The New York Historical Society has, in their Flickr photostream, images & report scans from the archives of the Children’s Aid Society. The following is the first half of a photo essay written sometime around 1940, which gives a fascinating glimpse into how much life at a newsboys lodging house changed—and how much remained the same—in the forty years after the 1899 strike.
AMERICA’S FIRST BOYS’ CLUB IS EIGHTY-SIX YEARS OLD
Newsboys’ House, Once the Inspiration of Horatio Alger Jr., is Still Operating in the Shadow of Manhattan’s Bowery. Dickens Would Have Loved It.
In 1853 the streets of New York City abounded with dirty little ragamuffins of astounding wretchedness. Many of them were homeless, and many with homes were no better off. The full flood tide of immigration was on, with nearly 1,000 of “the ragged regiments of Europe” arrived every day from the Old World. Potato famines, fruit blights and intolerable poverty motivated this historic mass migration. Crime and misery were the result. Thousands of immigrant youngsters were impressed into virtual slaver through the so-called “padrone” system, a form of peonage. (Slavery itself was still legal in the U.S.). There were no child labor laws, no compulsory education laws. Conditions were worse than the worst in London which impelled Charles Dickens to write crusading novels. Horatio Alger Jr. might write heroic fantasies of fictional newsboys and bootblacks who, through their own efforts, rose from poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame. But in actual fact, the streets were over-run with vagrant children who, forced to live on their own resources, resorted to begging, stealing and worse. Some made a meagre living peddling rags, matches and newspapers. Mostly they slept in gutters, cellars and on doorsteps.
A young man of 27 named Charles Loring Brace changed all this. In 1853, with a group of public-spirited citizens, he founded The Children’s Aid Society of New York. The Society helped secure child labor legislation, exposed the “padrone” system and got it abolished, prompted the first compulsory education law, established the first free dental clinic for children, opened the first school in New York for Negro children. And, among other things, it founded the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ House, oldest Boys’ Club in America. Today The Children’s Aid Society is the most important private charity organization in New York for children, and is given a larger allotment of funds by the Greater New York Fund (combined charities drive) than any other charity. Its Founder’s purpose: “to improve the condition of poor and destitute children in New York City and in the State of New York.”
Originally founded as a home for poor young newsboys of the Alger pattern, Brace Memorial Newsboys House still retains its name but not its purpose. The ragged urchin selling papers is no longer a common sight on the streets of New York. Today, Newsboys House is dedicated to all transient boys. In the words of its director, Mr. George E. W. Blum, it represents “an emergency set-up for the boy in a temporary jam.” No adults are accepted. Early in his career Founder Brace, who had studied for the ministry, became convinced “that an effort to reform those old in sin was hopeless.” He therefore dedicated himself to the cause of the young. For adult transients, there are a number of rescue missions, “flophouses” and cheap lodging houses. For boys there is only Newsboys House. Among those who have visited it and signed its visitors’ book are James J. Walker, his wife Betty Compton, Actor Victor Moore and the dancer, Tamara. A frequent visitor of old was Horatio Alger Jr.
More than any other city in the world, perhaps, New York has a perpetual transient population of roving boys who have left home in search of fame & fortune. Some seek work, some adventure, some are intrigued by the unknown. A principle cause of current migrations is the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, which attracts hundreds to New York in the hope of commercializing their supposed talents. Most of them are disappointed and lack funds to return home. Each boy, on arrival at Newsboys’ House, is interviewed by a member of the staff, who inquires carefully into his background, parentage, siblings etc. A careful check is made on the age of applicants after admission. Those obviously under 16 or over 21 are referred to other agencies, private and public. Boys frequently conceal their age to gain admission to Newsboys’ House, which is known as a “good spot.” Each new boy gets card which is thereafter methodically punched for each meal, each night’s lodging and each shower. First thing a new boy does is take a shower, and thereafter this is a compulsory daily requirement. Medical examination comes afterward.
A stone’s throw from New York’s City Hall and Bowery, Newsboys’ House is easily located by transient youths. Most of them are hungry on arrival. The dinner they get is a good introduction. The boys claim it is equivalent to a 50-cent meal in a restaurant. Service is cafeteria style, with boys lining up at a steam table. “Free” boys must stand in line, while those who can afford the minimum rates ($3 a week including bed and all meals) are given immediate service. Typical meal consists of meat loaf, stewed corn, boiled potatoes, coffee, bread and butter and pudding for dessert. Dishes are washed by hired hands, usually recruited from the ranks of the boys themselves. In this and other ways, every effort is made to secure jobs for every boy. Boys without funds or jobs are required to work six hours a week at such tasks as making beds, etc. While most of the boys consider the evening meal excellent, many find the breakfast only fair, and complain about the coffee. But in general they find Newsboys’ House a very pleasant and inexpensive place to live.
For “free” boys, and those paying the minimum rate of $3 per week (meals included), beds are providing in large barrack-like dormitories. The double-deck beds formerly used have been replaced by comfortable cots. Dormitories are kept locked until just before bedtime, to keep boys from playing pranks on each other, such as putting mouse-traps in beds, and so on. For $3.50 a week a boy can have a semi-private room, which he shares with another boy. The ultimate luxury is a single, or private room at $5 per week including meals. Transient boys who have “been around” call Newsboys’ House the best place of its kind in the U.S., so that its fame has spread among young knights of the road from coast to coast. The private rooms are particularly elegant, being furnished in modern maple and decorated with the simple good taste of a good average club or hotel room. A boy making $18 a week can live in comfortable style at $5 a week, at Newsboys’ House, and save most of his earnings. Some boys stay for months at a time, knowing that similar facilities outside would cost $16 to $18 a week. Boys wages average only $8 to $10.