ARLINGTON, Va. — A framed poster of a mid-19th century oil painting called "Buffalo Newsboy" hangs in our home. The apple-cheeked paperboy holding an auburn apple has gazed out at us for decades. And now I think I know why we have always held him dear.
The newsboy in our family room is now in our family.
Allow me to explain. This month our third grandchild was born. Our first came four years ago on Canada Day. Our second appeared in January on the Feast of the Epiphany. And our third arrived on Sept. 4 — National Newspaper Carrier Day.
Babies, like newspapers, are delivered, which makes that a practical day for a little one to appear. And I’m already thinking of this latest edition — um, addition — as our little newsboy.
OK, so there’s a national day for just about everything and this one is little known, except perhaps to joke writers. “Today was National Newspaper Carrier Day,” Seth Meyers said on NBC’s “Late Night” that night. “I bought mine a card — and then threw it in the bushes in front of his house.”
Newspaper carriers are almost exclusively grown-ups these days, but home delivery was mostly the province of paperboys across most of the 19th century, when "Buffalo Newsboy" was painted, and the 20th century, when I was a Buffalo Evening News newsboy.
That’s why national carrier day carries meaning for me. I began delivering the Buffalo Evening News in the mid-1960s and have been in the business more or less ever since: Wrote for my high school and college papers. Met my wife in the newsroom of the Courier-Express. And decamped to Northern Virginia when USA Today published its first edition the same week that the Courier printed its last.
We purchased the newsboy poster in the gift shop at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on a visit home in 1983, the first year after we had moved away. We got it handsomely mounted in a dark wood frame, 36 inches high and 28 3/4 inches across, and it has stayed with us from house to house to house in the years since.
The painting is by Thomas LeClear, a 19th century artist who was a founding member and first superintendent of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, which would evolve into the Albright-Knox, which holds "Buffalo Newsboy" in its collection.
LeClear painted it in 1853, just 20 years after history’s first paperboy. The publisher of The New York Sun had placed an ad for newspaper hawkers that specified “steady men” should apply. Ten-year-old Barney Flaherty inquired and he was hired in 1833 — on Sept. 4, which is why that date is national newsboy day.
Paperboys would go on to gigs across the land, at first to hawk papers on street corners and eventually to deliver them door to door. Belatedly, that came to include papergirls, too.
"Buffalo Newsboy" gazes out from the cover of the Summer 2007 issue of Western New York Heritage Magazine, in which John H. Conlin calls LeClear’s masterwork “an epitome of 19th century American genre art.” Conlin defines genre art as an exaltation of the ordinary.
“What could better represent everyday life and passing time,” he wrote, “than the daily newspaper?”
LeClear is best remembered for his portrait work; the White House holds one of his paintings of Ulysses S. Grant and the National Portrait Gallery holds the other. But in Buffalo the painter is best known for his newsboys; the story in WNY Heritage says LeClear painted several Buffalo newsboy scenes.
The most famous of these is the one on our wall. On the ground, near the newsboy’s boots, is a newspaper. The paper is folded so that you can read “Buffalo” on its masthead but only the letter “E” of what comes next. Is it Buffalo Express — or Buffalo Evening News? Neither, as it turns out. It is the long gone Buffalo Evening Post, according to the gallery's website.
Jillian Jones, the Albright-Knox's director of advancement, calls the painting "one of the icons of our collection" for its reach back into the history of the city and of the Fine Arts Academy.
"Buffalo Newsboy," with his shiny apple in hand, is an idealized look at child labor in the 19th century, though the holes in his boots hint at hardship. I had no such troubles when I delivered the Evening News on Irving Terrace in Kenmore more than a century later.
Even now, more than a half-century since, I can look at each house on my old route and remember it by where I placed the paper — front door, side door or milk box. The News cost 8 cents on weekdays plus 15 cents on Saturday then. That came to 55 cents per week; my first night of collecting I had to go home halfway through because my pants were falling down for all the quarters and nickels they held.
The column you are reading now comes by way of pixels, not paperboys. But even when they are online, rather than on paper, newspapers remain a focal point of my life. They’ve offered our family good news and bad across the 36 years that "Buffalo Newsboy" has been with us.
News of the very best kind arrived on Sept. 4.
Happy birthday, little one. And happy newsboy day, too.