Newsboys' Strike of 1899: 120th Anniversary - The Beginning

Newsies at Skeeter Branch. They were all smoking. St. Louis, MO. 1910.

The newsboy strike of 1899 is an event in American history that captures the imagination and brings a twinge of pride at the thought of children fighting for something they found important. Of course, most of us are familiar with the story thanks to Disney and their movie Newsies and the later Broadway musical of the same name. We all know that historical events are usually embellished quite a bit when they reach the stage or silver screen, so what really happened in July 1899?

Well, I'm happy to say that the real story is just as exciting as Disney's version. No, there might not be a romance angle, but it is a story full of inspiration, betrayal, violence, chivalry, and kids with really cool names.

Something that most people don't know is that this wasn't the first time that newsboys had gone on strike. While doing research for this anniversary, I found a newspaper article talking about newsboys striking in Buffalo, NY in 1890 (Buffalo Morning Express, 5 Jan 1890). Striking in general has been a way workers have used to protest their wage or work conditions in America since the 1600s, though it was uncommon until the mid to late 1800s when organized labor was on the rise.(*)

So, what makes the newsboys' strike special? An important factor in understanding the newsies striking is to understand the climate of New York City at the time. As mentioned in the movie, a huge trolley strike was going on at the time. There was a lot of violence involved and tensions were high. Not to mention, it was they hey-day of striking in America. Strikes were cropping up all the time, all over the place. So, it's therefore not a surprise that kids who wanted to protest the price of their papers did it by copying the adults - striking and being willing to get physical about it.

As we'll see in the coming two weeks, the newsboys were a complicated bunch. They lived and had to cope in a complicated world. And I doubt they realized how far-reaching their strike influence would become, bleeding into other child labor forces and other states.

New York Times, 21 July 1899

 July 20th marks the start of the epic newsboys' strike, but the papers don't report it until the 21st. So, join me here tomorrow for the first installment of newspaper articles!

And I'd love it if you'd leave a comment or two about your memories of loving Newsies!