Demythologizing Newsboys — A Review of “Crying the News”

DiGirolamo, Vincent. Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Cristina Groeger

In Crying the News: A History of America’s Newsboys, Vincent DiGirolamo gives newsboys the historical weight they are due. At nearly 600 pages, this tome offers a comprehensive history of a youth occupation spanning two centuries that is at once a history of journalism, capitalism, labor, and childhood. This “history of print capitalism from the pavement up” foregrounds how newsboys fit into the broader arc of American capitalism, exemplified by the rise of a news industry that relied heavily on child labor. In seeking to “liberate labor history from the tyranny of adult wage labor,” DiGirolamo’s newsboys come across not as passive figures but as active participants in the waves of labor activism that helped shape their destiny. The awards garnered by this book—the Frederick Jackson Turner Award in United States history, the Philip Taft Award in labor history, and the Frank Luther Mott Award for research in journalism—attest to the breadth of a major work.

DiGirolamo suggests that popular understandings of newsboys have been clouded by mythologies built around them. The most notable cultural representation of the newsboy has been as the “spirit of capitalism,” represented by the Algeresque rags-to-riches tale. That this mythology is rooted in some truth is indicated by the Who’s Who listings of a considerable number of businessmen, politicians, entertainers, athletes, authors, and journalists who started their careers as newsboys. However, DiGirolamo argues that this myth substitutes nostalgia for memory; few newsboys became celebrated personalities or captains of industry. Crying The News offers a corrective to this myth by taking newsboys seriously as historical actors. Here, then, is a study of newsboys as “historical and archetypal figures” that illuminates who these children were and why they came to carry cultural significance and weight. DiGirolamo makes plain that newsboys were overwhelmingly white boys, but he also devotes attention to the small numbers of girls and African Americans who worked as news hawkers and carriers. To compile this composite portrait, he draws on an impressively wide range of sources including personal memoirs, human-interest stories, sociological studies, traveler’s accounts, photographs, novels, poems, movies, paintings, songs, postcards, and comic strips. 

The book is divided into three chronological sections. “Children of the Penny,” spanning 1833–1865, explores the rise of the penny press and the role of newsboys in the dissemination of news about the Civil War. “Children of the Breach,” from 1866 to 1899, retells the history of the Gilded Age from the perspective of these youth, including their participation in the labor upheavals that tracked the rise of large media corporations. Finally, “Children of the State,” 1900–1940, looks at a wide range of reform efforts to reshape the youth labor market with newsboys as their particular concern. 

DiGirolamo’s historical narrative seamlessly weaves in major national events, about which newsboys disseminated information. The Civil War sparked a massive surge of newspaper sales thanks in part to the telegraph, which made rapid correspondence possible, and newspapers began printing morning and evening editions with the latest breaking news. Selling papers on street corners, church steps, and on trains and railway platforms, the newsboys became ubiquitous urban figures. Newsboys brought papers to soldiers in training camps, military prisons, and directly to the battle lines; they sometimes witnessed military action themselves. They occasionally doubled as couriers or even spies. To many soldiers on the front lines whose connection to other military units came through the news, the newsboy helped boost wartime morale and came to embody a shared sense of unity and purpose.

“Newsboy in Camp: A Welcome Visitor,” Alexander Gardner, 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

DiGirolamo is particularly attentive to the social and labor conditions of newsboys, tracing numerous efforts to regulate and reform this youth occupation. Licensing laws were first introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, often backed by newspaper companies themselves as a means of controlling the number and behavior of newsboys. A license in some cities came with a part-time schooling requirement to facilitate education and to control these boisterous youth. Newsboy homes and boarding houses funded by wealthy, mostly Protestant philanthropists, popped up in cities across the country in the late nineteenth century. They not only offered lodging but also recreation, meals, and night classes. By the turn of the twentieth century, the news corporations themselves engaged in forms of welfare capitalism to improve their public image and stave off labor unrest. They sponsored banquets, excursions, sports teams, marching bands, scholarships, night classes, and reading rooms for their news hawkers. They also led efforts to create company unions in the form of newsboy clubs, leagues, and associations. Though mindful of the growing progressive effort to enforce child labor laws, DiGirolamo points to the resistance to such efforts not only from the newspaper publishers but also from the newsboys and their families who were often dependent on the income from street selling. 

Newsboys also organized collectively to advance their own interests. DiGirolamo uncovers the impressive record of newsboys as militant labor activists whose direct actions tracked waves of labor unrest. Starting in the 1870s, newsboys routinely went on strike over wholesale newspaper price increases or reductions in retail prices. (The boys were required to buy the papers upfront before selling them on the street.) They heckled strikebreakers who tried to sell papers in their place, and boycotted presses. Newsboys organized mutual benefit societies and unions in dozens of cities, serving as founding members of the Juvenile Knights of Labor in 1886. Boston’s Newsboys Protective Union, one of the most successful newsboy unions, founded in 1902 and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, campaigned to lift the municipal curfew and end police harassment of its members, and also offered newsboys respectability through its sponsored balls, educational programming, and ban on gambling. Unions also regulated entry through enforcing licenses or badge requirements, and sometimes by excluding members on the basis of age, sex, or race. While labor actions were often quickly crushed by powerful newspaper companies, many newsboy unions won recognition and price concessions from management. The boys also frequently lent support to other workers on strike. DiGirolamo argues that the historical record of newsboy labor activism in both the East and West challenges the bootstrapping “storybook narratives of individual success” in which the newsboy appears as an entrepreneur and future capitalist rather than a trade unionist. 

“Newsboy Club, Boston,” Lewis Hine, 1909. National Child Labor Committee Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

Although drawing on an impressive array of archival sources, DiGirolamo often overlooks the basic demographic and occupational data needed to compare newsboys with other occupations. For instance, in presenting newsboys as the most “marginalized members of society,” and primarily as immigrant youth from impoverished backgrounds, DiGirolamo overlooks census data revealing that between 1900 and 1940 the majority of newsboys were, in fact, native-born with native-born parents. In addition, compared to other workers under the age of 18, more newsboys had fathers in white collar or professional occupations. Thus, judging by family background, working as a newsboy was akin to working in an entry-level white-collar job, rather than working as a child laborer in a factory, at manual labor, or in domestic service. The number of newsboys who later entered business, politics, and the professions would seem to confirm their more privileged backgrounds. By contextualizing newsboys within the landscape of other youth occupations we may also begin to question DiGirolamo’s claim that “distributing newspapers was one of the first and most formative occupational experiences of America’s youth.” In fact, between 1880 and 1940, selling newspapers was never among the top 15 youth occupations; it was far more common for young Americans in cities to work as laborers, domestics, salesmen, clerks, typists, stenographers, deliverymen, machine operators in factories, or waiters. What is more plausible is that because of their visibility on urban street corners, a relatively limited number of newsboys would, as DiGirolamo argues, have powerfully impressed themselves upon the American historical memory. 

These limitations should not diminish our appreciation of the incredible body of historical evidence that the author has compiled to illustrate the lively and engrossing history of newsboys in the United States. Future scholars of child labor and print journalism will benefit from DiGirolamo’s historical unearthing of their lived experiences, deftly contextualized within the broad arc of American history. 

Cristina Groeger is an assistant professor of history at Lake Forest College and author of The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston (Harvard University Press, 2021).

Featured image (at top): “Group of Newsboys on Frankfort Street near World Building,” Lewis W. Hine, 1908. National Child Labor Committee Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.