," "Telegram," "Post," and other evening journals, flavoring their announcements with shouts such as these: "'Nuther murder!" "Tremendous sensation!" "Orful shootin' scrape!" "'Orrible accident!" and so on. They climb up on the steps of the stage, thrust their grim little faces in the windows, and almost bring nervous passengers to their feet by their yells; or, scrambling into a street car, they will offer you their papers in such an earnest, appealing way, that, nine times out of ten, you will buy them out of sheer pity for the boys.

The boys who sell the morning papers are very few in number. The newspaper stands seem to have the whole monopoly of this branch of the trade, and the efforts of the newsboys are confined to the afternoon journals--especially the cheap ones--some of which, however, are dear bargains at a penny. They swarm around the City Hall, and in the eastern section of the city, below Canal street; and in the former locality, half a dozen will sometimes surround a luckless pedestrian, thrusting their wares in his face, and literally forcing him to buy one to get rid of them. The moment he shows the least disposition to yield, they commence fighting amongst themselves for the "honor" of serving him. They are ragged and dirty. Some have no coats, no shoes, and no hat. Some are simply stupid, others are bright, intelligent little fellows, who would make good and useful men if they could have a chance.

The majority of these boys live at home, but many of them are wanderers in the streets, selling papers at times, and begging at others. Some pay their earnings, which rarely amount to more than thirty cents per day, to their mothers--others spend them in tobacco, strong drink, and in visiting the low-class theatres and concert halls.

Formerly, these little fellows suffered very much from exposure and hunger. In the cold nights of winter, they slept on the stairways of the newspaper offices, in old boxes or barrels, under door steps, and sometimes sought a "warm bed" on the street gratings of the printing offices, where the warm steam from the vaults below could pass over them. The attention of the "Children's Aid Association" was called to their hardships in 1854, and an effort was made to relieve them by establishing a newsboys' lodging house.


Newsboys' Lodging House

This is now situated in Park Place, near Broadway, and is richly worth visiting. It is always full at night. The boys pay five cents for supper, and five cents for bed. The whole of the arrangements are under the superintendence of Mr. and Mrs. O'Conner, who have been most efficient in their management of the house. It requires a great deal of tact to keep these boys under proper discipline, without, at the same time, letting them feel that the restrictions are too severe. Supper is served for them between six and seven o'clock, and is of plain, substantial materials. The boys then adjourn to the lecture-room, where they are supplied with books, and where, in the course of the evening, they unite in singing various hymns. Occasionally, gentlemen come in and give lectures. Some of the boys are eager to learn to write, and are supplied with writing materials. The sitting generally terminates about nine o'clock, with the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and the singing of the Doxology. The singing is marked with force, rather than great accuracy; it sometimes partakes very much of the character of a bawl. But the lads are amused, and perhaps a little instructed, so something is gained. After these exercises, the tired ones go to bed, the lively blades to the gymnasium, the philosophic apply themselves to draughts or dominoes. The gymnasium is a most amusing place. There is one little boy, named 'Chris,' a newsboy, aged eleven, who lost his leg by being rode over by a coal cart, about four years ago, whose agility is perfectly wonderful. He throws aside the crutch with disdain, hops across the room with incredible swiftness, seizes the rings of the swing, and flies through the air like a bird. Some of the newsboys have considerable savings, and are very well-conducted lads. Last month, one of them picked up a roll of bills amounting to two hundred dollars. He brought it immediately to Mr. O'Conner, and asked his advice. It was decided that the finding should be advertised; but as the owner was not forthcoming, the boy placed his savings in a bank; and has added considerably to the original amount.

The Bootblacks

The bootblacks form a peculiar feature of New York life. They are boys from ten to sixteen years of age. A few are older, and there are some men following this avocation on the street. The boys, however, are always meant when this class is referred to. Some of them are newsboys early in the morning, and bootblacks for the rest of the day.

They provide themselves with a box, with a sliding lid and a rest for the feet of their customers, a box of blacking, and a pair of good brushes. All the articles are kept in the box, when not in use, and the owner carries this receptacle by means of a leather strap fastened to it. This he slings across his shoulder, and trudges on with his box on his back. The headquarters of this class are in or near the Five Points district. They form a regular confraternity, and have their own laws or customs. They are generally sharp, shrewd lads, with any number of bad habits, and little or no principle. They are averse to giving much information with respect to themselves or their society, admission into which requires a payment of two dollars. To what purpose the money thus obtained is devoted, it is hard to say, but the object of the association seems to be mutual protection. The "Order" establishes a fixed price for labor, and takes care to protect its members against the competition of irregular intruders. The established price, for blacking a pair of boots or shoes, is ten cents. When it is known to a member that an outsider is blacking for a less sum, the fact is reported to the society, which appoints a delegation to look after the presumptuous individual. He is promptly warned that he must work for the regular price, or "quit work." If he declines to do either, his head, in the elegant language of the society, is "punched," and he is driven from the street. The affairs of the society are managed by a "Captain of the bootblacks," whose word is supreme, and who wields his power as all arbitrary rulers do.

The price of a new outfit, or "kit," such as we have described, is from two to three dollars. Second-hand outfits can be bought of the junk- dealers for much less. When asked how much they earn, the boys give evasive answers, and it has been said that their society does not permit them to tell the truth upon this subject. One dollar is supposed to be the average daily earning of an industrious boy. The writer was once much amused by a little fellow telling him, with an air of great importance, that he was going that night to attend the trial of Bill Simpson, a recreant bootblack, who was to be "brought afore the s'ciety for blacking boots for five cents." The trial must have been edifying. Where and when the society meets, and what is the nature of its transactions, are secrets known only to the initiated.

A large part of the earnings of the bootblacks is spent for tobacco and drink. They are patrons of the Bowery theatres and concert halls, and their criticisms of the performances are frequently worth hearing. The "Children's Aid Society" makes them objects of its especial care, its great end and aim being "to induce the boys to emigrate to the West." The course of life which they pursue leads to miserable results. When a bootblack gets to be seventeen, he finds that his career is at an end-- it does not produce money enough--and he has acquired lazy, listless habits, which totally unfit him for any kind of work. He becomes a loafer, a vagrant, and perhaps worse. To save boys from this fate, the society labors most earnestly to induce them to go to the West; and it is stated that the desire of the boys to secure western homes increases year by year. Up to the present time about seven hundred have been sent out, and many of them are now filling respectable positions in society.


 

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: The Street Boys 1868
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

Source:

 The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City, by James Dabney McCabe (aka Edward Winslow Martin) Published: Philadelphia, Chicago, Jones Brothers & Co., 1868
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