Street Children 1872

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In spite of the labors of the Missions and the Reformatory Institutions, there are ten thousand children living on the streets of new York, gaining their bread by blacking boots, by selling newspapers, watches, pins, etc., and by stealing. Some are thrust into the streets by dissolute parents, some are orphans, some are voluntary outcasts, and others drift here from the surrounding country.

The newsboys constitute an important division of this army of homeless children. You see them everywhere, in all parts of the city, but they are most numerous in and about Printing House Square, near the offices of the great dailies. They rend the air and deafen you with their shrill cries. They surround you on the sidewalk, and almost force you to buy their papers. They climb up the steps of the stage, thrust their grim little faces into the windows, and bring nervous passengers to their feet with their shrill yells; or, scrambling into a street car, at the risk of being kicked into the street by a brutal conductor, they will offer you their papers in such an earnest, appealing way, that, nine times out of ten, you buy from sheer pity for the child.

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 among 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 Bootblacks rank next to the newsboys. They are generally older, being from ten to sixteen years of age. Some are both newsboys and bootblacks, carrying on these pursuits at different hours of the day.

They provide themselves with the usual bootblack's "kit," of box and brushes. They are sharp, quick-witted boys, with any number of bad habits, and are always ready to fall into criminal practices when enticed into them by older hands. Burglars make constant use of them to enter dwellings and stores and open the doors from the inside. Sometimes these little fellows undertake burglaries on their own account, but they are generally caught by the police.

The bootblacks are said to form a regular confraternity, with fixed laws. They are said to have a "captain," who is the chief of the order, and to pay an initiation fee of from two dollars downwards. This money is said to find its way to the pockets of the captain, whose duty it is to "punch the head" of any member violating the rules of the society. The society fixes the price of blacking a pair of boots or shoes at ten cents, and severely punishes those who work for a less sum. They are at liberty, however, to receive any sum that may be given them in excess of this price. They surround their calling with a great deal of mystery, and those who profess to be members of the society flatly refuse to communicate anything concerning its place of meeting, or its transactions.

A large part of the earnings of the bootblacks is spent for tobacco and liquors. These children are regular patrons of the Bowery Theatre and the low-class concert halls. Their course of life leads to miserable results. Upon reaching the age of seventeen or eighteen the bootblack generally abandons his calling, and as he is unfit for any other employment by reason of his laziness and want of skill, he becomes a loafer, a bummer, or a criminal.

For the purpose of helping these and other outcasts, the Children's Aid Society was organized nineteen years ago. Since then it has labored actively among them, and has saved many from their wretched lives, and has enabled them to become respectable and useful members of society.

The Children's Aid Society extends its labors to every class of poor and needy children that can be reached, but makes the street children the especial objects of its care. It conducts five lodging houses, in which shelter and food are furnished at nominal prices to boys and girls, and carries on nineteen day and eleven evening Industrial Schools in various parts of the city. The success of the society is greatly, if not chiefly, due to the labors and management of Charles Loring Brace, its secretary, who has been the good genius of the new York street children for nearly twenty years.

The best known, and one of the most interesting establishments of the Children's Aid Society, is the Newsboys' Lodging House, in Park Place, near Broadway. It was organized in March, 1854, and after many hard struggles, has now reached a position of assured success. it is not a charity in any sense that could offend the self respect and independence of its inmates. Indeed, it relies for its success mainly in cultivating these qualities in them. It is in charge of Mr. Charles O'Connor, who is assisted in its management by his wife. its hospitality is not confined to newsboys. Bootblacks, street venders, and juvenile vagrants of all kinds are welcomed, and every effort is made to induce them to come regularly that they may profit by the influences and instruction of the house. Boys pay five cents for supper (and they get an excellent meal), five cents for lodging, and five cents for breakfast. Those who are found unable to pay are given shelter and food without charge, and if they are willing to work for themselves are assisted in doing so.

The boys come in toward nightfall, in time for supper, which is served between six and seven o'clock. Many, however, do not come until after the theatres close. If they are strangers, their names and a description of them are recorded in the register. "Boys have come in," says Mr. Brace, "who did not know their own names. They are generally known to one another by slang names, such as the following: 'Mickey,' 'Round Hearts,' 'Horace Greeley,'' Wandering Jew,' 'Fat Jack,' 'Pickle Nose, ''Cranky Jim,' 'Dodge-me-John,' 'Tickle-me-foot,' 'Know-Nothing Mike,' 'O'Neill the Great,' 'Professor,' and innumerable others. They have also a slang dialect."

