By Heidi Bamford
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
The high energy and endearing cast of Newsies, taking center stage at Shea’s Performing Arts Center starting Tuesday, is the story of the 1899 newsboy strike in New York City. The musical informs audiences of the tough times and hard lives of news boys - and news girls - a fact of life throughout most cities in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Read Colin Dabkowski's review of "Newsies"
In our city, there is a “back story” to connect audiences with Newsies: Buffalo’s newsboys organized and carried out their own strike in 1890 against the major local papers whose publishers tried to put the price of increasing profits onto the backs, literally, of their youngest and most underpaid workers. But it was the moment Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal), the two newspaper giant magnates in America, decided to increase the cost of their papers as a way to increase revenues, in much the same way as the Buffalo publishers did a decade earlier, that caught the eye of Hollywood.
Newspaper publishing was just one of many occupations that made use of unregulated child labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether in agriculture or manufacturing or in “street trades,” child labor was a standard fixture of the American economy at this time, known ironically as the “Gilded Age.“ Orphans as well as children from families living in extreme poverty were often forced to undertake physically punishing jobs in order to keep themselves and their families alive. Most of the “cheap labor” came from the poor immigrant neighborhoods.
In Buffalo, newsboys, ages 5 to 15, would sell papers in all weather and often far into the evenings; in and around saloons and brothels, as well as along street blocks of business and entertainment venues (such as Shea’s); and on street cars. Many came from the Italian immigrant neighborhood nefariously named “Dante Place" near the terminus of the Erie Canal. Boys such as Rosario DeSalvo, Vito Bucheto, Donato Dandrea and Tony Gregoria. But there were others: Albert Krieger, Paul Cory, Morris Bookbinder and Frank Thomas.
Living and working conditions for the working class, including newsboys, never really seemed to improve, but their plight did finally become public knowledge when in 1910, Lewis Wickes Hine, investigator for the federal government’s National Child Labor Committee, shocked the country with his photographic images and revealing notes about the lives of working children, including the newsies in Buffalo.
The Lewis Wickes Hine collection of 5,100 photo prints and 355 glass plate negatives were donated to the Library of Congress by the NCLC Director in 1954, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the organization. The “newsies” images, 861 prints in all, can be found in Lot 7480; three albums in the “street trades” sub collection. Of those images, twenty document newsies in Buffalo; the rest of New York images cover Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, Schenectady and New York City.