The musical Newsies is based on a true story. It is a tale of overcoming adversity and the power of friendship, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Christian Bale. Instead, it is about a group of young people who accomplish the impossible: forcing rich white men to compromise.
Due to paper sales skyrocketing because of the Spanish-American War, news kingpins Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst elected to make an even more enormous profit. At the time, the main method of selling evening papers was through newspaper hawkers, or “newsies”, who would buy the papers in bulk and sell them on busy street corners in the afternoons. These packages, containing 100 newspapers, could be bought for 50 cents, and each paper would sell for a cent a piece, resulting in a meagre profit of a half a cent. However, gaining 50 cents meant the world for the newsies: many were orphans with no other source of income, and even more came from poor immigrant families. Newsies were young (few were over the age of 20 and it was not uncommon to see a ten-year-old on the corner shouting “Extra! Extra!”) and unqualified for any other employment, so when Pulitzer and Hearst announced that the cost of newspaper packages would rise to 60 cents a piece, the news hawkers exploded in rage. On July 18, 1899, newsies in Long Island declared a strike against The New York World and The New York Journal (papers owned by Pulitzer and Hearst) until the price of papers was reduced to their original price. Newsies in Brooklyn and Manhattan quickly followed suit, and suddenly boys across New York were refusing to sell newspapers and assaulting those who did.
On July 24, the Newsboy Strike Committee held a rally. Almost 8000 boys attended to listen to speeches from local businessmen, politicians, and their own leaders, such as union president David Simmons, Brooklyn union leader Ed “Racetrack” Higgins, and the face of the newsboy strike, Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti, who won a floral horseshoe for the best speech. Newspapers unassociated with World and the Journal later reported that the young union leaders undoubtedly weld a considerable amount of power over the other newsboys, and one reporter from the New York Times event went as far as to remark that Higgins was “a born leader of boys and may yet be of men.”
Following the rally, the strikers’ tactics became non-violent. They no longer had to beat up the grown men who the World and the Journal had hired to sell newspapers, or turn over distribution wagons, or even burn newspapers because the public had ceased to buy them. The people were on the side of the newsies, and Pulitzer suffered greatly: circulation of the World dropped by 70%, a fact that probably encouraged him and Hearst to concede to the newsboy’s union. On August 2, a deal was struck between the papers and the boys: a package of newspapers would remain at 60 cents, but the distributors would buy back any unsold papers, preventing the newsies from losing money.
The Newsboy Strike of 1899 had worked, but more importantly, it made waves throughout the country. Newsboy strikes popped up all over the country, and the publicization of the living conditions of the boys probably influenced the establishment of child welfare laws in North America. Worker’s revolutions were uncommon but not unheard of, and it was inconceivable that one led by children would ever succeed – but it did, and it now serves as one of the earliest examples of the power of youth. Young people have an extraordinary power to influence the future, and the success of the newsies strike is a testament to this power. It was young people who forced some of the richest men in the country to re-evaluate their business practices, who inspired a wave of advocation for child labour laws, who set a precedent to youth all over the country that they could effect change if they worked hard enough. The young people won in 1899, and they have continued to do so, almost 120 years later. The newsies should be an example to us teenagers who are angry about so much: we are capable of incredible things, and if we apply our passion to action, we may just shape history – and maybe even get a musical written about us.
Photo credit to the Rose Theater.