Upon being registered, the boy deposits his cap, overcoat, if he has one, comforter, boots, "kit," or other impediments, in a closet, of which there are a number, for safe keeping. he passes then to the bath tub, where he receives a good scrubbing. His hair is combed, and if he is in need of clothing, he receives it from a stock of second hand garments given by charitable individuals for the use of the society. Supper is then served, after which the boys assemble in the class room, which is also the chapel. Here they engage in study, or are entertained by lectures or addresses from visitors. They also sing hymns and familiar songs, and the sitting usually terminates about nine o'clock with the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and the singing of the Doxology. After this they may go to bed, or play dominoes for an hour or two longer, or repair to the gymnasium.

On Sunday evening divine service is held in the chapel. Says Mr. Brace: "There is something unspeakably solemn and affecting in the crowded and attentive meetings of these boys, of a Sunday evening, and in the thought that you speak for a few minutes on the high themes of eternity to a young audience who tomorrow will be battling with misery, temptation, and sin in every shape and form, and to whom your words may be the last they ever hear of either friendly sympathy or warning."

"The effect on the boys," he adds, "of this constant, patient, religious instruction, we know to have been most happy. Some have acknowledged it, living, and have shown better lives. Others have spoken of it in the hospitals and on their death-beds, or have written their gratitude from the battle field."

The officers of the Lodging House use their influence to induce the boys, who are the most notoriously improvident creatures in the city, to save their earnings. They have met with considerable success. There is now a Newsboys' Savings Bank, which began in this way: A former superintendent, Mr. Tracy, caused a large table to be provided and placed in the Lodging House. This table contained "a drawer divided into separate compartments, each with a slit in the lid, into which the boys dropped their pennies, each box being numbered and reserved for a depositor. The drawer was carefully locked, and after an experience of one or two forays on it from petty thieves who crept in with the others, it was fastened to the floor, and the under part lined with tin.

The Superintendent called the lads together, told them the object of the Bank, which was to make them save their money, and put it to vote how long it should be kept locked. They voted for two months, and thus, for all this time, the depositors could not get at their savings. Some repented, and wanted their money, but the rule was rigid. At the end of the period, the Bank was opened in the presence of all the lodgers, with much ceremony, and the separate deposits were made known, amid an immense deal of 'chaffing' from one another. The depositors were amazed at the amount of their savings; the increase seemed to awaken in them the instinct of property, and they at once determined to deposit the amounts in the city savings banks, or to buy clothes with them. Very little was spent foolishly. This simple contrivance has done more to break up the gambling and extravagant habits of the class than any other one influence. The Superintendent now pays a large interest on deposits, and the Trustees have offered prizes to the lads who save the most." The deposits of the boys now foot up an aggregate of about $1800.

The boys are assisted to earn their own support. Says Mr. Brace, writing in 1870:

"Through the liberality of one of our warmest friends, and generous trustee, B.J. Howland, Esq., a fund, which we call the 'Howland Fund,' was established. he contributed $10, to which other patrons added their contributions subsequently. The object of this fund is to aid poor and needy boys, and supply them with the means to start in business. We have loaned from this fund during the year $155.66, on which the borrow3ers have realized a profit of $381.42. it will be seen that they made a profit of 246 per cent. We loan it in sums of 5 cents and upward; in many cases it has been returned in a few hours. At the date of our last report there was due and outstanding of this fund $11.05, of which $5 has since been paid, leaving $6.-05 unpaid."

The work of the Lodging House for seventeen years is thus summed up by the same authority:

"The Lodging House has existed seventeen years. During that time we have lodged 82,519 different boys, restored 6178 lost and missing boys to their friends, provided 6008 with homes and employment, furnished 523,488 lodgings, and 373,366 meals. The expense of all this has been $109,325.26, of which amount the boys have contributed $28,956.67 leaving actual expenses over and above the receipts from the boys $80,368.59, being about $1 to each boy."

The other institutions of the Children's Aid Society are conducted with similar liberality and success. We have not the space to devote to them here, and pass them by with regret.

It is not claimed that the Society has revolutionized the character of the street children of new York. It will never do that. But it has saved many of them from sin and vagrancy, and has put them in paths of respectability and virtue. it has done a great work among them, and it deserves to be encouraged by all. It is sadly in need of funds during the present winter, and will at all times make the best use of moneys contributed towards its support.

It employs an agent to conduct its children to homes in other parts of the country, principally in the West, as soon as it is deemed expedient to send them away from its institutions. it takes care that all so placed in homes are also placed under proper Christian influences.


Website: The History
Article Name: Street Children 1872
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lights and shadows of New York Life, or, The Sights and Sensations of the Great City. by James Dabney McCabe, Philadelphia, Pa. National Pub Co., 1872.
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